By Dr. Mercola
High-performance agriculture is one of my new passions, and my goal is to provide you with information on how to maximize the time, effort, and energy you’re investing in growing your garden.
This new passion is turning into something of a second career—to learn and understand how to optimize plant growth and the environment.
Most of you are aware that I’ve been a strong supporter of labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods, with the intention of eliminating GE crops altogether, if at all possible.
The flip-side of this is the effort to replace GE crops with organic farming practices where crop yields are maximized to their utmost potential, to the point that genetic engineering becomes entirely superfluous. There are certainly ways to accomplish this, although the learning curve can feel a bit steep at times.
This interview focuses primarily on how you can optimize your garden, but the principles are virtually identical for larger-scale agriculture. I’ve been applying what I’ve learned in my own garden for a few months now, and I’ve been able to personally witness the maximization of genetic potential that is possible.
High-Performance Farming Can Increase Yield 6-8 Times
For example, the leaves on some of my plants, like my lime trees and oleanders, are literally 300 to 400 percent bigger than the typical leaf of these plants. It’s truly extraordinary! You wouldn’t even imagine that a leaf could grow this big.
Part of the problem is that we’ve gotten used to less than mediocrity, when it comes to plant performance. As my guest in this interview states, farmers and food producers routinely harvest only about 10 to 15 percent of the inherent genetic capacity of any given crop.
By optimizing soil composition and nutrient application, you can—for essentially the same amount of time, effort, and energy—increase your yield six to eight times.
John Kempf, an Amish farmer, is one of the leaders in the field of high-performance agriculture. He has taken a leadership role—somewhat similar to the way I have in natural medicine—in teaching people how to achieve these results. He’s the founder and CEO of Advancing Eco Agriculture,1 and runs an organic, high-performance farm in Ohio.
The results you can achieve when you apply the principles he teaches are truly astounding. As Kempf says:
“You have to have different expectations and you have to begin managing your crops differently. For example, when you are expecting to produce 60 to 70 pounds of tomatoes per plant, you no longer plant the plants 12 inches apart.
That doesn’t work logistically. You have to begin spacing tomato plants two and a half to three feet apart. But all of a sudden, you only need three tomato plants instead of 36!”
How Food Becomes Medicine...
Kempf grew up on a family farm in northeast Ohio. The farm was originally conventionally agriculture-oriented, and used large amounts of pesticides. The turnabout occurred during a particularly difficult three-year period in the early 2000s, when a significant portion of each year’s crop was lost to various pests and plant diseases.
In 2004, they began working some land on a neighboring farm where pesticides were not used. The difference was dramatic. Cantaloupes grown on their side were infested with Downy and powdery mildew, while the cantaloupes grown on the neighbor’s land had no infestation at all—despite the fact that the crops were immediately next to each other and received the same care.
“At that point, I became convinced that fungicides and pesticides were not the solution to the problems that we were experiencing,” Kempf says. “I wanted to know what the differences between healthy plants and unhealthy plants are, and what allows some plants to have a functional immune system that they can be resistant to disease and insect pests while the next one right beside it is susceptible.”
In a nutshell, what he subsequently learned, is that the foundation of health – whether we’re talking about plants, soils, animals, or people – really boils down to two things:
- Having adequate mineral nutrition, and
- Having that nutrition, in the case of plants, be supplied by an active soil microbial community, or having a strong soil biology
By focusing on those two areas – plant nutrition and soil biology – the farm experienced an amazing turnaround, and it’s been completely chemical-free since 2006. Amazingly, as nutrition is improved in the plants, not only do they become naturally resistant to disease and insect pests, they also become hardier and better able to survive a wider range of climactic changes.
Even more importantly, healthier plants also form much higher levels of medicinal compounds and essential oils, such as phenolics, aromatics, and bioflavonoids. This is really what turns food into medicine... As explained by Kempf, these medicinal compounds are compounds that plants produce as plant protectants, meaning they protect the plant from things like ultraviolet radiation, insects, and pests. When you eat such plants, that functional immunity can then be transferred to you.
What Is High-Performance Agriculture?
