Thursday, October 15, 2009

What is the Real Price We are Paying for the USDA Extension Service?

I recently attended training offered through Washington State University for its Master Gardener Program. This is an outreach program that attempts to educate people that have an interest in gardening about sustainable gardening practices. This is a somewhat daunting task given the fact that science, politics, financial interests, and opinion are rather cavalierly lumped together in this country. Unfortunately, no one lumps these things together like soil scientists at Oregon State University and Washington State University.

It didn't take quite four hours of lecture on basic soil science for our speaker, Dr. Craig Coggins of WSU Pullman, to shred any semblance of credibility that WSU or his department might have. The further he got away from any discussions from the soil triangle the more incredible the lecture became. I finally had to walk out when he started to explain how safe it is to dump every kind of chemical that people can buy, and a whole bunch of ones that they can't, into our sewers and voila, after minimal processing and a lot of drying and concentrating you get 100% pure clean fertilizer that is "absolutely safe" to use without caution or warning like any other "Class A Organic" material-"biosolids". Coggins is a biosolids "expert" and he has been providing the "evidence", because once you have a PhD. everything you write is evidence, that biosolids made out of infrequently tested and almost completely unmonitored sewers are so safe our communities can start drying the waste in our water treatment plants and selling it back to us to put on our vegetable gardens, school playgrounds, and ultimately our water. Who knows what kind of witches brew it will have turned into by then.

Before we got to that gem, he spent some time trashing any need to mineralize soils and then raised a straw man argument first raised in a pseudo study done by Dr. John Hart at Oregon State University to entirely dismiss the most commonly held beliefs in the organic community and the subject of numerous articles in the latest Acres USA magazine about mineralizing and feeding the soil to get maximum yields, increased protection from insects and drought without the need for pesticides, and nutrient dense crops, and then went on to claim that phosphorous had nothing to do with root production, et al. It was quite a show. I have never seen anyone sent to speak by a university make such a fool of himself ever, but I hear it's not all that uncommon. I forget who it was that said that "there is no idea so dumb that you can't find a number of people with doctorate degrees that think that it's true".

It is pretty much the USDA position to bury and kill the seminal work of an alumnus of that organization, Dr. William Albrecht, which the USDA has been doing for decades now because it ran counter to large industrialized farming interests and the petrochemical industry that make billions selling chemical fertilizer and pesticides to farmers that are now addicted to poisoning the land, air, water, and us. The fact that they currently have absolutely no credibility in the new and emerging organics industry must have them at their wits end to make such indecent spectacles of themselves in front of large groups of people. After decades of practice, organic farmers are drawing huge crowds of repeat customers that demand clean high quality foods that they can only get from a farmer’s market or local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
So what is different about many of these smaller farming operations that make them so popular when they charge high prices, often are only open at odd inconvenient hours, and require people to travel long distances to get their goods? Does John Hart, an agronomist at Oregon State University, whose Vita describe his duties as “Answering the nutrient management questions of 1) how much to apply, 2) when to apply, 3) what source to apply, and 4) what method to apply nutrients has been my extension program for 20 years” have the answer? His paper, “The fallacy of using soil cation ratios for nutrient recommendations”, published in the November 2007 CROP and SOIL NEWS/NOTES, attempted to dismiss seminal works by Dr. Wm. Albrecht and contemporary followers of Albrecht like Neal Kinsey (Hands On Agronomy) by creating a straw man argument in support of conventional growers that are starting to hear more and more about successes from organic growers using the Albrecht concept of “feeding the soil”.

Answering my question about mineralizing soils to add micronutrients and calcium/magnesium ratios Hart said “The nutrient ratio work I performed was indirect, reviewed soil ratios and yield from many experiments and didn't find a relationship. People that have created variations in ratios at a single site can't substantiate Albrecht and Kinsey's claims. Albrecht and Kinsey
substitute Ca ratio for soil pH and add many nutrients. Their work is without basis. Following their principles will likely work, but is very expensive. Save your money, forget the ratios. I have no idea how to address "soil mineralization" or the relationship with ratios
.” It sounds strange to hear this coming from an agronomist at a land grant college in a state that is widely known for the mineralization programs that it’s organic farmers are using to create products that demand the highest prices at the choosiest markets anywhere.

