Renewable Farming

Why building a biologically sound farm is the foundation for great opportunity

Sept. 29, 2016 — You’ve probably heard that the Chinese word character for “crisis” is a merger of two characters: “Danger” and “Opportunity.” 

Today’s farmers face one of the most insidious dangers of a generation — the threat of polluting our planet with toxins and unhealthy food. But that creates an awesome opportunity for farmers with the skill, management and determination to become exceptional producers with healthy soil, healthy crops,healthy families — and healthy profit margins. They’ll produce the nutritional foods which upcoming mothers and fathers are demanding in the new “food revolution.”

In the following question-answer dialogue, two of America’s most seasoned experts describe the crisis and point to the answers you need.

Dr. Don Huber, Purdue University professor emeritus, has championed efforts to educate farmers and all who will listen with the importance of crop nutrition — and how GMO traits and linked toxins compromise the health of our crops and our diets. Dr. Huber’s bio is at this link as a PDF document.

Dr. Michael McNeill operates a crop consulting service from Algona, Iowa, and is respected internationally. 

We’ve transcribed and sometimes slightly condensed their comments made at a farmer’s field day Sept. 6 sponsored by BRT Ag & Turf of Ladora, Iowa. (For a DVD of the complete and original field day proceedings, contact BRT at 319-623-7711.)  This is part One; watch for further transcriptions to come as we prepare them.  Renewable Farming has presented foliar feeding information at BRT seminars and field days in the past, and recognizes  that the farmers who attend are well advanced in their savvy of biological farming.



Opening comments from Dr. Michael McNeill:

Dr. Michael McNeill

Our entire earth is facing a major reproductive failure.  Our soil fungi and beneficial bacteria are not reproducing as they should. When soil life fails, our crop reproduction and yields fail to perform as they should.

Animals and people who eat these plants are facing a major reproductive failure. I’m seeing performance levels fall in poultry, swine, cattle — and humans. 

When I was in high school, a girl who said she had a fertiliity problem meant she was pregnant. The same girl today who has a fertility problem means she can’t get pregnant. A lot of my young married producer clients who come to me say, “We have a problem, Mike.” And they’re not talking about their crops but their inability to have children.  


Opening comments from Dr. Huber:

The first “bubble” of pregnancy problems in animals occurred in the early 1990s. This has continued to get worse, and extends beyond livestock to all life, including humans.

If you look at the metabolic Shikimate Pathway, that physiological pathway is essential for every life form that exists — plant or animal.

This is the pathway which Monsanto says that glyphosate inhibits by stopping the EPSP enzyme. Glyphosate also inhibits 291 other enzymes. 

The FDA did not require safety testing in humans because Monsanto said humans do not have the seven-step Shikimate Pathway which plants have. 

However, that pathway is critical in the beneficial organisms in our digestive tract. The medical community sometimes refers to this biolife microbiome as our “eighth organ.” It’s the biome in our gastrointestinal tract.  This is how you get your vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and other nutrients from your food.

The GI tract also has a direct impact on your cleansing and elimination organs  such as your liver and kidneys. When you disrupt the digestive organisms in your GI tract, you compromise and stress your vital organs such as liver and kidneys. 

Reproductive organs depend on mineral nutrition, such as manganese and zinc. The whole digestive system is essential to provide those essentials.  The single key factor we find linked with reproductive failure is the mineral chelator — glyphosate.  It is pervasive in our soil, air, water and food.  We see the low reproductive fertility problems, but often don’t follow through to find the root cause, which involves multiple factors dependent on nutrition.

Dr. Don Huber

There is an international team of independent researchers examining this issue. They must share information quietly because of government and corporate pressure.

For example, one veterinarian who regularly sees malformed baby pig fetuses went to a nearby medical school to ask the doctors if they see similar symptoms in human fetal tissue.

The veterinarian was brushed off. The medical professionals told him, “We don’t keep a record of this anymore; it’s so common it’s to be expected.” 

Lack of improvements in our current soil biological base are also limiting our crop yield expectations. We should be looking for ways to raise healthy, 400-bu. or 500-bu. corn.  The genetic and biochemical potential is there for 1,100-bu. per acre corn yields. Instead we see chemical-dependent formulas for 250 to 300 bushels. Herman Warsaw was raising 250-bu. corn in the early 1970s! 

The foundation for higher yields is carbon-based life in the soil. Crop residue needs to be recycled quickly, not just left to oxidize. Soil organisms and their active respiration, based on soil carbon, are essential to generate carbon dioxide during the growing season to feed lower leaves in the canopy. At least 20% of the carbon dioxide a big crop needs must come from beneficial respiring organisms in the soil.

Instead of building a more active soil biological system, we’ve been burning up our organic matter with heavy applications of commercial fertilizers and chemicals. 

A robust soil biological web also helps guard against runaway growth of fungal pathogens, like fusarium and phytopthera. A vigorous, diverse soil ecosystem helps keep the pathogens dormant. Beneficial organisms are a living shield around the root. 

Many of our applied chemicals, such as glyphosate, stimulate the fungal pathogens into more activity and multiplication. When they become active, the pathogenic organisms take priority claim on soil nutrients. This kind of fungal activity can reduce potassium availability by 120 pounds per acre. The pathogenic fungi tie up potassium so it isn’t available to the crop roots. 

New “technology” is also depleting phosphorus: Adding the genetically engineered phytase enzyme to animal rations has a downstream impact on soil when manure containing that phytase is applied. The phytase reduces phosphorus availability to the crop because it is readily flushed out of the soil. Synthetic GMO phytase is very stable; it remains active in the soil for four or five years, constraining phosphorus availability.  Many farmers wonder why their phosphorus test drops after applying hog manure; this is at least part of the answer. 

