If it ain’t in the ground, it ain’t in the food

“You’d think, wouldn’t you, that a carrot is a carrot – that one is about as good as another as far as nourishment is concerned? But it isn’t; one carrot may look and taste like another and yet be lacking in the particular mineral element which our system requires and which carrots are supposed to contain.”  

These words, originally written by the famed nutritionist, Dr. Charles Northen M.D., in the 1930s, came from a very simple bit of wisdom – everything comes from somewhere. 

The oceans were delivered to earth by comets, fossil fuels where once dinosaurs, and mineral nutrients in fruits, vegetables and grains came from the soil.  

That’s right, the iron in your spinach and the zinc in your asparagus didn’t spontaneously manifest in your salad; they came from the earth.

The mineral nutrients found in the soil can vary drastically from location to location depending on climate, soil type and local vegetation. These minerals will recycle themselves naturally, with decaying matter returning much of what the plant pulled from the ground. However, agriculture has disrupted these processes by removing literal tonnes of matter from the cycle in the form of vegetables, grains and other plant matter, which is removed from the land for human consumption.

Eventually, after successive harvests, the minerals stored in the soil begin to run out and the plants produced on the same land year after year may start to develop mineral deficiencies, which in turn, produce mineral deficient fruits, vegetables and grains.  

The observation made by Dr. Northen, that not all vegetables are created equal, came at a point in history when intensive cultivation across North America had begun to deplete the natural cache of mineral nutrients built up in the soil over the centuries and mineral deficiencies were becoming increasingly common amongst both urban and rural populations.

To combat the problem, Dr. Northen argued that we need to ‘play doctor’ with our soils. He worked to advance the idea that by treating the soils with the minerals they were lacking, the fruits, vegetables and grains they produced would have greater nutritional value, which, in turn, would increase the general health of human consumers.

It is no coincidence that that the average height, weight, and life expectancy of North Americans have all risen dramatically since Dr. Northen’s time in the 1920s and 30s.

In today’s day and age, multivitamins are everywhere and mineral deficiencies are rare. But more than ever, consumers are concerned about nutritional value of their food – pushing for healthy, sustainably harvested foods. Although there are disagreements about the best way to achieve this.     

Much of the debate centers on ‘organic’ vs. ‘non-organic’ produce. Organic’ in this context refers to synthetic-chemical free agricultural practices; it is generally claimed that organic food is more nutritious (i.e. has more mineral nutrients than non-organic), and of course this is reflected in premium prices. 

The truth is, there is no guarantee that organic food is more nutritious than conventionally produced food. 

In 2012, Dr. Crystal Smith-Spangler from Stanford University School of Medicine led a team conducting a meta-study on organic food. After reviewing over 240 studies, her team concluded that “there is a definite lack of evidence” showing organic food is more nutritious than conventionally farmed produce.   

The nutritional value of food reflects the mineral health of the soil, not necessarily the style of farming. Vegetables and grains grown on mineral deficient soils will lack the same nutrients absent from the soil regardless of whether it is produced organically or conventionally.

Ultimately it all comes back to that very simple bit of wisdom — everything comes from somewhere. 

In terms of fruits, vegetables and grains, perhaps a new bit of wisdom is called for, and while I can’t be sure these words were ever spoken by Dr. Northen, I’m sure if he were around today he’d be tweeting his advice to all — if it ain’t in the ground, it ain’t in the food.  

Refs:

Average Height/Weight : https://ahundredyearsago.com/2012/02/06/average-height-for-males-and-females-in-1912-and-2012/ 

Life Expectancy: 

Click to access 015.pdf

Stanford Source

http://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2012/09/little-evidence-of-health-benefits-from-organic-foods-study-finds.html

Fertilizer: past, present and future

Throughout the history of the human species, there have been innumerable inventions and discoveries that have left an indelible but often unappreciated mark on history. Many of these discoveries, like paper, the compass, and the clock changed the course of history and have allowed humans to achieve new levels of greatness. Though today, these discoveries are often seen as commonplace and their contributions to human achievement go underappreciated. 

At the turn of the 19th century, farmers fertilized their crops using the same methods that had been used for hundreds of generations; namely, manure and compost. While this was sufficient to meet the basic needs of the plant, fertilization was random in both the placement and amount of nutrients and crops tended to have low yields (i.e. less than 25% of today’s yields). Production was quickly falling behind the demand of ever growing urban populations. 

Something needed to be done and great minds around the world began searching for a way to increase food productivity; they were searching for something new, something to advance agriculture and push food production to new heights. 

Enter synthetic fertilizer; the invention that feeds the world. 

The history of nitrogen based fertilizers begins back in 1909 with the Nobel prize winning discovery of the Haber-Bosch process, a technique which pulls nitrogen from the air and mixes it with hydrogen and methane to produce ammonia – the main ingredient in nitrogen based fertilizers.

