South Padre Island, TEXAS: Organic farming
in the Lone Star State has plenty of room to grow -- from
grass-fed beef across its vast ranches to specialty flower
and vegetable markets thriving in the state's organic-conscious
Then again, they face Texas-size shortages of two sustainable
production essentials -- water and organic matter. Which explains
why the 4th annual Texas Conference on Organic Production
Systems here in late January was so heavy on the compost tea,
cover crops, and conservation.
“The number one critical problem we face in the Valley
and across much of Texas is lack of organic matter in the
soil,” said Larry Zibilske, a soil biologist at the
USDA's Kika de la Garza ARC in Weslaco, TX.
Zibilske was one of two dozen conference speakers who contributed
to the conference theme, "Building Basics...Tried and
True to Visionary and New." Sponsored by the Texas Organic
Farmers and Gardeners Association, the conference opened with
four presentations from the ARC's scientists that included
the latest research on using covercrops for organic production.
On the tried and true side, more than 200 attendees soaked
in the highlights of 50 years of organic advice from Malcolm
Beck, the region's undisputed king of compost.
A lifelong organic farmer who was a good friend and advisor
to Robert Rodale, Beck is the author of The Secret Life
of Compost. Beck is famous for sharing those secrets
with a folksy storytelling style that makes his latest book,
Lessons in Nature, such an engaging chronicle of
his trials and triumphs in organic farming.
"Nature never has bare fields," Beck noted in a
presentation documenting a lifetime of trying new approaches
to old problems.
In Texas, where bare fields stretch for miles and no-till
agriculture has been slow to catch on, Beck showed a 1960
photograph of a bridge spanning the Pecos River. The same
shot 40 years later revealed the damage done -- the bridge's
great stone pilings buried in 50 feet of silt.
Building up the depleted soil is a constant challenge across
much of Texas, where sandy soil, dry conditions, and sparse
vegetation make it hard for organic farmers to find plentiful
sources of mulch. Indeed, Beck built his multi-million-dollar
compost company, Garden-ville, by developing and distributing
soil enhancements and conditioners, such as colloidal phosphate
clay, bat guano, and compost teas.
Finding solidarity -- and more clout in numbers -- Beck has
been a driving force behind the newly created Texas Organic
Farming Research Center, a non-profit corporation whose primary
initiative is to enlist farmers and landowners for research
on green manures, cover crops, and compost tea. The center's
board of directors, living in and around Austin mostly, includes
three physicians, a librarian and a lawyer.
Keynote speaker Howard Garrett, a co-author with Beck on
several organic production books, presented a history of organics
in Texas. It included his early efforts at convincing corporations
like Radio Shack and Frito Lay, to landscape their office
parks with organic methods he and Beck have perfected on a
commercial scale at Garden-ville.
Like Beck, Garrett has been a thorn in the side of Texas
A&M University. On his popular radio program, the Dirt
Doctor, as he is known throughout the state, he often rails
against the "hard-core Aggies who love their chemicals"
and still view organic farming as a lifestyle rather than
a viable business model.
As if to prove them wrong, Garrett showed slide after slide
of landscapes benefiting from organic products, including lava
sand, cornmeal and molasses, and slides showing how organic
methods are cost-comparable to chemical methods.
"The number one critical problem
we face in the Valley and across much of Texas is lack
of organic matter in the soil.”
--Larry Zibilske, soil biologist
"Everyone has used molasses, by itself or with tea,
but we are now using dry molasses, as fertilizer, and having
dramatic results," he said. Applied at 800 pounds per
acre, dry molasses provides a natural food source for indigenous
microbial populations in the soil. It has another benefit,
particularly in Texas -- fire ants don't like it.
Scientists at the Texas A&M research station in Stevensville,
which has an organic greenhouse, stumbled on the benefits
of cornmeal, Garrett said. They began experimenting with it
after seeing how peanut crops grown in fields planted with
corn the previous year had much less disease loss.
One type of indigenous mulch with abundant supply in Texas
is cedar (liveberry juniper actually), which has infested
many pastures throughout the state and sucks up precious moisture.
Both Garrett and Beck believe cedar flakes, unlike pine mulch,
can suppress diseases and insects. In 1972, Beck began spreading
four inches of cedar mulch on the floor of his greenhouse.
He credits the release of carbon dioxide, coupled with the
cedar aroma, with never having a significant problem with
diseases or insects.
