Farmer sees beyond organic to increase food nutrient density, sustainability
“We are what we eat” is an old adage that is true more today than ever before. Highly processed foods and chemical additives are being looked at in a whole new light as scientists are proving links between obesity and their consumption. There is also a large debate going on across the globe as to the safety of utilizing synthetic fertilizers.
With all of the information available — both transparent and hidden — it’s easy to get overwhelmed with what is “right” and what is “wrong” in food choices. The biggest things people need to understand are: 1) that not all foods are created equal, and 2) the way food is grown does have an impact on the sustainability of health and the environment.
“How we feed ourselves is going to produce what we are,” said Shane Kramer, co-owner of the Let It Grow Farm, and president and co-owner of Cannassentials, in Oregon. “Everything we are eating is breaking down and becoming part of what we are, and if you don’t have the right (recipe) for that — the right nutrients, the right minerals — you’re not building optimal health.”
Kramer believes that recipe starts with nutrient dense organic foods. “I found that a lot of my health and wellness issues came from digestion,” he said. “That led me on the path to find out what is good for me, and I discovered that when I eat correctly, I am a different person — I feel great, I have energy.”
Kramer, and his wife, Allyson, established the 28 acre Oregon Tilth Certified Organic farm in 2007. He said the idea for the farm was born out of the desire, not only for his own personal health, but as a way to create a worthwhile career that catered to the world in a positive way. This lead him to small scale organic farming.
“It’s about going beyond farming to produce the most nutrient dense foods because nutrients and minerals are what are missing in today’s conventional foods and even in a lot of big sale organic production,” said Kramer.
What beyond organic farming is and why it works
Many conventional farmers and big scale organic producers are focused more on production than the content that they are producing, he said.
A big draw of organic farming for Kramer is working to reach that next level of producing the most nutrient dense and healthful food possible. His goal is to produce something to make a product that is going to sustain health and sustain society and community.
Let It Grow Farm practices what is known as beyond organic farming. This method looks at farming in a regenerative way where farmers work to improve their soil fertility through direct practices, and if outside sources are brought in, they are the highest quality and sustainable.
“Something can be certified organic and still use a lot of commercial techniques, almost following conventional industrial farming methods just with organic inputs,” said Kramer. “A lot of those organic inputs may be sourced from animal factory farms and animal by-products, which brings along concerns with animal treatment and health, as well as the content of what that fertilizer actually contains.”
Let It Grow Farm utilizes plant-based fertilizers, and a little bit of locally sourced fish bone fertilizer.
Another common practice of the beyond organic method is only growing on half of the available land. This leaves half of the land in fertility production growing cover crops, and growing the carbon in the soil to seed the next crop, he said. Of the total 28 acres, Let It Grow Farm currently utilizes about 1-4 acres for food production. This varies yearly.
Conventional farming is looked at as feeding a soluble fertilizer, which just means it’s ready to go, whether it be a non-organic, chemical-based, synthetic fertilizer, or a natural thing that has been broken down into a soluble form, said Kramer. These fertilizers go right into the plant; it’s like feeding the plant with a main line instead of the plant actually going through the symbiotic process of the soil actually breaking down and feeding the plant.
“In the forest this [breaking down] happens naturally, and has been happening forever,” he said. “Beyond organic is about going back to this natural cycle, which we have found also grows the most quality plants because the plants are telling the soil what they want to be feed with.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship, and the plants don’t get overfed or over fertilized, said Kramer. Overfeeding or over fertilizing plants impacts the quality of the food because those foods are already abundant with macronutrients, such as nitrogen and potassium, but are void of the micronutrients, which are what are really important and that are missing from a lot of conventional food, said Kramer.
“Basically, a plant has everything a plant needs,” he said. “In organic farming, we are feeding the plant everything it needs, so we have a truly healthful plant that doesn’t come with disease and fungal issues because the plant has a healthy immune system.”
Modern science is part of the equation
Organic farming doesn’t just mean that you throw some seeds in plant-based fertilizer and call it a day. Science plays a big part here, and Kramer utilizes it to ensure soil health.
“We are all natural in the resources that we use, but we also do lots of soil tests,” he said. “Modern science has a place in organic farming, but it doesn’t mean that what comes out of that is something that needs to be unnatural; it’s about using modern science and modern technology to then figure out the best way to do it naturally.”
These tests range from acid extracts that look at all the available nutrients in the soil to saturated pastes to see what is soluble and immediately available to plants. Some tests, such as the soil biology test/analysis, are broken down so minutely that a microscope is required.
The exciting thing, Kramer said, is that “now we are beginning to see the ‘why’ in things that have worked for hundreds of years, and through science, we can now see why those natural things are better and do work.”
“It really has been in the last 20 years that science has really caught up, and a lot of big farms that have turned over to regenerative processes are seeing a boon — everything is healthy, everything is doing well,” he added.
Conventional farmers who utilize organic methods, such as cover cropping and mineralizing their soil are seeing positive outcomes, Kramer said. Even little things that are part of this new real health conscious movement are playing out on even these big farms.
Not all organics are created equally
The hardest thing to understand with organics is that it all gets lumped into one category, said Kramer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Organic certification doesn’t mean that the food you are getting is the most nutrient dense available.
It’s hard to argue that all organics are good when these huge mega farms are following conventional practices, and may be using organic pesticides that can be harmful to humans if used wrong, he said. Even though they are natural and come from a natural source, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily the best thing.
Organic farmers shouldn’t have to use too much; if everything is healthy and the plant is healthy, it should be able to resist [bugs and disease], said Kramer. It’s when you get a big mono culture where you are growing hundreds of acres of one type of plant — that is when you start having problems.
When you are a small producer, you are stewarding your land, stewarding your product, he said. That human care and energy usually translates into a better thing.
Sustainability is a by-product
Regenerative farming not only creates a more nutrient dense food, but it also increases the sustainability of the land.
“If you are using correct practices, you are building the fertility of your land,” said Kramer.
Synthetic fertilizers, such as synthetic nitrogen, can actually burn out the existing carbon in the soil, he said. Organic carbon in the soil is the basis for plant growth and fertility.
If you grow regular conventional crops, you basically end up with less organic matter in the soil, fewer nutrients, and less carbon, and then you have to just keep adding to replace it, he said.
In addition, a lot of conventional fertilizers contain petroleum (or use it during the production phase), or utilize mined minerals, said Kramer. Mining, shipping, and petroleum production and runoff of these synthetic chemicals effect sustainability of land, resources, and even wildlife.