Treat Your Soil With A Little TLC, Reap The Benefits During Harvest

Many of Alaska’s farm produce vendors are going strong, drawing customers even in mid winter.  Some use the organic label, others don’t, but what exactly is it that makes a vegetable organic?  There is a  difference between no-till farming, organic farming and just plain farming.

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In a book that changed how many view standard agricultural practices, Japanese famer/philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, said that accepted farming methods upset the natural symbiosis of living environments. Fukuoka and his 1975 book, “The One Straw Revolution,” is credited with leading today’s sustainable agriculture movement.

Speaking at a forum in India, in 1997, Fukouka warned that deserts were being created at an alarming rate, due to over tilling, over production and over grazing. He proposed no-till, no- herbicide farming, saying that all that farmers need to do is broadcast seed on the ground, letting nature take it’s course. But would Fukouka’s methods work in Alaska?

On a busy Saturday at the Sears Mall in Anchorage, Butte organic farmer Mark Rempel is doing a brisk business. Customers line up for potatoes, cabbages and bright golden squash. I asked him, would do – nothing farming work in Alaska?

“I think there is an opportunity for that, but economically, I wouldn’t dare try that. What I produce on small acreage is amazing. If you came and saw what we crank out of our little piece of ground is amazing. We only farm 14(acres), and if you watch what happens in South Anchorage on a Saturday, how much produce goes flying out of our stand, you realize there is a lot of production happening.”

First of all, Rempel says, organic farming and no-till farming are two very different things. He says just by taking his produce to market, he’s depleting the soil. That’s because the vegetables themselves have taken nutrients out of the ground just by growing. And those nutrients must be put back in, or the soil suffers.

“We have a wonderful opportunity in Alaska with the fish industry. Because they have a lot of byproduct. And so what a lot of ships do, is they will dry out their waste, run it across a screen, and the fish meal falls through the screen. And that’s high protein, high nitrogen. It’s used as dog food and fertilizer. And then there’s the bones and other things that come out of that. And that’s what I use. That comes to Palmer and there is a guy with a hammer mill who grinds it up to sawdust and that’s what i put on my field. Every micronutrient that is soluble in the sea is in that.”

He says he’s putting stuff back into the soil that was not there in the first place.

Rempel is the only certified organic producer left in Southcentral Alaska. He tills the soil, but his organic certification limits the types of soil enhancements that he can use. He broadcasts the fish bone meal, and mixes in calcium and other minerals which feeds the microbes in the soil, rather than the plant.

“I feed them, so they work symbiotically with the plant. Because the plant exudes sugars, and the microbes come to that. But they bring nutrients to the plant in a way that the plant can use it better than straight fertilizer. So I feed the soil to feed the plant to feed us.”

Down the mall corridor, Alex Davis sells produce and pork harvested on his Palmer acreage.

“I am no longer a certified organic producer. I don’t file with the federal government, but I didn’t change my farming practices, so I do all organic practices, not the verification paperwork and not the fees.”

Davis says do-nothing farming is a bad idea.

“We are taking out thousands of pounds of carrots a year off of two acres. I have to have inputs into that to be able to take that back out. You just can’t take out and expect it to not collapse. “

Davis says he fertilizes using fish bone meal, too.

“We also use lime very heavily, which is high in calcium, which is a great thing to put in, and that has made our vegetables sweeter over the years. Sometime we use some soft rock phosphates. A little bit, every now and then I use some cow manure or pig manure if it is available.”

He says he farms organically, but is no longer certified organic. What’s the difference?

“The amount of headache I have to do in paperwork” he laughs.

So it’s the paperwork that makes it organic? Rempel says, there’s more to it than that. It’s consumer confidence, too. Rempel gets his soil tested by an independent lab for recommendations as to what nutrients are needed. He says balancing out the proper mix of nutrients is the trick to healthy soil. And soil is the very foundation of agriculture.