By Dr. Mercola
Jerry Brunetti, an internationally renowned speaker, is the founder of Agri-Dynamics, a company that provides holistic animal remedies for farm, livestock, and pets.
He's also a co-founder of EarthWorks Natural Organic Products, which provides products and consulting services. Brunetti is a cancer survivor who can say he saved his own life employing holistic methods.
He initially got involved with biological farming while studying animal science, also known as "animal husbandry," at the University level.
"When I was in college, I saw the industrialization of agriculture accelerating. We were getting away from the Joel Salatin models and getting into the factory farm models because of: a) efficiency –Labor efficiencies and time efficiencies, and b) subsidies from the federal government that made it worthwhile to lock animals up and feed them concentrates," he says.
What many fail to consider, however, is that purely focusing on production alone isn't necessarily the most cost effective. Profits are frequently eaten up by increased diesel consumption, combating soil erosion, rising NPK fertilizer costs, and increased need for veterinary drugs to keep livestock healthy in an unnatural and unhealthy environment.
"Production was being, in effect, purchased off the farm with fertilizer inputs, feeds, and drugs. So, I got into the ecological model because we realized that ecology does equate the economics," he says.
We Need to Return to Ecological Principles
The ecological principles Jerry teaches apply no matter what you're growing, because the soil systems all require very similar kinds of biology and chemistry.
According to Brunetti, you can take the same model that you use in crop production and apply it to cabbage, fruits, or any other food crop, and get the same kinds of outcomes in terms of reduced expenses and reduced dependence on agricultural chemicals such as pesticides.
The latter is becoming particularly critical as a number of pesticides have already been implicated in the mass die-offs of pollinating honey bees, which are essential for the growing of about 70 percent of our food supply. As stated by Brunetti:
"The United States right now has 1,200 pesticides approved for agricultural use, and the European Union only has 400. We're losing our pollinators like crazy. I think there's a very strong smoking gun connection between the honeybee implosion / the native pollinator implosion and the tremendous use of pesticides in this country."
Soil health connects to everything up the food chain, from plant and insect health, all the way up to animal and human health. Health, therefore, truly begins in the soils in which our food is grown.
Forerunners like Weston Price, William Albrecht, Louis Bromfield, and Friend Sykes all found that there's a strong correlation between having good mineralized soils with robust biological activity. As Brunetti states, the marriage of biology, chemistry, geology, and the physical structure of soils translates into increased quantity and improved nutrient-density in our foods.
Furthermore, plants that are properly nourished from good, healthy soils end up having tremendous all-natural resistance against fungal outbreaks and insect attacks. They're also just as productive if not more productive than conventionally chemically-grown foods. The claim that you cannot produce as much food using ecological methods as you can using conventional chemical methods simply isn't true.
Like You, Soil and Plants Need Microbes
In human health, we've come to appreciate that the maintenance of intestinal flora is really essential for health, both physical and psychological. Probiotics are even becoming widely accepted and adopted in the conventional medical community to support health. In soil, we have a similar process. The health of the plants, and those who eat those plants, all stand to benefit from the optimization of soil microbiology. As stated by Brunetti:
"Probably one of the most important things about living on this planet is the microbiotic community, our microbiome. We now know that there are millions of species of bacteria and half as many fungal species, of which we've identified less than five percent.
The same kind of things goes on in animals. We're finding out that, for example, ruminants that forage or eat grass do not consume the nutrients that are in the forages; they ferment them in this rumen, this tank, where they're growing tremendous numbers of microbes. Then they ingest these microbes.
We're finding out that the actual ecology of the animal is predicated on what it's fed. If you're feeding an animal an abstract kind of feed like grain when it's really a forage consumer, you're going to end up changing the ecosystem of that rumen. You're going to end up having a downward spiral of negative outcomes, where animals end up having all these metabolic disorders – immune implosion, reproductive failure, mastitis, calf deaths, mortality, and morbidity."
The soil microbiomes work on the same principles. As explained by Brunetti, the root ball of the plant is the "gut" or intestinal tract of the plant. In botanical terms, it's called the rhizosphere, and it houses microbes just like the human gut does, provided the soil system is healthy.
