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,
“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
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.
"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
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.