TALKING SHOP: 4th annual Texas Conference on Organic Production
Texas organic conference hosts tea party

The ‘King of Compost’ and the ‘Queen of Compost Tea’ share their soil secrets as the conference focuses on two things Texas lacks—water and soil organic matter

By Skip Connett

State of science review links organics and antioxidants

Organic farming methods result in greater concentrations of antioxidants in certain fruits, vegetables, and grains compared to conventional production systems.

That is the conclusion of the second State of Science Review from the Organic Center for Education and Promotion, which was released at the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association's annual conference in South Padre Island, Texas.

"This report is well established and supported by other scientific papers," said Steve Diver, an agriculture specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology. "This kind of information is a real boon to understanding what is going on in the production of organic fruits and vegetables."

Fruits and vegetables provide important nutrients including antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene and lycopene. Antioxidants are enzymes or other organic molecules that can counteract the damaging effects of oxygen in tissue. Research has shown they can reduce inflammation and possibly slow the growth of cancerous tumors.

The report reviewed 15 quantitative comparisons of antioxidant levels in organic versus conventional fruits and vegetables. Organically grown produce had higher levels in 13 out of 15 cases. On average, the organic crops contained about one-third higher antioxidant content than comparable conventional produce.

The differences were attributed to increased stress in plants grown with chemicals, processing techniques in conventional foods that remove antioxidant-rich skins and peals because of pesticide residues, and the direct impact of some pesticides, such as Hexane, which is know to promote the removal of certain antioxidants.

The report is one of three projects funded by the center in 2004 to look at the impact of organic farming methods and food processing technologies on the antioxidant content of food. The report calls for more refined research methods to compare antioxidant levels in organic versus conventional crops, and to study the impact of organically acceptable food processing methods on antioxidant retention.

The full report can be found online at: www.organic-center.org.

--Skip Connett

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 capitol, Austin.

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. (See Research Report.)

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.

"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

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.

"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 Betsy Ross.

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 operations.

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 and environmentalists.

"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, Georgia.