The Cycle of Life Begins with the Biome
The soil system contains both predator and prey kinds of organisms. Bacteria, Brunetti explains, are the prey. These "grazers" get eaten by "predators" like protozoa and nematodes. The process of this predator-prey relationship is very similar to what occurs in the Serengeti when lions eat the ungulates.
"There's a conservation of nutrients and a strengthening of the gene pool of not just the microbiome but of the plants themselves," he explains.
This results in a massive increase in fungal, bacterial protozoa and nematode populations, which in turn increase the organic matter—the carbon—of the soil. It also increases the water-holding capacity of the soil, which provides natural drought resistance, and helps to reduce and control soil erosion. Last but not least, it boosts nutrient uptake in the plants growing in the soil.
A fascinating aspect of this soil system is that there's a fantastic amount of communication going on in the root ball. Plants actually "talk" to one another through aerial emissions—the volatile gasses they emit—and also through the mycelial networks in the soil. This is a major insight that deepens our understanding of the importance of nurturing and maintaining healthy soil microbiome. It also explains why you don't really need synthetic chemicals to grow large amounts of food. On the contrary, the chemicals used in modern agriculture are killing the very foundation of health—the microbiome in the soil. As explained by Brunetti:
"The plants can tell their neighbors, 'By the way, there's a pest in the neighborhood. Amp up by changing your chemistry so that you have more resistance.' They can do that provided that the soils are well-nourished. If you don't have well-nourished, mineralized soils, the compounds necessary to fight off these adversaries are not there. The plants then are still vulnerable."
Why GMOs Are Far from the Answer
This is one of the reasons why so many of us are concerned about genetically engineered crops, because one of the main characteristics of genetically modified plants is resistance to the potent herbicide glyphosate, which decimates the microbiome. Glyphosate is a potent chelator that sequesters valuable minerals, rendering them inaccessible and unusable for the plant.
"[Glyphosate] ties up minerals like manganese, zinc, or iron, which are critically essential for the plants' immune system. By doing that, it takes those critical trace elements out of the soil solution, rendering an immune deficiency and basically creating an immune implosion because of the fact that the plants are undernourished. These minerals are critical raw materials for plants to synthesize protective compounds called Plant Secondary Metabolites (PSM's). The PSM families consist of terpenes (carotenes and essential oils), phenols (flavonoids, tannins, salicylic acid, etc) and alkaloids (e.g. caffeine, nicotine, etc.) These compounds are essential to the plant's immune system to repel pests." he says.
Another problem, which applies to both genetically engineered (GE) and conventional hybridized plants, is that when a plant is altered it may lose its ability to emit the correct signals to warn its neighbors about impending attacks. Also, substances that are normally emitted in the root ball that defend the plant against the attacking pest have been found to be missing in certain hybrid and/or GE plants.
"Even when they seeded a field with high populations of predator, beneficial nematodes, they didn't do their job of attacking western corn rootworm pests because they weren't getting the sesqui-terpene signal from the [hybridized] corn plant," he says.
"There's a very intimate relationship between organisms that live on the plants and organisms that live in the soil nearby the plants. But there is a connection, a communication, that's dependent upon the plant's ability to have this communication ability. That's one of the problems with GMOs: it's turning hybrids into much more dependent plants that need everything [to be added]. Not just the glyphosate herbicide, but high rates of nitrogen and phosphorus as well."
How Plant Growth Is Optimized in Biological Agriculture
In this interview, Brunetti expands on a variety of strategies for optimizing plant growth. Needless to say, it all begins with a comprehensive soil analysis. He uses a chemical extraction called Mehlich 3, which extracts the loosely attached mineral elements from the soil.
Soils have a negative charge whereas certain elements (cations) attached to the soil have a positive charge, and typically it is recommended to have a balance of these various positively-charged minerals. This includes calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, and trace elements. The individual numbers and ratios are measured, and based on that data, soil amendments can then be recommended to optimize the ratios. Amendments might include limestone, rock phosphate, trace elements like boron, zinc, or copper, or manure for example.
Brunetti has a new book, The Farm as Ecosystem, published by Acres USA, which expands on everything discussed here. It should be available from them this week. Jerry was kind enough to give me a preview and it is one of the best books on biological farming I have read to date. Highly recommended if you are interested in this topic.
