Going Soil-Friendly

Do you ever think about the importance of the innumerable tiny creatures living underground, right under your feet? In just one tablespoon of soil, according to North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension Service, some 50 billion microbes are working away.

That’s if the soil is healthy.

By NoNomme (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By NoNomme (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember a conversation with an Ohio woman active in the environmental movement. She told me a story about a farmer who decided to switch his (conventionally farmed) cornfields to chemical-free produce. His seeds sprouted, but grew stunted and deformed.

The land had been blasted with petrochemicals year after year. Now there was nothing left to support a plant. No microbes. No nutrients.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

My most recent Farm Indiana piece concerns a small agricultural fertilizer business called Sterling Formulations, led by a young man aptly named Vince Plowman.

Sterling Formulations’ team assesses farm fields and recommends soil-friendly additives depending on the particular needs of each field. They apply microbes and micronutrients to balance and nourish the soil that nourishes us.

Filling a container with earth-friendly fertilizer concentrate at Sterling Formulations' Shelbyville, IN plant.

Filling a container with earth-friendly fertilizer concentrate at Sterling Formulations’ Shelbyville, IN plant.

The team includes an Amish farmer who offers knowledge based on generations of experience. (My people!)

“The Amish have been farming organically for centuries, and quite successfully,” Vince told me. “They treat their soil right, and guess what, they’re getting yields comparable to conventional.”

He was surprised to learn that conventional farmers are as receptive to this message as organic growers. He said, “We found, in talking to a lot of conventional farmers, that so many of them are curious.”

Corn Field

Though he half-expected a derisive response from the conventional agribusiness side, so far that has not been the case. “What we found is they’re absolutely afraid…They don’t know how to do it (transition off chemicals), and they don’t have anyone to step them through the process of going to organics without absolutely killing themselves. They’re used to getting 200 bushels an acre, and they’re afraid they’re going to get 50 next year” if they stop using chemicals.

What comes next in that scenario isn’t pretty: they’d likely lose their farm. And many in that arena are supporting multiple families on the farm.

But Sterling Formulations is stepping into the gap. The goal is to help heal beleaguered soil through tailored applications of microbes and kelp-based fertilizers. Instead of petrochemicals that artificially prop up crops, these nutrients and tiny creatures create a living medium for plants.

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve heard about in a long time. Farmers who want to stop using chemicals can get support in the switch—and stay profitable during the transition.

You can read more about Sterling Formulations in my Farm Indiana story.

Farming Females

Last month I enjoyed interviewing several women for a special section in Farm Indiana on women in agriculture. While some didn’t consider themselves farmers, all had valuable perspectives about what it means to bring a female sensibility to agriculture.

Many spoke of women’s connection to the earth as something deep and primal. Several compared the nurturing of plants and animals to caring for children.

And Kay Niedenthal, an urban farmer in Indianapolis, might have been talking about our procreative power when she said, “It’s like magic to make something from nothing. To start with dirt and a seed and then have a meal.”

Anna Welch of Fields of Agape in a field being prepared for hull-less oats.

Anna Welch of Fields of Agape in a field being prepared for hull-less oats. (The periodical has a much better photo of Anna by the terrific photographer Josh Marshall.)

I was intrigued by the fact that Anita Spencer of Homestead Growers didn’t start out growing organically. She and her husband were Miracle-Gro fans at the start. When a friend asked if they’d ever considered going organic, she said, “We laughed at her!”

But that question planted a seed all its own. They took a look at the contents of the famed formulation and realized they didn’t want all those chemicals in their bodies and those of their children. Nor did they want to sell produce grown that way.

Now Anita is proud to offer high-quality, chemical-free food to her customers through both Homestead Growers and its spinoff line of tomato sauces, Local Folks Foods.

(As a side note, this anecdote showed me how questions can spur behavior change, even the questions don’t seem well-received. I resolve to ask more questions!)

For the full story, including seven mini-profiles of women in agriculture and Josh Marshall’s beautiful photos, see the current issue of Farm Indiana (page A8).

Pay It Local

In Ball State University’s Down to Earth documentary about sustainable food systems, renegade farmer Joel Salatin makes a key point about the importance of spending food dollars locally. A small amount of cash spent at the farmers market or local food store might make a huge difference to the vendors there. You never know what kind of difficulties they face, and where they stand on the thin line between a manageable load and giving up.

It’s kind of like paying it forward, only you’re “paying it local.”

Freedom Valley Farm's high tunnel beds.

Freedom Valley Farm’s high tunnel beds.

