THE READER
April 2004

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Readers’ Write!

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Biological
Farming at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference

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A Coffee Primer

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JenEhr Family Farm: Oven-Roasted Chickens Hot & Fresh Nightly

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Producer Profile: Just Coffee

Ask the Midwife: Healthy Teeth in Pregnancy & Infancy

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The Earthen Courtyard Community Building Project

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Biological Farming at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference
Melissa Klemes
WSGC Produce Staff


As I mingled with the collection of folks at the Upper Midwest Organic Farming Conference, I felt overjoyed to be surrounded by those who are literally at the root of the organic movement. While the conference hosts many workshop options, those dealing with soil health appealed most to me. At my first workshop, I learned about Biological Farming, which is a system that focuses on the life in the soil and can be applied to any farming method.


The six rules of Biological Farming are:
1. Test and balance the soil
2. Use life-promoting non-harming fertilizers
3. Use pesticides and herbicides in minimum amount and only when neccessary
4. Use a short crop rotation
5. Use tillage to control decay of organic materials and to control air and water in the soil
6. Feed soil life


Raising Mineral Levels
The workshop offered several tips on executing these rules. The one I found to be most interesting is the practice of planting a particular species of plant in order to raise levels of minerals lacking in the soil. The plant is then used as “green manure” and tilled under for the newly available minerals to be used by the next crop.

I was fascinated to learn that plants will feed the microbes which, in turn, provide it with needed nutrients. If the nutrient is applied in soluble form (i.e. fertilizer), the plant will stop nurturing the microbes. Once the soil organism is gone you have to do its job. It becomes a vicious cycle—an addiction to fertilizers. An excellent alternative is to fertilize the soil by way of compost.


Compost
A compost pile is essentially a microbial farm where one manipulates (with limited power) the natural decay process. It takes food, air, and water as does any other farm animal. And like any living creature, it requires a balanced diet. The materials put into a compost pile are referred to as feedstock. Feedstock diversity increases microbial diversity. Even the variety of foods given to animals will affect the manure they produce, which will in turn affect the types of microscopic organisms within the compost heap. The soil food web is a complex system with bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa all contibuting to the health of the soil (and ultimately the health of our food).

When making a compost pile, you can either layer the materials as they become available, or stockpile to create the pile all at once. A general rule of thumb is to use four times (in weight) more carbon or "brown” materials than nitrogen or ”green” materials. When making layers one should have six inches leaves/yardwaste and two inches manure/wet vegetable matter. Let this “cook.” It should reach about 130 degrees, at which time, you should begin turning it thoroughly about once a week.

Keep in mind the microbial work of composting is very similar to that of beer and wine making. But while the latter processes have been well refined over centuries, we have been experimenting with the fine art of composting for merely a few decades. There is a wide range of research currently being conducted with interesting findings. I hope this may inspire some of your own.

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