He also checks for soil compaction. A soil penetrometer is a useful tool for any farmer to have. It works like a pressure gauge—you stick the probe end into the soil, and the meter tells you how tight your soil is. If your soil is compacted, it will not contain air, and if it doesn't have air, it cannot sustain microbial life.
"If the soil doesn't have life, you can throw all the minerals you want on that ground but you're going to be wasting a lot of it because the limiting factor there is oxygen. The first nutrient for life in an aerobic environment that we live in is oxygen," he says.
Compacted soils can be treated in a number of ways. If you have livestock, you may need to manage your animals differently. A subsoiler may be used to break up compacted soils, or you could switch out your crop to a more deep-rooted plant like comfrey or chicory, which can penetrate and fracture deeper compactions, allowing critical air to enter into the soil. Once you get air back into the soils, you'll start getting biology back into it.
Biological Stimulants and Soil Chemistry
Next, biological stimulants are considered. This includes rock dust powders like granite or basalt dust, which are excellent biological stimulants and have paramagnetic energies. They provide an excellent way to remineralize the soil in a balanced natural way supplying many if not all of the important trace minerals. Being susceptible to magnetic influence, they tend to energize plant growth.
"Dr. Phil Callahan did a lot of work on paramagnetism in soils, looking at archaeological sites, discovering that the most fertile were also highly paramagnetic. He invented a device that's now available, called the PCSM meter, which measures the paramagnetism of the soil. That's another tool in the box."
Ormus minerals such as Dyna-Min have also become popular. According to Brunetti, Dyna-Min is primarily used in animal feeds for mineral nutrition and detoxification, but it can also be used to improve the mineral content of compost. Another good product is called Azomite. It's a montmorillonite from Utah that contains a lot of valuable trace elements. Ormus minerals are also susceptible to energetic influences that help to stimulate microbiotic communities.
"It's almost like Wilhelm Reich's orgone accumulator," Brunetti says. "His accumulator was a layering of carbon and metal, which accumulated the vital force that he called orgone or what is also known in Ayurveda as prana or in Chinese as chi. I think when you take these minerals and you blend them with things like char in compost, you're creating an orgone accumulator blanket in the soil. It attracts cosmic forces that the biodynamic people talk about..."
After looking at the chemistry of the soil, he evaluates the actual structure of the soil. Certain tests can also be used to measure different kinds of biology. He also takes samples of plant tissues, called a forage test, which is then analyzed for macro and micro elements, proteins, and energies. Again, just like the soil test, there needs to be certain minimum levels and ratios of minerals, carbon, and protein.
Sap testing may also be performed to measure the pH of the plant's sap. Electrolytes like nitrates, potassium, sodium, and calcium can also be measured this way, as can chlorophyll. The level of chlorophyll in a plant is indicative of the plant's overall health. Based on all of this data, additional strategies may be prescribed. For example, if the crop is low in magnesium, you could use a foliar spray of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) on the crop. In summary, Brunetti likens the process to a three-legged stool, where each leg affects and depends on the strength of the other two.
"You can't take one out without affecting the other. Biological systems affect the availability of chemistry or minerals. Minerals affect biologicals. What we're trying to do is get the physical, chemical or mineral, and biological systems working in tandem, so that we have a three-legged stool that reinforces itself.
Let's say, you have a really acidic soil that's down below 5. This is typical in Australia and New Zealand. Their soils are very acidic. They're even getting biological bounce-backs by using, let's say, ecological practices. But you could speed that up tremendously by just giving the microbes what they need, which is a pH of somewhere between 6 and 7 by liming the soil. They like that pH much better than a pH of 5. If we can do that, you're going to speed up biological processes."
For those unfamiliar with chemistry, a pH change from 5 to 7 is a hundredfold difference of hydrogen ions—a massive change. The pH scale basically runs from 1 to 14, with 7 being neutral. Anything above 7 is alkaline; anything below 7 is acidic. According to Brunetti, soils should ideally be slightly acidic, or in the mid-6 range. Plant sap pH also tends to reflect that. A pH of 6 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7. So going from a pH of 7 down to 5 means increasing acidity by 100 times (10x10).