However, the process was hijacked by the war effort which was hungry for ammonia needed in munitions. Driven by the WWII, ammonia production around the world took off as the Haber-Bosch process was fitted for mass production, with 10 large industrial ammonia plants in the USA alone by 1944.  

When the war ended several developed nations were perfectly situated to begin the mass production of synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers as production switched from munitions to fertilizer.     

Fortuitously, the mass production of fertilizer led to massive increases in food production which coincided with the post-war baby boom, though it is a bit of ‘the chicken or the egg’ situation. 

With the world’s population doubling between 1900 and 1960, from 1.6 billion to 3 billion, the agricultural community became increasingly dependent on synthetic fertilizers to produce enough food to feed the world’s growing population.

Nearly sixty years later, with a current world population of 7.3 billion, the situation hasn’t changed – farmers are still dependent on synthetic fertilizers to produce adequate amounts of affordable food.

It’s hard to deny the significant role synthetic nitrogen based fertilizers play in feeding the world.

As stated by Vaclav Smil, professor emeritus from the University of Winnipeg note, “With average crop yields remaining at the 1900s level the crop harvest in the 2000s would have required nearly four times more land and the cultivated area would have claimed nearly half of all ice-free continents”.

With the UN projecting the world’s population to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, the world will continue to rely on synthetic fertilizers to produce even more food without claiming even more land for cultivation.

Now, keeping in mind the role of fertilizer in feeding the world, there are growing concerns about the ever increasing quantities of fertilizer applied to the land. Only 50 -70% of the N applied to the land gets taken up by the plant, the remainder is lost in various ways.  

Nitrogen and phosphorus are known to leach from the soil into waterways, interrupting the natural biological systems by fueling the overgrowth of aquatic based plants (i.e. a process called eutrophication). Algae blooms are also associated with leached nitrogen, which on a small scale, can turn swimming areas into an unpleasant green soup, but on a large scale can actually deplete oxygen levels in the water resulting in large killoffs of fish, particularly in shallower waters.     

While the use of fertilizer has undoubtedly allowed us to sustain our ever growing population, these growing environmental concerns along with the increasing cost of fertilizer mean farmers are searching for more sustainable ways to get the necessary nutrients in the ground.  

The future of fertilizer is optimization. 

Improved farming practices, like multi-year crop rotations, minimum-till seeding, and cover crops work to improve soil health through more natural processes. Ultimately nutrient needs are determined by the plant but healthier soil generally requires less maintenance thus reducing the quantity of synthetic fertilizer needed.   

Technologies like variable rate fertilizer application and improved soil sampling are helping farmers to make the most of the synthetic fertilizers that are used. Advancements in soil testing and precision application technologies (e.g. variable rate fertilization), mean that the right quantities and types of fertilizers are applied exactly were they need to go. 

New innovations like slow release fertilizers which break down as the plant needs nutrients, or nitrogen inhibitors, which bind nutrients to the soil are being used to prevent nitrogen losses through leaching, denitrification and volatilization. And new types of fertilizer supplements, like biologics which inoculate the soil with beneficial microorganisms that transport or trap nutrients (e.g. AMF/mycorrhizal fungi), are continually being developed.

While the Haber process fundamentally changed agriculture, it is unlikely that the next stage in the evolution of fertilizer will be spurred by a single innovation. Instead, it will likely be a number of smaller, non-Nobel prize winning innovations and optimizations that will take agriculture to the next level and allow the world to feed it’s ever growing population. 

Refs.

Smil, V. 2011. Nitrogen cycle and world food production. World Agriculture 2:9-1.PDF
U.N. Report, 2017. World Population Prospects. https://www.un.org/development/desa/publications/world-population-prospects-the-2017-revision.html

Mycorrhizae: Meet your friendly neighborhood fungi

Healthy soil is alive. 

It is a living, thriving cesspool of microorganisms feasting on decaying organic material. And that’s just the way plants like it. 

Many of these microorganisms reside in the rhizosphere, a micro-biome directly surrounding a plant’s root system. These soil microbes (e.g. bacteria, fungi, algae, etc.,) host functions beneficial to both the plant and the soil. They are known to recycle nutrients, fight disease, fixate nitrogen from the air and increase drought resistance.   

Of all the microbial life found in soil, there is one fungus in particular that has been getting a lot of attention: arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (also called AMF). And rightfully so, these little wonders work miracles. 

These fungi create spore colonies which grow to encompass plant root systems in an ancient symbiotic relationship between plant and fungus. In fact, this relationship is so old that evolutionary botanist claim that it was mycorrhizal fungi which allowed water-based plants to first move to dry land by unlocking access to soil nutrients.  

Ancient history aside, these fungi continue to provide multiple functional benefits to their soil microbiome.