High-performance agriculture, as defined by Kempf, is providing plants with the environment and the nutrition they need to allow them to express their inherent genetic potential. This is a key concept, because you’re not really altering a plant’s yield by supplying it with better nutrition, per se. All you’re doing is allowing the plant’s inherent yield potential to be fully expressed. Most plants in fact have FAR greater yield potential than what conventional agricultural practices are capable of producing. As explained by Kempf:
“Take tomatoes, for example. The day a tomato seed is planted, it has the genetic capacity to produce 400 to 500 pounds of fruit per plant. Every time that plant is exposed to any level of stress throughout the growing season that potential harvest is reduced. At the point at which you’re actually harvesting the crop, you are only harvesting a very small fraction of what you originally started with the day you planted that seed. When we give the plant nutritional supplements, the reality is that we are not increasing yields; we are simply preventing those yields from being lost.”
The question then becomes: How can plants be healthier and grow so much more vigorously than what has become accepted as normal? The answer to that question lies in a plant’s capacity to fully synthesize. The action of absorbing water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air, and through the catalytic action of sunlight energy, sugars are formed inside the plant. Those sugars are the energy source utilized to drive all of the plants’ growing processes and to build fruits. Anything you do to increase that plant’s photosynthetic capacity will therefore increase the plant’s energy.
The photosynthetic capacity of any given plant is directly correlated to the mineral content and the nutritional profile of the plant. If it has adequate mineral and trace mineral nutrition, it will be able to photosynthesize at very high levels of efficiency and produce as much as three to four times or more sugars during a single 24-hour period, compared to most of today’s conventional crops.
How to Evaluate Plant Quality
In the full version of the interview, Kempf discusses a number of examples of dramatically increased crop yields produced on high-performance farms. While many blueberry crops, for example, have an 8-12 percent sugar content, the blueberries he’s been working with have a sugar content of 14-18 percent.
“We have increased the sugar production capacity of that plant by 50 to 80 percent, which results in a sweeter fruit and indirectly a fruit that is more nutritious,” he says.
To measure sugar content in your plant, you can use a refractometer, also called a Brix meter. Sugar content is often used as an indicator of quality—not because the sugars are in and of themselves necessarily an indicator of quality, but they’re typically associated with the plant’s mineral content. Hence, it can be used as a marker of quality. Brix meters are available on Amazon.com and other places, and can be had for under $100.
It’s a simple way to measure the quality of the fruits, berries or vegetables you’re growing, and evaluate the effectiveness of your remedial actions.The most common Brix meters measure on a scale of 0 to 32 degrees Brix, which is what you want. They also have units available that go from 0 to 64. According to Kempf, those are less accurate as they measure too broad a range.
Using Tea Compost for Your Garden
I recently visited the Rodale Institute, which claims to be one of the oldest organic farms in the US. It was founded 75 years ago by J.I. Rodale. One of the most potent strategies they employ to improve plant health is compost tea. While there are a variety of ways to make compost tea, you typically use a volume of water, certain sugars for nutrients, minerals, along with certain bacteria or microbes. The mix is then aerated using a pump, as the beneficial organisms require oxygen to survive. The tea is typically grown over 24 to 48 hours, and then you apply it directly to the soil on a regular basis.
An ideal compost tea is composed of tens of thousands of different species of bacteria, along with fungi and protozoa that actually digest the bacteria. This type of tea compost can address both of the main components necessary for maximum plant performance, i.e. mineral nutrition and optimized soil biology. Kempf explains:
“To provide a more complete picture of why those two factors are the engines that drive the overall system: Inside the plant, all types of metabolic processes go on that depend on mineral nutrition in order for the plant to be able to grow and be healthy. According to a number of plant researchers, geneticists, biochemists that have done a lot of work on plant nutrition, in order for a plant to have a completely functioning enzyme system, which it needs to be really healthy; it needs at least 64 different trace elements.
We’re talking not only about having adequate quantities and the right balance of minerals, but we’re also talking about a very broad spectrum, a very broad suite, of mineral nutrition, specifically a lot of the various trace minerals, to function as enzyme cofactors. However, we need that mineral nutrition to be in a form in which it can be readily absorbed and readily utilized by the plants. And the key to getting mineral nutrition absorption into plants is microbiology in the soil system.”
