By Roger Blobaum
A fascinating view of biological agriculture was presented by Dr. Herbert H. Koepf, a soil science professor from Europe, at an Omaha-area workshop for organic farmers and others from the Midwest.
Also appearing at the all-day August session was Pierre Ott, a French agronomist now teaching at the University of California at Vera Cruz. The workshop was sponsored by the Center for Rural Affairs in cooperation with Father Flanagan’s Boys Town and the Quality Environmental Council of Omaha. It was coordinated by Bob Steffen, who manages the organic farming operation at Boys Town.
Koepf, the featured speaker, pointed out that organic or biological agriculture is the best long-term approach to farming. It also is a complicated process, he said, where questions do not always have easy answers and where much is unknown.
“A soil is not just a box where we put something in and take something out,” he said. “There is more going on in the soil than we realize.”
Koepf has worked with biodynamic agriculture for more than 40 years and now heads the School of Biodynamic Agriculture at Emerson College in Forest Grove, Sussex, England. He was director of the Biochemical Research Laboratory at Spring Valley, N.Y., for several years in the 1960s.
He said biodynamic farms in Europe that use only manure for fertilizer show good yields, that nitrogen and potassium and potash are emphasized too much in conventional agriculture, and that lasting fertility requires an optimum balance of such factors as soil life, water-holding capacity, and soil aeration.
He was critical of concentration of livestock in huge feedlots, often hundreds of miles away from farms where the grain being fed is produced, and the lack of emphasis on returning manure to the soil.
“To concentrate livestock the way it has been done here and the way it is being done in Europe is one of those developments and one of those steps in agriculture that quite a few future generations will have to struggle with,” he said.
“It makes you feel especially sad when you know that in actual fact you can’t maintain lasting soil fertility without a certain amount of animal manures.”
He explained the process, which he said is not fully understood, by which inorganic nitrogen fertilizer hastens the depletion of organic matter in the soil.
“To build up organic matter in the soil and to build into the soil a lasting organic reserve of nitrogen requires animal manure,” he said. “It is difficult to increase organic matter when chemical nitrogen is used.”
Koepf said he had reservations about field applications of liquid manure, explaining that the result in many cases is either an overdose or a loss of nutrients through denitrification. The best approach is composting manure, he said, stabilizing the nitrogen and adding lasting nitrogen to the soil. He said fresh manure inhibits germination and root growth while composted or mature manure enhances plant growth.
Ott raised questions about the heavy use of inorganic fertilizers, the long-term impact of conventional farming, and the social costs involved. He pointed out that too little attention is paid to the quality of food grown and suggested that crops grown with large amounts of chemical fertilizer may have important implications in terms of health problems and medical bills.
In responding to a question about how to determine whether a soil is alive, he said a good farmer can determine that by walking across his fields. How the soil reacts to the pressure of one’s foot, he said, can tell a good deal about its fertilizer needs. He said a fertile soil has good structure, plenty of organic matter, a good smell, is well aerated, and has twice the weight of a cow in earthworms per acre.