As the fungi colonizes a root system, tiny fungal filaments spread out into the soil and function as a nutrient highway, drawing in nitrogen and phosphorus from beyond the natural reach of the root system and exchanging these nutrients (i.e. N and P) for carbohydrates produced in the plant. This exchange is a critical part of the carbon cycle, allowing carbon, originally taken from the air by the plant during photosynthesis, to be recycled back into the soil.  

This is mycorrhizal fungi as a nutrient re-distribution network; working to maximize fertilizer usage by allowing plants access to previously untapped nutrients, thus making fertilizer use more efficient. 

Mycorrhizal fungi networks also work to increase the drought resistance of plants in two ways. First, as the fungal network surrounds the root system like a cotton ball, functioning as a secondary root system, the fungi draws water towards plant from beyond the root’s natural reach. Additionally, the tiny fungal threads that create this nutrient highway are able to reach water trapped between tiny clay soil particles that thicker plant roots can’t tap into, unlocking access to additional water that would otherwise be wasted.    

Yet these marvelous little fungi have still more to offer than just increasing the efficiency of the root system. Being in a symbiotic relationship, the fungi does it’s best to protect the plant. Mycorrhizal fungi are known to kill harmful nematodes that attack the plant root and some researchers argue that the fungi increase disease resistance.     

Beyond the benefits to the plant, mycorrhizal fungi are a key component of soil health. The fungal networks excrete a glue-like substance which helps build soil aggregates. These soil structures texture the soil like cottage cheese and are vital for increasing water infiltration and retention in the soil. The structures also aerate the soil, creating tiny air pockets which allow root systems easy pathways to penetrate deeper into the soil, further bolstering the drought resistance.

Mycorrhizal fungi already exist in the soil, but the health and efficacy of the fungi can be greatly affected by how the land is tended. 

Healthy fungi are not difficult to encourage; preferably, they like to be left alone. Heavy tillage and rototilling are known to break up fungi networks and soil aggregates that take time to rebuild. The less the soil is disturbed the happier the fungi are. It’s also possible to overdo a good thing; an overabundance of phosphorus in the soil (usually from too much fertilizer) can overfeed the fungi, hampering nutrient redistribution. And, obviously, mycorrhizal fungi don’t like fungicides—it straight up kills them.  

If disturbed, these fungi networks will return, eventually. Time is usually sufficient, but if heavy tillage and fungicide usage have depleted the natural presence of the microbes, the fungi may be reintroduced into the soil by using a store-bought mycorrhizal inoculate during seeding or by mixing fungi-laden soil into a compost or soil mixture which can then be spread onto the crop or garden.

As research advances, science continues to discover more and more about the intricate and complex co-dependent root-fungi relationship. While new secrets are still being unlocked, one thing is for certain, whether planting a garden or growing a crop, these friendly little fungi are key drivers of a healthy soil ecosystem.   

Refs:

Bucking, Heike., Kafle, Arjun,. (2015) Role of Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi in the Nitrogen Uptake of Plants: Current Knowledge and Research Gaps. Agronomy, 5, 587-612, dio:10.3390/agronomy5040587. Accessed on May 10/2018 

Pozo, Maria, J., Azcon-Aguilar, Concepcion., (2007) Unraveling mycorrhiza-induced resistance. Current Opinion in Plant Biology. 10(4), 393-398, Dio:10.1016/j.pbi.2007.05.004. Accessed on May 10/2018

Van der Heijden, Marcel., Martin, Francis., Selosse, Marc-Andre., Sanders, Ian R., (2015) Mycorrhizal ecology and evolution: the past, the present, and the future. New Phytologist, 204(4), 1406-1423. dio.org/10.1111/nph.13288. accessed on May 10/2018

Soil Types and Texture

Not all soil is equal. 

Dozens of factors, like colour, mineral content, salinity, and pH level, all affect the productivity of soils and create unique agricultural challenges for farmers and gardeners around the world. One particularly useful characteristic used to classify soil is texture. Identifying soil texture gives valuable information about how to condition the soil for different types of crops.

When profiling soil texture, the key determining characteristic is particle size. Sand particles are the largest, ranging from 0.05 – 2mm. Silt particles are between 0.002 – 0.05, while clay particles are nearly microscopic at less than 0.002 mm. 

Particle size has direct effects on the water infiltration and retention of soil. The large particles in sandy soil are porous and drain well but don’t retain water. Conversely, the tiny particles in clay soil trap water between them preserving moisture —this is why wet clay is moldable. However, soil with too much clay will be very dense and easily waterlogged which limits root growth in plants.      