Biological Farming Is a Win-Win for the Environment
Besides soil nutrient depletion, top soil erosion, and water pollution, we also have rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to contend with. Biological farming is the obvious answer for virtually all of these concerns, including rising carbon dioxide levels. I've previously written about the usefulness of biochar, which is essentially agricultural charcoal once it's added to the soil. According to Brunetti:
"I think the way biochar can help is if we particularly use it on small-scale, intensive horticultural beds. It's probably not going to be as practical on large landscapes, although there is a belief that you might be able to put it in the seed row for row crops and get a benefit from that."
Biochar has shown its usefulness in larger scale scenarios, however, it needs to be activated first with minerals and/or microbes or else it tends to decrease soil fertility for about a year. Terra preta, or "black earth," is a type of dark, fertile soil found in the Amazon Basin. This soil has a very high charcoal content, and was created by mixing together charcoal, bone meal and manure to the native Amazonian soil. As explained by Brunetti, a key to the success of terra preta was the addition of biology to the charcoal.
"What they typically did was they used either human or animal waste and mixed it with the char, so that the poorest of the charcoal would absorb these biologically based nutrients that could then grow the microbes, which in turn could then grow topsoil. Some of the areas where they had terra preta areas were half a mile-wide by a couple of miles-long that could allegedly support anywhere from 200,000 to 400,000 people. And these were soils that are [originally] completely useless for growing crops."
The Future of Food Is Medicine—As It Was in the Past
The American health system is fatally flawed, and to quote Brunetti, the entire system is "about to implode because it's just too costly, it's too vast, it's too bureaucratically encumbered, and it's not dealing with the fundamental reasons of why we're unhealthy." I couldn't have said it better myself. I also agree with him when he says that one of the fundamental reasons why Americans are so unhealthy is because we're ignoring the fact that humans are agricultural beings. We're supposed to be connected to the land that feeds and sustains us.
"We need to have an identification with the fact that soil systems and ecosystems at large are the breadbasket, and we're destroying them. Until there's some kind of campaign globally that says we have to stop the madness of destroying our ecosystem, which supports not just the many, many thousands of species that we're annihilating every year but also ourselves, I'm not very hopeful. But by the same token, we can turn it around. What I am hopeful about is that we still have time to fix it."
That window of opportunity is rapidly narrowing however. Brunetti, on his part, tackles the problem one farm at a time. He's a long-time active member of the Weston A. Price Foundation, and takes every opportunity he can to educate his fellow man about the connection between health and the food system.
"There's no doubt about it. The future doctors have to have relationships with people who produce the foods," he says.
"There's a gentleman out here who's a physician. He has a mobile practice. One of the things that he does, his 'prescriptions,' is giving his patients a list of foods that they can get from Levi Miller's Amish farm – you know, raw milk, pastured eggs, and things like that. This is part of his Rx for his patients. I think this is going to have to be more common instead of rare if we're going to start turning around these health problems. Because food is the medicine, as you know. It's the ultimate medicine, because it's so complex. Taking supplements is great, but it doesn't replace food in and of itself."
If you're a small farmer, or just a dedicated home-grower who would like to learn more, there are plenty of sources and support nowadays. Biological agriculture has come a long way in terms of building up a solid network over the past 30 years. The best thing to do is to find out who your local association or your regional association is, and join that. Once you've joined, you'll be able to find out what kinds of conferences and workshops are available in your area throughout the year.
One way to find a local organization is to simply Google "sustainable agriculture." Brunetti belongs to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA), but there are many others, including but not limited to the:
- Northeast Organic Farming Association1 (NOFA) (NY, NJ, CT, VT, MA, NH)
- Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association (MOFGA)
- Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service2 (MOSES)
- California Certified Organic Farmers3 (CCOF)
- Tilth (OR & WA)
- Mid-Atlantic Food Cooperative Alliance4 (MAFCA)
- Carolina Stewardship Project (NC)
- The Xerces Society
- Pesticide Action Network
- Acres USA
- The Stockman Grass Farmer
- Natural Farming
To learn more about Jerry Brunetti, or to hire him as a consultant, please see Agri-Dynamics.com. Other helpful resources include Savory Institute's website,5 as well as permaculture institutes and permaculture websites. You can find many of them by using those search terms in Google. Jerry's new book, The Farm as Ecosystem, can be purchased below.