Compost tea gurus share podium
It was compost tea that dominated the "new and visionary"
theme of the conference. Even to the skeptics, the sheer volume
of compost tea experiments presented at the conference, coupled
with advances in processing equipment and laboratory analysis,
underscored the interest in this growth area.
If Beck was the conference's king of compost, Elaine Ingham
was its queen. Her company, Soil Foodweb, Inc., has been putting
down roots in Central Texas, with testing labs operating in
Fredericksburg, west of Austin, and Bastrop to the east. Among
the wide range of projects she presented, from spring wheat
in New Zealand to citrus groves in Florida, were the results
of microbiology techniques used by Texas grass-fed beef farmer
Ingham's take home message was simple -- if you don't have
biology in your soil, there is no use adding nutrients to
it. Many of the 25,000 organisms estimated to inhabit a single
teaspoon of healthy soil have to be put back into chemically
treated soil if it is going to regain its health. The good
news, she said, is that "you feed them a little and they
will do the work for you."
By feeding them with the compost-tea jumpstart, she noted,
impressive results can be seen within a single growing season,
rather than the typical two to three years it takes to restore
depleted soil with traditional methods, such as spreading
manure and growing cover crops.
Ingham contends that microbial activity is the most important
measure of soil health, so Soil Foodweb is teaching farmers,
like Ross, how to conduct tests on-farm. The Ross farm also
has one of several commercial-size compost tea extractors
that can provide the kind of output needed to compost big
Water conservation is hot issue
With a water crisis looming in Texas, several presentations
on land stewardship and water conservation had added import
at this conference. Almost all of Texas agriculture is dependent
on irrigation. Rapid growth around Austin has put heavy pressure
on the area's aquifers, while farmers' rights to access rivers
and creeks has become a big issue.
Dressing up those ubiquitous bare fields with cover crops and
native grasses is not enough in the hilly, water-starved areas
found in much of west central Texas. Dick Pierce, an Austin-based
master naturalist and consultant on rural land designs, shared
practical elements of sustainable design that can help farmers
utilize the flow of energy on their property.
Pierce began with an elegant, often overlooked statement
-- nature happens at the edges. Rivers, he reminded farmers,
run serpentine, not in straight lines, to slow down the flow
and reduce the runoff. Not surprisingly, the most productive
land borders woodlands, along the edges where organic matter
is more abundant. He contrasted the wide-open fields of today
with the checkered, hedgerow patterns of a century ago. The
bottom line? Create more edges.
While creating more water isn't possible, catching it is
if farmers take the time to plan the layout of their property
up front. "Texas gets enough water but it doesn't soak
in," he said. Using the yeoman method prescribed in the
book Water For Every Farm, he showed examples of
how farmers have put in roads and homes without considering
how waters flows on their property. Store water as high and
as often as you can by digging diversion ditches on the contours
and creating storage ponds (tanks in Texas) that can be used
for irrigation. Only after you have taken care of the water,
he said, should you build a road or choose a building site.
Building natural bridges between wild habitat and farmland
was the challenge that closed the conference. Conventional
agriculture surpasses commercial land development and logging
in the loss of natural habitat and native species, said writer
Daniel Imhoff. Reconnecting food systems with eco-systems
will require closer collaboration between sustainable farmers
"These two camps have so much in common, yet are not
learning enough from each other," he said.
Imhoff is co-founder of the Wild Farm Alliance, a national
group of wild land proponents and ecological farming advocates.
Its goal is to create regional farmscapes and ecological corridors
by restoring marginal croplands and native habitats based
on a watershed approach. His talk showcased inspiring success
stories in eco-agriculture that make up his new book, Farming
With the Wild.
Imhoff would like to see a successful sustainable agriculture
broadened to the more inclusive "natural systems agriculture."
Perennial polycultures, such as native hedgerows, wetlands,
and wild gardens, provide the opportunity for native wild
species to thrive side by side with tame ones. If farmers
need proof of principle, they need only consider the bee,
which, as pollinator for one out of three crops, is the great
"ambassador of the wild."
Agriculture ecologist Gary Nabhan and other bee researchers
have been warning for years that the alarming loss of bees
is signaling a pollinator crisis. The USDA estimates that
honey bees in this country are declining at a rate of 1% per
year, Imhoff said, primarily the result of habitat loss and
pesticides. But sometimes the reasons are not so obvious.
Recent research by Nabhan has shown how when native bees compete
with honey bees, the honey bees become more aggressive and
prolific. That kind of interdependence, Imhoff concluded,
is just one example of how much we don't know about the hidden
balances of true natural systems.
Skip Connett is a freelance writer based in Atlanta,