It reminded me of something I blogged some months back:

The row we plant might be just the encouragement our elderly neighbor needs to start seeds on a windowsill. Which might nudge her granddaughter to visit a farmers market and buy a farmer’s tomatoes, and one of those funny-looking squashes while she’s at it. Maybe she’ll come back in ensuing weeks and bring her children and a friend, buying more locally grown food. Which shows the farmer that his produce is desired, and keeps him from throwing in the towel after a tough summer.

Since I wrote that I’ve talked to many small farmers as part of my freelancing job, and I’ve learned that farming is more difficult than any nonfarmer could ever imagine. What they do requires a lot of faith. And people to buy what they’re selling.

When I interviewed Hoosier Organic Marketing Education (HOME) founder Cissy Bowman for a Farm Indiana story, she emphasized the critical role of the nonfarmer ally. “Never feel disempowered,” she told me. “As a consumer your opinion is the most important, because you’re the one who buys it.”

Our consumer choice is not even just about food. It’s also about keeping land out of developers’ hands. If farmers can earn a living wage, fewer properties will be snatched up and turned into subdivisions and shopping malls. That means more acreage for wildlife, native plants, and pollinators.

From the front page of Farm Indiana

From the front page of Farm Indiana

The current issue of Farm Indiana contains two stories I wrote. One is about Cissy and HOME, a terrific nonprofit organization that helps farmers like Anna Welch with rural development projects and educates everyone about the importance of organics. The other is about Freedom Valley Farm, an Owen County operation that I thoroughly enjoyed visiting.

Jim Baughman showed me around his farm on a February day.

Jim Baughman showed me around his farm on a February day.

I can testify that Jim’s winter produce is among the best I’ve tasted. We’re talking melt-in-your-mouth spinach and juicy-crisp carrots. This guy is good at what he does, and he does it all without chemicals.

To read the stories, click here.

The Face of Resilience

Guest post by Anna Welch

Anna Welch is a farmer in Rush County, Indiana. With her husband and business partner, she owns Fields of Agape, growing organic grain, beans, and seed. Now she’s working to establish a cooperative mill in Carthage that would allow many more organic and transitional farmers to bring their products to niche markets. After we had a conversation about some of the barriers she’s faced, she sent me this reflection.

I think of the many times I wanted to quit, that it felt impossible to go forward with the limited resources and lack of support around me. I’ve been through periods of deep depression, anger, hopelessness, and resentment. I’ve been humbled many times over since committing my life to stewardship of the land and its fruit.

Anna Welch with friends at the entrance of the Carthage Mill. The historic Tweedy Lumber Mill is now the site of a sustainable ag business incubator.

Anna Welch with friends at the entrance of the Carthage Mill. The historic Tweedy Lumber Mill is now the site of a sustainable ag business incubator.

I had two choices: quit and return to the workforce, or retreat to a place of rest, and pray, reflect, journal, and wait to see who or what changed around me. Someone spoke words of encouragement, or a visitor stopped by the Carthage Mill and said how this place is necessary and will come to pass.

One of my greatest encouragers here at Carthage was my friend Allen, who came daily with his dog Rusty. The first day he stopped by, I was cleaning golden flax seed. He heard the machine and the gate was open, so he stopped. I’m so glad he did.

Allen had Lou Gehrig’s disease, but every day he drove his wheelchair on a route around Carthage, observing bean and corn fields, enjoying wildlife, and stopping by the mill, his favorite place. He worked the Alaskan pipeline in his younger years and lived in a teepee in Montana. He loved the mill, and he encouraged me to keep doing what I was doing.

I realized that if Allen could be in the state he was in and encourage me, then I needed to think outside of myself and look at what I could do to make a difference. Allen died this past October, and I officially formed The Carthage Mill, LLC with help from Hoosier Organic Marketing Education. I know he is pleased.

Regardless of the negative circumstances that we may be facing, there is always hope, always a divine purpose awaiting each of us—if we can turn our focus away from self and focus on those around us, on what needs exist, then determine what gifts and resources we have to overcome the challenge, or to serve someone. Nothing can stop us from fulfilling our purpose if we are on the right path.

Equipment used to plant Fields of Agape grain and beans.

Equipment used to plant Fields of Agape grain and beans.

I have found that the success in life is how we learn to handle adversity and challenges. If we can grasp how to press on through adversity with humility and unconditional love for others (regardless of how they treat us), we will find our way.

When we find like-minded people whose passion is a good fit with our own, whose hearts are for others, then within that group each person can reach their potential quicker.

Encouragement, sharing of resources, being driven by the passion to serve rather than by personal gain—all of this brings about magnificent changes in communities large and small.

I’m never going to stop believing that it can happen.