Most soils are a mixture of particle sizes and can be categorized into one of a dozen different types. Texture is determined as a measure of the percentage of sand, silt and clay in the soil. This is illustrated by what is called the “Soil Texture Triangle”:

While any soil texture in the center of the triangle is suitable for agriculture, most farmable soils consist of a blend of particles sizes called loam. Loam is a rich, black soil which contains a balance of sand, silt and clay. However, not all loam is created equal; higher quantities of one particle size will affect the characteristics of the soil.

For examples, loam with 25-40% clay is considered a clay loam. Clay loam is generally preferred by plants with shallow roots as the compact soil structure provides a strong anchor for root systems. Clay particles are a crucial element of productive soils by providing two basic functions in the soil. The tiny particle size traps moisture which can develop into a capillary-like network for distributing water through the soil. Additionally, clay particles attract and capture both micro and macro nutrients found in the soil through a process called cation (pronounced ‘cat’ + ‘ion’) exchange. While this process involves the rather complex exchange of elements on a molecular level, we can think of it as the process by which loose nutrients in the soil are attracted to clay particles and stored in a manner that is accessible to the root system. However, soil with too much clay can become compacted which stifles root growth and reduce oxygen in the soil.

Alternatively, a sandy loam contains roughly 60% sand, 30% silt and 10% clay. This type of soil is preferred by plants that like semi-dry conditions. The loose soil structure means root vegetables like carrots, radish and beets thrive in sandy loam as the root can easily penetrate the soil which allows for larger bulb growth. However, due to the low levels of clay in the soil, sandy loam often leaches nutrients and will require fertilization to maintain productivity. 

In large scale production agriculture, information about soil texture is used to help decide yield potential. As noted by Trent Hilderman of Prairie Son Acres, “Soil texture is the basis to all yield potential per field. It directly relates to nutrient availability, water holding capacity, cation exchange, etc.”. 

More directly, soil texture is also used to help determine fertilizer rates. For example, if two fields, one sandy loam and one clay loam, both have a yield potential of 60 bushels per acre (bu/ac), a farmer may choose to apply 60 bu/ac of equivalent fertilizer that would be used to the sandy loam soil but only 50 bu/ac for the clay loam with the expectation that a 10 bu/ac will become available in the soil.    

This is echoed by Hilderman who states, “[You] can count on some nutrients being mineralized or more available in certain soils, so [you] can adjust accordingly”.        

Ultimately, soil texture is just one of many characteristics used to classify soil. However, particle size is one of the most basic and straightforward metrics used to identify soil type, which, in turn, can help determine the best farming practices for a specific plot of land. 

Welcome to the Prairie Serf

Hello friends and welcome to the Prairie Serf.

Modern farming has come a long way in the past hundred years; the changes so vast, so drastic that the pioneers who first broke the prairies would hardly recognize their own trade. New technologies and techniques have allowed the modern family farm, once capable of tending to only a few small patches of land, to grow to cover hundreds or even thousands of acres, all while doubling or even tripling the productivity of the land.  

Of course, the repercussions of these changes have had global consequences. Not only have these advancements in agriculture allowed us to feed the world’s ever growing population, entire communities have reshaped their expectations concerning the quality, quantity and type of food available to them. 

Consumers have changed too. Coinciding with these drastic changes in food production, individuals are becoming increasingly curious and, subsequently, knowledgeable about the products they consume. Simply put, the public wants to know where their food comes from and more importantly, how it is produced. 

So, how does a knowledgeable consumer stay updated on the latest issues facing agriculture?

Enter the Prairie Serf.

The Prairie Serf is an agricultural blog dedicated to discussing the past, present and future of the great Canadian farm. With a focus on the relationship between modern agricultural science and traditional farming practices, the Prairie Serf aims to take the issues facing farmers today, and make them accessible to the general public.

Central to this goal is perspective. While the Prairie Serf understands the variety of opinion and controversy encapsulating many agricultural issues, it is our goal to help the informed consumer understand why farmers make the choices they make and, ultimately, how it affects the products that end up on their table.

Over the months and years to come, it is our mission to present you, our readership, with the highest quality articles discussing the most relevant topics in modern agriculture. Issues of particular interest to us include:

  • Soil health and a focus on rejuvenation 
  • Agriculture on a global scale — past, present and future
  • The evolution of the family farm; the new normal 
  • What the future of western Canadian agriculture holds
  • Technology’s fit on the farm
  • Challenges facing traditional farmers and how modern agriculture is responding
  • Modern agricultural practices and how they affect consumer values

By exploring these topics, and more, in detail it is our hope to lift the rug and show the inner workings and underlying motives that drive development in modern Canadian agriculture. We hope you join us as we delve in, and examine various aspects of the Canadian agricultural complex.

Moving forward the Prairie Serf plans to release new articles every month, so be sure to check back regularly for latest posts. And of course, we’d love to hear from you — all comments and feedback are welcome.

Happy readings,

The Prairie Serf