This is very similar to your own biology. You have microflora in your digestive tract that is responsible for helping you digest your food. As the proteins and carbohydrates in the food are broken down through enzymatic digestion into individual amino acids, essential fatty acids, and simple sugars, your body can then assimilate these simpler compounds and use them for energy.
As explained by Kempf, the exact same process holds true in soil, where the soil microflora digests root exudates, sugars, and amino acids that the plant’s root system sends out into the soil. These sugars and amino acids, for the most part, contain a very limited mineral profile.
The minerals are actually created through the microflora in the soil, as follows. The soil bacteria, fungi, Actinomycetes, and a variety of other soil microbes feed on these soluble sugars and amino acids. They also extract minerals from the soil mineral matrix and use them to build their own bodies. As that microbial population cycles and regenerates, the minerals that are contained in their bodies are then released and become available for absorption by the plant. Again, this is very similar to the way that fermented vegetables or probiotics improve your own digestive and overall health.
How Charcoal May Improve Soil Health
Compost tea can produce great results in terms of plant growth, but you also need to pay attention to other environmental factors, such as watering and increasing the organic matter in your garden soil by adding compost and other soil amendments. Another area I’m really excited about is the use of BioChar, which is charcoal used as a soil amendment. Producing BioChar involves slowly burning biomass, such as wood and other plant materials. The slow burning releases methane gas, producing charcoal that has an incredibly high surface area when spread out thinly.
The charcoal stores carbon (as trees and plant materials extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) and starts to reverse some of the challenges we’re seeing with increasing CO2 levels in the environment. When put back into the soil, it can keep the carbon stable, in the form of charcoal, for extended periods of time, which is an environmental benefit.
From a gardening perspective, it provides a suitable environment in which beneficial soil bacteria can grow and flourish. According to Kempf, BioChar may also help “filter” toxic chemicals in the soil:
“I do not know this for sure, but I suspect, based on the charcoal component, that there’s a very strong possibility it might also have a great beneficial aspect in sequestering toxins and environmental pollutants that are in our soils and ubiquitous in our environment today.
For example, with all of the herbicides and pesticides that are being sprayed, all the aerosols that are in the air, every time we get a rainfall, there are some minimum levels of pesticides that are within that rain. I think having that BioChar component in your soil can help bind a lot of those toxins and prevent them from being absorbed by your plants.”
Why Using Miracle-Gro Is Not a Good Idea
Many are under the false assumption that increasing plant nutrition is best done by picking up some Miracle-Gro from your local garden store. However, it’s important to realize that while conventional fertilizers can provide some level of improvement, they’re far from ideal. Nor are they superior, when compared to natural high-performance plant-enhancing methods. As explained by Kempf, there are two main issues at stake:
- Plants require far greater diversity of minerals than that provided in any commercial fertilizer formula. For example, NPK fertilizers contain varied amounts of just three components: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. As mentioned earlier, plants need at least 64 different minerals and trace-minerals for optimal growth.
- While many soluble NPK-type fertilizers produce rapid, noticeable plant response, they significantly suppress the soil microbial community because they’re essentially electrolytes, and when applied to the soil, they increase the electrical conductivity of that soil, which results in a burnout and a suppression of the soil microbial community. So, long-term, this simply promotes soil destruction and decreases your ability to grow healthy plants.
Resources for Further Learning
Soil and plant health is a complex topic that cannot be thoroughly dissected in any one article, so I advise you to take it upon yourself to learn more about high-performance gardening and agriculture on your own. One excellent resource is Secrets of the Soil: New Solutions for Restoring Our Planet by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird.
Kempf also has a web site called AdvancingEcoAg.com,2 where you can learn more about his work. For example, you can find quite a bit of information about their cultural management systems and the nutritional systems they use on high-performance farms. His company also produces plant nutritional supplements that help increase plant health. These products will probably become available sometime next year, as they’re currently in the testing phase.