From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon
By Steve Kenyon
Published: January 22, 2020
‘It is not about adding fertility, it is about building biology.’ – Steve Kenyon. Photo: Thinkstock
I was asked to speak at a nutrient management conference last month and once again, I was the odd man out. It was not unexpected, I usually am. Regenerative agriculture has a long way to go in our big business world of industrial agriculture. The majority of the speakers there had letters behind their names and spoke of how to store, transport and apply nutrients to the land. They are all respected professionals in our industry, who are also trained by our industry. Some spoke of manure applications, and others spoke about fertilizer systems, but it was all about adding fertility.
My presentation mostly consisted of pictures of my employees working. I don’t need to add any fertility to my soil because I have great employees. I will give them full credit for all the great work they do. It’s just my job to manage them. They are great little workers and all they need from me in return is room and board. As long as I provide food, water and shelter, they work tirelessly for me. They put in long hours and never take a sick day. They never complain. Actually, they work until they die and I don’t have to pay them a dime.
Our industry has an addiction to products. A symptom appears, usually because of something we changed. We are trained to use a quick-fix solution to deal with it. What we really need to do is find a long-term solution to the problem.
My question to you is: why do we need to add fertility? I have not hauled manure or used fertilizer in at least 20 years now, yet I somehow still have fantastic-looking pastures. Nowhere in nature do you see a nitrogen-deficient plant. This only occurs in our agriculture systems.
Nature works in wholes, whereas modern agriculture only looks at individual parts of the system. For every one thing we change, there are nine other things that we affect that we don’t know about.
Let’s look at this with a hypothetical production practice that causes us to need fertility. If you recall, a few months ago my daughter, Dayna Kenyon, shared with you her perspective on “weed” management. She explained that we do not need to eradicate “weeds,” as they are part of a polyculture. We just need to manage the system so that they don’t take over an area. But industry tells us to spray weeds. Let’s throw this stone and watch the ripples.
What happens when we spray “weeds”?
1. It kills the weeds. My question is, what else does it do?
2. It also kills the legumes. Now we don’t get the free nitrogen from the bacteria that are associated with the legume.
3. Without the legume these bacteria die and I wonder just how many more types of bacteria also perish from the herbicide.
4. Now we have nitrogen-deficient plants and our production drops.
5. We now have to add nitrogen fertilizer to get more production.
6. This changes the pH, which can drastically affect many of our soil organisms and put our very important mycorrhiza fungi out of work. This network of fungus was bringing needed nutrients to the plant. Now the plants have other nutrient deficiencies as well as nitrogen.
7. Plants will also likely show signs of drought stress sooner because the mycorrhiza fungi also transports water to the plants. The fungi are crucial employees to me in times of drought.
8. Without the other needed nutrients, plants become weak and are unable to fight pests and disease. Maybe a harmful pest will attack these weakened plants.
9. Now we might need to apply a pesticide to manage the new symptom.
10. In killing the pest, we may also be devastating populations of many other beneficial insects such as bees, dung beetles, mites, dragonflies and spiders, just to name a few.
These do not sound like very good working conditions for my employees. One simple production practice can spiral us downward into a never-ending product addiction.
Let’s back up to before we sprayed the “weeds.” Bees and other beneficial organisms like the variety of plant types that flower at different times of the year. A polyculture is beautiful to a bee. Now by not spraying weeds in our hypothetical example, we still have legumes. We still have the bacteria and still get the free nitrogen. The mycorrhiza fungi still bring us water and other nutrients for free. Our plants are strong and can fight off pests and disease, another no-cost service. We still have our beneficial insects, pollinators and soil organisms that work together. All of this because we didn’t spend money to deal with a symptom that was never really a problem in the first place.
Let me be blunt. Our industry is wrong. There is no need to buy nutrients. The air we breathe is 78 per cent nitrogen. We just need these microbiotic employees to get it for us. We also need to recycle. Every nutrient has a cycle and my employees help me recycle those nutrients.
My goal is not to export nutrients. Once you get it, keep it. Is it possible for you to grow a crop, but still retain most of the nutrients on your land? This is where livestock provide an advantage. The cow, for example, is about 20 per cent efficient. Eighty per cent of what goes in the front end comes out the back end, returning that waste product to the land. I know, that goes against our “efficiency” mindset as humans. But nature recycles so that the whole system can be sustainable.
The method of manure transport and distribution is also very important. Those nutrients are best returned to the land, directly deposited by the primary producer herself. The cow is also my employee. She works for room and board and her job is to recycle nutrients for me. What’s her pay? Well, she takes a 20 per cent cut off the top to cover her living expenses. She can be pretty low maintenance if you select for it. She recycles for me but I also want her to spread the nutrients for me. We need to get her out of the pen and onto the land so she can do her job more effectively, but that’s a whole other can of worms that we won’t open today.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is not about adding fertility, it is about building biology.