I asked Neal Kinsey to shed some light on the controversy and he said “I am familiar with the "research" they quote, as they all use the same materials. I am also somewhat familiar with Dr. Hart, who in fact once attended perhaps 30 minutes of a presentation I gave to a group of Oregon foresters sponsored by Oregon Ag Extension, but he walked out when he found it had to do with the Albrecht program. This article had what most have used, mixing up ratios with
the concept of percentages and saying that this program is too expensive. This one did have one new idea put forth about it being promoted by those who sell fertilizer so they can sell the farmer even more. In that regard, I only sell advice, not the fertilizer and amendments that show to be needed, and furthermore, we have clients that have been with us for 25+ years, large farmers who lease or buy poor run-down farms and employ us to help build back the fertility, and one after the other will tell you that initially it may require some bigger outlays to make up for what has been mined out over the years of taking and not putting back what has been used up, but they will tell anyone it is still the least expensive program they have ever used based on the yields they attain.

I suppose it is hard for a PhD. that depends on government largess for a living to be too critical of the status quo especially after having invested a lifetime of work into something that is now more and more widely regarded as fraudulent. In the middle of a vast debate about the state of our health and health care in this country, more and more people are speaking out against the status quo in our government’s agricultural policy. It seems to me if Albrecht had gotten half the attention when he wrote “Soil Fertility and Animal Health” that NASA scientists received when they first started talking about global warming, maybe this country’s obesity and chronic illness rate wouldn’t be as high as it is today.

The extension service training I attended were based on the idea that our land grant colleges can make a meaningful dent in deluge of marketing of poisonous and wasteful products and ideas by giving a group of people that were able to take ten days off of work in as many weeks exposure to best practices in all of the types of horticulture that might be seen at someone’s home whether it be your rose garden, lawn, or vegetable garden. It seems to me that in order for that to succeed that the people providing information to the program have enough credibility and leadership in their area of expertise to attract and retain interest in these programs. If we are going to achieve national goals of health and prosperity then we need to start investing money in our future, not repeating the failed ideas and practices of the past. When so many things in our country, like our health, are failing, creating tenured positions for people that support cheapness of our food and our lives over quality seems worse than a waste of money. It’s like hiring an assassin to kill yourself.

What follows is the rest of Neal Kinsey's answer.

Some “New” Answers for an “Old” Controversy
Neal Kinsey
As Dr. William Albrecht used to say, “If it is true science, it is repeatable.” Meaning: if you really are using a truly scientific approach you should be able to arrive at the same answer over and over again. Your conclusions should consistently prove to be the same time and again.

From all Dr. Albrecht said – whether during personal visits to his office in Mumford Hall at University of Missouri / Columbia, or through personal guidance while completing his private study course on soil fertility, or by reading his published works in journals, university publications and books, and finally utilizing that information as a soil fertility specialist from 1973 to the present – the more it becomes clear, he really was a true scientist. What’s more he was a scientist with the welfare of people, livestock, crops and soils in his heart and mind. Understanding and teaching the true principles of science always mattered more to Dr. Albrecht than that of public opinion, wealth or fame. He really believed he could help mankind most by learning and explaining the principles of soil fertility to improve the growth of feed for animals and food for people thereby improving the health of the soil which would translate to better health for all that lived from it.

Unfortunately what he taught was opposed to the ideas of what too many others in agriculture wanted to “sell” the farmer and the public in general. Once at the beginning of an appointment to visit with him in his office, Dr. Albrecht apologized at the outset because the previous appointment had gone 5 – 10 minutes overtime. As the two men left it was obvious what company they represented. It was well recognized at the time as one that was selling their costly product to farmers all over the U.S. Though their involvement with farming has now virtually vanished in terms of current operations, the results are still evident far and wide. I will not name the company here, because Dr. Albrecht is not here to either confirm or deny it, but he said something like, “These people continue to visit because they want me to endorse their product, but the science is wrong, it will not be for the good of agriculture.” At the time most who worked with farmers, including the agriculture colleges, were touting the product and the huge expense as being evidence that those who took advantage of this new “technology” were the most progressive of all involved with farming. Today that company has passed from the scene because more and more farmers stopped utilizing what they had to sell.

On the other hand, once he found a principle that science showed was accurately repeatable, Dr. Albrecht was fearless in pursuing such, even if some of his peers were not so inclined. One such principle was that of measuring the need for calcium and magnesium versus using pH to determine when to apply lime or gypsum to a soil. Most soil scientists around the world today still maintain that Dr. Albrecht was wrong about this and pH should still be the method used to determine whether to apply limestone or not.

From the 1970’s until now, many in agriculture go to great lengths to publish articles and information in order to refute what Dr. Albrecht has worked to build in this regard. Generally those presentations begin by addressing the use of “calcium to magnesium” ratios to dispel his work on the subject. There are those who advocate the use of a “calcium to magnesium” ratio, and some may ascribe this as something Dr. Albrecht advocated.

From my first exposure to Dr. Albrecht and his answers to why we had problems on our farms, I can recall that he stressed – measure the four nutrients in each soil that can affect pH (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium) – but it was never a ratio that he stressed. The stress was on the percent of saturation, and the pounds of each element required for obtaining that proper percentage. Perhaps it could have been read over, but in all these years I can never recall reading or hearing that Dr. Albrecht stressed a ratio of calcium to magnesium even once.