So — two primary soil nutrients, potassium and phosphorus, as well as micronutrients, are being impacted by “new” technology assumed to be beneficial throughout the biological system. But not many growers know how these fundamental soil reactions are occurring.

In the Chile, small grain growers understand much of the soil’s ability to digest and maintain micronutrients. Farmers there rotate wheat and barley, and often burn their barley straw to immediately release micronutrients stored in that straw. They incorporate their wheat straw, and allow beneficial fungi to decompose it into active humus. Some of these soils have, with good management, maintained 18% organic matter.  But it’s not just total organic matter which counts, it’s biological activity which makes the entire nutrient recycling system work. The soil is the digestive system for crops. Roots can only extract what’s in the soil’s digestive system.

Question: What nutrients can we add to improve biological activity and reduce soil pathogens?

Huber: Farmers may see a response by adding humic products in their fertility programs, but the amount of active humic material you can add is tiny compared with what you can build with an active biological system.  Added humic, fulvic and other humic products are an aid, not an answer. You want the soil system to become self-sustaining. 

We used to rotate crops to maintain nutrient levels, improve weed control, and increase biological activity for disease control.  Now we want to buy a silver bullet that offsets the effect of intensive monocropping. 

McNeill: A major soil nutrient that’s often in short supply is oxygen. We’ve prided ourselves on bigger, heavier equipment and that can impose compaction.  Here’s a visual description of what happens to soil: Put a slice of bread on a table and press down on it hard with your hand. Now, try to fluff it up again. Won’t happen. You can shred it into little crumbs, but air infiltration is lost. The only way to restructure compacted soil for the long term is rebuilding the soil fungal and bacterial populations. Especially the beneficial fungi, which create the glomalin and other substances which help build a granular structure.


It’s the open, crumb structure of soil which allows infiltration of water.  And as water percolates deeper, it pulls  in oxygen behind it. Without oxygen and water, soil organisms can’t multiply and roots can’t grow.


I demonstrated this fact to one of my clients with a water infiltration test. I had tried to convince him he wasn’t getting water infiltration or subsurface drainage. He shrugged and didn’t think I was right.  I took a short cylindrical tube, six inches in diameter, and drove it a few inches into the ground in a fence row where soil had been undisturbed for years.  I poured one inch of water into that cylinder, and we timed how long it took to disappear into the soil.  Twenty-three seconds.

Then I went out into the field with him, and repeated the experiment. This time, an inch of water needed three hours and 15 minutes to soak into that soil.  This is the field where he expects to raise his crops.  He couldn’t believe it. We repeated the test four more times in other areas of the field.  The range in absorption time was three hours and 15 minutes to three hours and 40 minutes. That required a lot of my time, but it’s an important demonstration.  

When you get an inch of rain, how much of it is absorbed and how much runs off?  In the Des Moines River watershed, a one-inch rainfall now lifts the water level in the river.  Years ago it took a four-inch rain to do that.

You can pulverize a compacted soil with a rototiller and it may look fluffy. But the first rain packs it down and leaves a crust. A crust just one-thirty-second of an inch thick will seal carbon dioxide below the surface, so it can’t feed your crop.

Question: How can a cash-renting farmer invest in long-term buildup of soil’s biological condition?


If you encounter an uncooperative owner, you may be better off not farming that ground the next year. But meanwhile there are temporary helpers like foliar nutrients.  One of the big mistakes I see farmers making is to mix all their nutrients and chemicals together and deliver them in one trip, rather than timing several nutrient applications for efficient crop use. Farmers love to load it all in the tank and make one trip.  But it’s not a good idea to mix poisons — herbicides and insecticides — with nutrients for crops. You want poison in your food? No, and your crops don’t, either. Neither does your soil life.

Question:  I’ve read that seed companies are applying salt on seed corn fields as a dessicant, so they can harvest earlier. This doesn’t make sense, and I suspect I’m not getting the quality I’ve paid for when I buy seed corn.


You’re right; you’re not getting the seed vigor you’re paying for. Sodium chlorate, the typical dessicant used on seed corn fields, is a common soil sterilant. When you get seed that’s smaller and weaker, it’s like a runt pig: That pig will always be a runt. In seed, the vigor is just not there. When I ran a seed corn production facility for Funk Seeds for 12 years, I could add 25 bushels per acre in yield potential for the farmer by raising a vigorous, heavy test weight, high-quality seed. It’s not just the genetics you need, but the way your seed is produced that’s important too.

Keith Schlapkohl, field day host, adds this comment: 

Gilbert Hostetler, Prairie Hybrids of Deer Grove, IL, told me that his company quit custom-raising seed in South America — like all the major seed firms do — because they found that the South American grown seed yielded 40 bu. less than the same hybrid produced under their own management, on highly fertile and biologically active soils.  We can forgo some of the “genetics” of  seed from desiccated fields in favor of nutritionally dense seed raised under sound fertility management.


There may be a way to capture some of the harvest benefits of dessicating seed crops without the seed damage. There are two emerging “natural nutritional” products which may be available in 2017.  One is a fatty acid which is registered in the U.S. and will probably be made from soybean oil. Another was developed in Australia, and Howard Vlieger is working on importation of that product, which has an acetate base.

Fifty years ago, I was involved with a Pioneer seed project in which a genotype had seed with good genetics, but was wimpy under adverse planting conditions such as early seeding into cold soils. In testing, we found that a seed treatment with manganese and zinc helped compensate for the mineral deficiency in the seed that buffered against these adverse conditions. 

Today, genetically engineered alfalfa and canola seed need a remedial seed treatment to offset reduced vigor.  In fact, GMO canola seed showed inadequate vigor until Jarrett Chambers, president of ATP Nutrition, found what nutrients the canola seed needed.  We are dealing with a lot of GMO seed with nutrient deficiencies.