DOWN on the FARM
with Tom Willey
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Organic Farm | Madera, California
DOWN on the FARM
with Tom Willey
Nitrogen is one exceedingly mysterious constituent of our big bang universe. Earth’s most abundant pure element, life-essential backbone of DNA / RNA blueprints, amino acids and proteins, paradoxically makes itself scarce. Air we breathe is 78% nitrogen, but an inert gaseous form that cannot be woven into life’s lattice work. Only after an immensely powerful attraction between twin nitrogen atoms is cloven at great energy expense does this element become reactive with unlike chemical elements for blending into life’s soup. Since time immemorial, until just a century ago, such molecule splitting was the exclusive domain of lightning and specialized soil bacteria. Over those eons, stingy nature ordered its dynamic duo to convert or ‘fix’ into life-available form barely one percent of Earth’s atmospheric nitrogen. Crop cultivation is in large part nitrogen management, an art practiced from agriculture’s dawn until 1772 before plant growth’s most limiting element was even known to exist. Cultivated crops simply grew better after lightning storms, in rotation with plants sporting oddly nodulated roots (legumes symbiotic with bacterial nitrogen fixers), in soil onto which animal manure had fallen or where plant residue had rotted in place. Then, 100 years ago, two German chemists turned nature on its head by inventing artificially synthesized nitrogen with heat, pressure, an iron catalyst and beaucoup energy, a feat that garnered each a Nobel Prize. Today, hundreds of Haber-Bosch industrial facilities’ production nearly doubles the biologically reactive nitrogen in circulation within Earth’s living systems at any given moment. Removing this key constraint to crop productivity induced farmers, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to spread nitrogen fertilizer with abandon as yields soared. World granaries overflowed and better-fed humans’ population tripled over three generations. So why are Midwestern cities about to sue the hands that feed them? Chemical nitrogen fertilization is grossly inefficient. Less than half that applied assimilates into targeted crops, the rest causes environmental mischief, polluting streams, lakes and municipal water supplies. Craftsmanship magazine’s recent longread on Singing Frogs Farm’s Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser indicts compost-loving organic farmers as “worst nitrate polluters”. Scant evidence supports that allegation. Composting, the controlled microbial decomposition of organic matter, is presumably wise nature’s design to conserve and recycle scarce nitrogen resources. Mature compost contains merely miniscule amounts of easily leached nitrate nitrogen. Several compost inches atop Kaisers’ permanent beds deliver slow-release nutrients to the year-round quintuple-cropping their no-till system sponsors. Pillorying pioneers is ill-considered when Kaisers’ boldly innovative system merits scientific inquiry unencumbered by preconceptions. –Tom Willey
more info: bit.ly/1EeDZP4 more yet: bit.ly/1b9CMRO