My acquaintance and association with Dr. Albrecht came rather late in his career (1967 – 1974), and perhaps he did refer to such a ratio in earlier years, I just never was exposed to it. As he learned, he refined the knowledge. Still, I have known many who were personally taught by Dr. Albrecht, and to this point, none I have thought to ask could recall him teaching a “calcium to magnesium” ratio. If by chance there is contact with those who say he did, the first question would be whether they actually were taught that by Dr. Albrecht or if they have made that assumption based on what others have written or said, and whether they have assurance that that source is truly quoting Dr. Albrecht himself. Personally, I doubt very much that such would ever be the case!

With all that said, let’s get back to the part of the controversy intended to be addressed in a new way in this presentation. That controversy has to do with the effects of calcium and magnesium on the soil and how that affects fertility, plant growth, and yield.

These are foundational principles in terms of understanding and applying the Albrecht system of correcting soil fertility and thus positively affecting the plants to be grown on that particular soil. The overall concept hearkens back to the definition in agronomy textbooks concerning what is an ideal soil. The ideal soil is described as 25% air, 25% water, 45% mineral and 5% organic matter. But what if you don’t have that ideal soil? What has to be done to achieve it? To this point, unless the approach Dr. Albrecht devised is used I know of none who will propose it can even be done. And the simple answer he would give is to use the correct chemistry, to build as closely as possible the correct physical structure (25% air, 25% water, 45% mineral and 5% humus) which in turn supplies the proper environment for the biology (roots, worms, microbes, etc.)

Achieving the correct percentages of calcium and magnesium in particular provides the basic requirements for this equation. For medium to heavy soils the numbers are 68% calcium and 12% magnesium, or as close as is feasible to achieve that (for example 66 – 70% calcium and 10-12% magnesium should provide extremely satisfactory results). In such soils emphasis is placed on pushing the percentage of calcium toward the 70% mark and supplying enough magnesium to keep it above 10%, but below 12% for best overall results. As the correct amount of calcium is measured, soils that are most lacking, as reflected by lower and lower calcium percentages as analyzed in the lab, will be harder to work. As the calcium is correctly added to achieve the required percent, the soil actually becomes more friable. Such soils are easier to work, have better water penetration and posses a better content of air due to the effects of better soil flocculation, as calcium causes the clay particles to clump into tighter aggregates. Thus we tell clients that needed calcium (as determined by achieving the correct percentage for that soil) increases soil porosity and helps to loosen tight soils.

On the other hand, on sandy soils the problem is too much porosity – too much air - allowing the soil to dry out more quickly and loose needed moisture for growing crops. Under such circumstances the soil needs to be treated in a manner that emphasizes attracting and holding more water. Magnesium is the answer, but not too much, and not too little. The proper amount for sandy soils involves providing enough to supply at least 200 lbs / acre on up to 250 lbs / acre of magnesium and yet not to exceed 20% saturation for that particular soil.

Magnesium has been shown to attract and hold extra water in soils, a real benefit in soils that tend to dry out too quickly as with light sandy soils. But too much magnesium also tends to reduce soil porosity and cause soils to become harder when they dry out as it increases in content. This becomes most evident when other factors that affect this, such as calcium levels, show one constant level, with only more or less magnesium being the difference.

Such changes should be easy to document but most agricultural researchers maintain that there is no correlation between calcium and magnesium levels in the soil and no resulting effects on physical structures, soil fertility or plant response. If all are advocates of using true science and science in repeatable, how could this happen?

Most research used to disprove that measuring the cation saturation is a better way of testing and determining lime and potassium needs for soils than is the pH measurement begins with a faulty premise. This involves a serious assumption that is not generally acknowledged. The assumption is made that all soil tests performed to measure the soils nutrients holding capacity (CEC) and cation saturations (the percentages of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium each soil contains) will measure and arrive at the same answer. The truth is that the numbers that are assumed to be the same can vary to the extreme.

For example, the test we use shows that a soil with all other nutrients adequately supplied will produce the best crops at 68% calcium saturation (though at times during his work over the span of his last 40 years or so you may find it stated early on in Dr. Albrecht’s work that 70 – 80% calcium was the best range and later 65 – 75% and finally 60 – 70%, as the tests were refined, still in the end he used the 60 – 70% range as best for the testing methods employed). Yet when a heavy clay soil possessed the ideal 68% on the soil test he advocated for use, another very reputable laboratory would report the calcium saturation from analysis of that same soil as 74%. Another reported it as 64%, and yet another showed 80% saturation of calcium when ours measured 68%! Which lab was correct? By definition from those who certify soil testing labs, they are all correct, because they are within the set parameters prescribed as necessary to measure the soil’s calcium content. But if you are doing statistical analysis and the numbers from any one of these labs were to be combined with all the others, how is it possible to accept that all of them are correct and show any reliable correlations.

