Renewable Farming

Digital test instruments will soon reveal nutritional quality of food — instantly

Here’s a harvest scenario which could occur on your farm surprisingly soon: Your yield monitor flashes upwards of 300 bu. per acre; test weights stay above 60 pounds: moisture a comfortable 18%. Separately, a special “lab” cubicle in your combine pulls a corn sample from the hopper every five acres, grinds it and quickly makes a detailed spectrographic analysis of nutritional quality: protein, oil, trace element spectrum, chemical residue, plus any aflatoxin or other contaminants. This real-time lab analysis transmits by wireless internet to your office computer. It overlays your high-precision GPS/rtk field maps, so you can later correlate your soil health program with nutrient results in each grid of the field.

There’s more: Gradually, you adapt your on-farm grain storage setup with several midsized bins for identity preservation of your peak quality corn and soybeans, rather than blending all corn in a few huge bins. You’re able to earn premiums in specialty market channels for food-quality, non-GMO and grains with other nutritional standards. You’re raising products. Not just a bulk commodity.

 December 4, 2019   By Jerry Carlson — For decades, the grain trade’s lifeblood depended on blending high test weight, low-moisture grain with lesser quality loads to meet minimum No. 2 standards. That system underpaid you if your excellent soils and management raised the best corn and beans. It subsidized others who delivered junk.

Over the years, I’ve cringed to see my clean, heavy test weight, non-GMO corn flow into the elevator pit — and watch the co-op attendant shovel a few bushels of wet, sour corn from a nearby pile to blend into my good stuff.

In the late 1980s I organized seminars which encouraged farmers to build “healthy soil and nutrient-dense food for healthy people.” Here’s the usual response I saw from corn and soybean growers 30 years ago: Yawn. Sigh. Eyes rolling. Slumping shoulders. But in the years since then, the food-quality paradigm has changed dramatically among the food industry and farmers. 

Today, healthy soil and quality crops are the clear-cut route to survival in the fresh food business. This trend will also gradually upgrade standards in the bulk commodity grains — especially corn and soybeans for export. Brazilian soybean growers have for years carefully cleaned soybeans with on-farm fanning mills, and kept off-quality beans out of export channels. China is shifting bean purchases to Brazil not only because of the tariff clash, but for quality reasons.

One of the earlier signals of the food revolution appeared in February 2016. Successful Farming published a cover story: “Meet your new boss.” It featured a millennial mother shopping for wholesome food, and led to a series on food quality. We reported that feature.

Now, momentum is building to give high-tech tools to millions of food processing firms — and even to moms around the world — to search out food that leads to family health.

Americans are beginning to realize, painfully, the crippling cost of obesity, digestive disorders and soaring chronic disease rates. In 1985, no U.S. state had an adult obesity rate above 15%. Now, the adult obesity rate is over 40%, while 20% of children are obese. U.S. medical costs are approaching 20% of total living expenses, and rising relentlessly. Centers for Disease Control data show that 2019 is the third year that the average American lifespan has declined. 

Spectrographic meter is a prototype of more refined instruments to come.
Scanning a food product yields a computer-analyzed data series which
researchers are working to correlate with key nutritional elements and phytonutrients.

The megatrend toward healthier soil and more nutritious food is spearheaded by energized private groups such as the Bionutrient Food Association. This group is developing a hand-held, $300 spectrographic instrument for quickly checking nutrient qualities of food. Researchers are compiling a database of tests to accurately calibrate the instrument’s readings to correlate with nutrient content, including antioxidants and certain “phytonutrients” — such as enzymes important to digestion and taste. 

Farmers are well aware that highly fertile soil tends to produce the most health-giving, tasty produce. USDA data show how average crop mineral content has declined under intensive NPK and chemical farming the past 50 years. Fresh produce buyers are beginning to demand nutritional content, pulling back from the industrial mode of perfect-looking tomatoes with little taste or nutritional value. 

For instance, agronomy researcher Jim Porterfield of Illinois forwarded to us his feature in the Illinois Specialty Growers magazine, showing dramatic differences in zinc and iron content of several vegetable kinds grown on ideal soil, conventionally managed NPK soil, hydroponic medium and so on. Tomatoes from ideal Georgia soil tested 0.6 milligrams per 100 grams of zinc, six times higher than imported hydroponic tomatoes. You can download Jim’s two-page feature as a PDF at this link.  Or, visit the Illinois Specialty Growers online magazine to view their latest features. Naturally, foods that consumers taste directly are getting the most attention on nutritional quality. 

(For a description of the “ideal soil,” visit this link.) This link takes you to an older version of a handbook which has been updated and is now for sale. To review that offer, click this link. Jim’s referral to the ideal soil is based on a long-established, mineral analysis study of soils as presented by researcher Michael Astera. For the fullest spectrum of nutrient content, we’ll need to renew soils not only with NPK and the traces, but with the full range of beneficial bacteria and fungi which produce the health-giving “phytonutrients” in foods. These are enzymes and catalysts which living organisms produce.

Most of the corn and soybean yield contest winners include an array of “biological” products in their fertility plan. These microorganisms and products produced by microorganisms maximize effective use of soil minerals. For example, mycorrhizal fungi around a root hair have 10 times the dissolving power of roots alone to make soil elements soluble for plant uptake.

The learning curve for understanding “biologicals” for cost-effective use is far more complex than the old “how much nitrogen do you need per bushel of corn yield?”  Every soil has a different microbial mix. And now, new companies are announcing a wide array of “bugs-in-a-jug” alongside the long-established ones such as AgriEnergy’s Residuce stalk decomposer and SP1 live biological blend. Just learning what’s out there is a serious study. There’s no guide to which product is most consistently effective.

The most practical approach: Study what biological innovators have done, and adapt the best ideas for your own farm. I’ve long appreciated the rich array of leaders concentrated at the annual ACRES conference.  Another group of innovators to follow is those who work with the Bionutrient Food Association. You can see videos of speakers at this association’s 2018 conference at this link. Just click on the presentations that look most interesting.

I’d recommend starting with  John Kempf and Jill Clapperton. 

Fortunately, YouTube is laced with excellent presentations on soil quality and the rapidly expanding science of soil life. It’s profitable wintertime fare. But before everything freezes out there, a good move is to pull soil samples and include the Haney Test, available from most labs. It’s an index of the level of existing biological activity in your soil, based on respiration rates.

Longtime friend Wendell Owens of International Ag Labs often told me, “Winter is when Midwest farmers make the most money.” He meant: “Think” time is when you can escape the paralysis of old paradigms. Why spend a 40-year farming career having the same weary experience 40 times? When snow flies, you can discover the excitement of a venture lifted by the powerful currents of consumer and technological trends.