Renewable Farming

Moving from monoculture to polyculture: Every farm can use some of these ideas

One of the most memorable facts we’ve learned about biological farming came from Dr. Robert Kremer, ARS/USDA microbiologist based at the University of Missouri:

“Every time you add a crop species to your rotation, that species stimulates populations of at least 10 new microbial species in your soil.”

October 15, 2017 By Jerry Carlson — That bio-stimulus is happening here on our Renewable Farming research farm near Cedar Falls, Iowa. Blake Carlson, son of General Manager Erik Carlson and his wife Jeanene, is transforming most of this ground from corn-bean test fields to a “perennial polyculture.”

It’s symbolic of the new thinking paradigm unleashed by the upcoming generation. It will generate a powerful source of long-term, biologically-built fertility. 

It’s exhilarating to watch! Grandpa is getting outta the way as quickly as possible, taking a spectator’s seat. Blake and his twin brother Terry (assisted by brother Lane, age 9) and their parents’ encouragement have installed a big high-tunnel greenhouse, stockpiled about 400 truckloads of compost/mulch, and mapped out long-term plans for diversity.

Earlier this summer, Blake made more cash by growing and marketing beautiful flower bouquets than we’ve ever made raising corn and beans on our modest 20 home acres and 20 acres of rented land. We’ve shown some photos of that earlier, here.

A few days ago, the Tall Grass Prairie Center and Black Hawk County NRCS held a field day here. Blake briefed the group on how the Tallgrass Prairie Center helped seed a long-term strip of prairie grasses and other perennials to protect a sloping field. He also outlined how he’s using heavy mulching, which will become a kind of “slow compost” program. Surprisingly, the rich biological life under wood-chip mulch maintains soil at a pH of 7 or slightly below. Perfect for transforming soil minerals into nutrients that crops can metabolize.  (Photos are courtesy of Ashley Kittle of the Tall Grass Prairie Center — which just happens to be about five minutes north of our research farm.)

Blake briefing field day participants


Here are key points Blake presented to the farmers and acreage owners attending the field day here Sept. 20, 2017:

“You are looking at a transitional phase to a perennial polyculture.

“We will be focusing on following how God designed perennial polycultures in nature. He did it right, and it’s worked ever since creation.

“We are implementing a high-intensity no till mulching system with mass amounts of wood chips into the orchard and in the annual cropping area. Fruit trees thrive on a fungal-based system, and woodchips will boost fungal growth and activity.

“The mulch will also have the benefits of water retention, protection of the microbiology and massive addition of organic matter.

“The main focus here is for soil health, and creating a healthy foundation for trees and plants to prevent disease and problems down the road. This will allow us to avoid pesticides and chemical-intensive conventional methods.

“The native prairie strip will add a large amount of diversity. That will move us toward the goal of a symbiotic, healthy and balanced ecosystem.”

For months, Blake has sifted information from a wide array of websites, other Practical Farmers of Iowa members, and individuals in several states. He attended the ACRES conference and learns from leading fertility innovators like consultant Bob Streit and Verdesian’s Dave Schwartz. This summer he bought and transplanted 50 mature grapevines. His future plans include an array of intensive crops like paw paws and aronia berries. The largest-scale plantings will be tree crops ranging from chestnuts to multiple apple varieties. These will grow in windrows of deep mulch. Blake has visited at length with Paul Gautschi, a deep-mulch grower at Sequim, Washington, and watched the “Back to Eden” YouTube series made at this old innovator’s orchard.  That orchardist harvests potatoes with his bare hands from the deep wood-chip mulch under his fruit trees, where he leaves one big potato to seed the following year’s potato crop. 

Blake has several advantages over Paul Gautschi, who has been enhancing his naturalistic growing techniques for decades (and is a popular “destination” site for foodies): Blake has on hand a wide array of biological products such as AgriEnergy’s Residuce and Biodyne Midwest’s Environoc 501. The Environoc 501 microbe blend includes organisms which fix nitrogen from the atmosphere, which will speed the otherwise gradual narrowing of the carbon-nitrogen ratio in mulches composed of raw wood chips and leaf litter.

Naturally, WakeUP is part of Blake’s program, helping mobilize biological seed treatments and foliar-applied nutrients.

This is a long way from Agronomy 101 at Iowa State. 


NRCS staffers also addressed the group attending the fall field day at
Renewable Farming research farm, Cedar Falls, Iowa