Furthermore, when the test we use shows the ideal of 12% magnesium and 68% calcium, the lab that shows calcium at 74% shows magnesium at 8%. On the tests we use 12% is the maximum level of magnesium for excellent performance. But on the other soil test, showing 8%, less than 10% is shown to be considered as deficient. Again, is that soil deficient or at the maximum level for top production?

The point – if there is so much variation in soil analysis numbers, how can the correct answers be determined by assuming that one soil test is just as good as all the rest when trying to develop a fertility program. When numbers can jump all over the place, how is it determined that the experiment was started with the correct premise?

Even with something so simple as testing for magnesium, was the research done with the test that shows the level as excellent, or the one that shows it is deficient, or a combination of both and several others to give a good average?

One report after another maintains that magnesium levels have not shown to make any difference in terms of soils being harder or softer or being helped in terms of improved yield. Who set the parameters? Who determined the value of the testing done? Was a soil chosen for producing top yields that was able to be verified by the numbers which should be showing on the test for obtaining such top yields? Ask most involved with soil fertility research and they take the position that the calcium and magnesium values are of no use in determining soil fertility anyway. If that is the case, who would be qualified to choose the proper tests to prove whether such is so or not?

Furthermore, most involved with soil fertility research maintain that soil tests only serve to point you in the general direction for fertilization of the crop, and should not be used to determine the best soil for yields, versus the average, versus the worst. And no wonder! Because they have generally taken the position that all soil tests will reflect the same answers and thus any such soil test is just as good as another to use for research to measure soil nutrient levels. (This is not an effort to demean soil testing by different laboratory’s, but to say those who interpret soil test results had better be aware of where a farmer or grower’s nutrient levels should be to achieve top results.)

Test your soil tester. If the person advising you cannot discern between the good areas, average areas and problem areas from the soil tests they use, is it a sure thing they really know what lime and fertilizer is actually needed? You cannot properly manage what you cannot properly measure!

In addition, publication after publication, including those from the land grant universities, has continually maintained that the percentage of magnesium has no measurable effect on the soil or resulting crop yields, except possibly where the level of magnesium exceeds that of the calcium level. They go to great lengths to point out that analyzed data from a wide assortment of farm research has shown that calcium and magnesium levels can vary greatly and still the farmer can produce good yields. When such statements include the allowance of the use of the many soil tests that are available that still fall within the wide tolerances for the measurement of calcium and magnesium could any other conclusions be expected?

But science has now provided a new set of tools with which to provide evidence of whether an excess of magnesium actually causes soils to become harder. It has to do with the use of global positioning systems (GPS) to determine soil variations for testing and analysis purposes. Below a map developed for soil sampling a new vineyard is shown. Each different type of area shown on the map was sampled separately.

The map was developed by using a VERIS unit (pictured below) to collect and transmit data to a satellite to be captured and used for mapping the soils to determine where to properly take soil samples.

By using a handheld GPS unit it is possible to enter the coordinates of the field shown above and the unit picks up and transmits exactly where you are located in that field. As you walk across the determined boundary lines of each area, you can see exactly where you are. On the map, as sampling proceeds from one plotted area to another to take soil samples, the handheld GPS unit will show which area you are in at that moment.

In the property above, the levels of calcium are virtually the same, but the big difference as determined by the soil analysis data is the percentage of magnesium in each area. So any change in the force required to push the soil probe or a soil penetrometer into the soil from area to area can only be attributed to the increase in magnesium. And that is exactly what is proving to be happening. The farmer, owner, or any interested by-stander can be asked to do the probing and tell how the probe goes into the soil. One after the other will report that it is harder to probe in each area where the analyzed calcium percentage remains constant as the magnesium percentage increases.

True science is repeatable. With GPS it is now becoming evident that where all other nutrients are constant, as the magnesium level goes from the correctly required amount in the soil to more excessive levels the soil will prove to become harder and tighter.

Using this same GPS unit it is possible to sample each different area and determine the levels of calcium and magnesium. It is now possible using GPS mapping and sampling for the farmer or grower to pick the most productive areas on the map and see how well they match up to the fertility levels shown to be needed for top production and quality in each field, including calcium and magnesium levels. True science is again verifying that Dr. Albrecht has been correct in his work concerning how to achieve top production and top quality with soil fertility by measuring the soil’s nutrient holding capacity and using the prescribed percentages to determine when and how much to lime all along!