Sunday, August 3, 2014

Soil Minerals

While the living systems that comprise soil form the foundation for the ecosystems they sustain, living things also require a number of non-living minerals to support their normal functions. For example, bones are made primarily from calcium and phosphorus, vitamin B-12 contains cobalt, and the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine both contain sulfur. While plants can grow with only a handful of different nutrients, animals have more complex requirements which you can find in the contents of a typical multivitamin. If the soil is deficient in any of these factors, or if plant absorption is impaired by the conditions in the soil, it can lead to negative effects which propagate all the way up the food chain. Soils which are very mineral deficient, such as those in the Amazon region of South America, can only support a very low density of animals- humans included.

The mechanisms by which minerals attach to and are released from soil are fairly complex and are also pH dependent. Mineral nutrients can be broadly divided into two classes, positively charged cations and negatively charged anions, and these nutrients along with pH must be properly balanced in order to support optimal plant and animal health.


The positively charged cationic nutrients include calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium. In soil they are often found complexed in the mineral structure of silt, but in more weathered soils they can be found attached to negatively charged sites on clay particles, from which they can easily detach. Calcium and magnesium also form complexes with organic matter in the soil, and help stabilize the organic matter against being converted into carbon dioxide. Sodium and potassium are generally found as soluble salts in living things and readily leach out of organic matter, and are primarily retained in soil by attachment to clay particles instead.

The total ability of organic matter and clay particles in a given soil to hold onto cation nutrients is known as its cation exchange capacity or "CEC", expressed in hydrogen equivalents. Cation exchange sites that do not contain minerals are occupied by hydrogen (H+) ions, which plant roots release in order to free nutrients from the soil and make them absorbable. Target levels for cation nutrients are expressed as a percentage of the the total CEC, with the ideal for most plants being 50% calcium, 30% magnesium, 10% potassium and 1.5% sodium. The "extra" CEC is left over as a pH buffer and to catch other cation nutrients which may percolate through the soil out of organic matter or other sources. In order to hold the minimum amounts of nutrients required for optimal plant growth, a soil must have a CEC of at least 7 as reported on a soil test. A soil with a CEC less than 7 will be chronically infertile, however most soils have several times this amount and very fertile soils may have a CEC as high as 35 or so.


The negatively charged anions include phosphorus, sulfur and chlorine. As with cations, they can frequently be found complexed in the rock minerals of silt particles, however anions bind to soil a bit differently than cations do. Like cations, anions become bound to organic matter and are released as it breaks down, but when binding to clay particles anions tend to form strongly insoluble complexes with iron and aluminum (which themselves are cations). As a result anions are less prone to leaching from soil, but are also less available for plant uptake than cations.

While there is such a thing as anion exchange capacity, it is a seldom used or measured figure since most soils are rich in iron and/or aluminum, and since the plant requirements for anions are narrower than for cations. In general only about 100 pounds of soluble phosphorus per acre and 100 parts per million of sulfur are required for optimal plant growth, however most fertile soils contain as much as 1000 pounds per acre of phosphorus in mineral forms or bound to iron and aluminum. For this reason root symbionts are more important for anion nutrition than are the soluble levels in soil, which typically quickly become bound into insoluble forms that can only be extracted with the help of said symbionts.

In general, about 5000lbs per acre of rock phosphate and 500lbs per acre of "agricultural" elemental sulfur (which are both highly insoluble in water) are enough to support plant growth for 10 years without additional fertilizer inputs, and without leaching or other negative effects.


Micronutrients are mineral nutrients which are required in amounts less than 300 ppm total soil levels, and may be either cations or anions. Micronutrients include a variety of minerals such as iodine, selenium, molybdenum, cobalt, manganese, zinc, copper and boron. Even though these nutrients are equally as important as macronutrients in terms of animal and human health, standard soil tests typically omit values for iodine, selenium, molybdenum and cobalt, and testing companies charge as much as a normal test for each additional mineral. Fertilizers for some of these nutrients can also be quite difficult and expensive to obtain, much to the detriment of modern 'scientific' agriculture. Ideal soil values for micronutrients are 20 ppm each for iodine, zinc and copper, 0.8-1.4 ppm selenium, 5-6 ppm molybdenum, 15 ppm cobalt, 50 ppm manganese, 200 ppm iron and 4 ppm boron.

Care must be taken when applying micronutrients, because they can easily reach toxic concentrations if too much is applied at once, or if applied unevenly. Typically only part of the required amounts are applied in a given year, for example you should only apply boron 1 ppm at a time (recommended is 1lb/acre/year until the ideal level is reached for boron). For selenium even smaller values are required, whereas for most other micronutrients larger values are more appropriate.

pH and Nutrient Uptake

The availability of different nutrients depends on the pH of the soil. Some nutrients, such as phosphorus, sulfur, iron and manganese become more available at a lower (acidic) pH. Others, such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and selenium become more available at a higher (basic) pH. However, almost all nutrients have a high availability at a slightly acid pH between 6.0 and 6.5, which is the preferred pH range for agricultural soil. There are exceptions to this, such as blueberries which prefer a pH below 5.0, and lavender which prefers a pH above 7.0.

In many cases, balancing the minerals in the soil will also correct the pH without further intervention. However, there are also many cases where the soil type presents extreme tendencies of pH. For alkaline soils there are two main types, sodic and calcareous. Sodic soils contain high levels of sodium carbonate and bicarbonate, and can only be treated with hydrochloric acid to produce neutral sodium chloride, or with calcium chloride if the calcium levels are also low. Calcareous soils are very high in calcium and/or magnesium, and it is best to plant things which prefer calcareous soils than to attempt to modify them, since removing excess calcium or magnesium would be a monumentous task.

Acid soils also come in two main types, kaolinitic clays and histosols. Kaolinitic soils are highly weathered and typically have a low CEC and few nutrients, while also having high levels of reactive iron and aluminum. Kaolinitic soils tend to be very acidic, but can be remediated with biochar and mineralization. Histosols are soils which are frequently waterlogged, and as a result organic matter never fully breaks down in these soils. The minerals bound to the organic matter in histosols are never released, and the fermentation process releases large amounts of organic acids which acidify the soil considerably. Histosols are difficult to work with because they require a combination of drainage and areation to stimulate the breakdown of organic matter, opposite to the usual goal of supporting the soil ecosystem.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Global Warming vs The Current Ice Age

Nowadays it seems like the most popular thing for scientists to do is to whine about global warming. There are even 'global warming scientists' who spend all their time studying it. What people fail to notice, however, is that back in the 70s and 80s scientists were having a fit over the possibility of the return of glaciation within the current ice age (quaternary glaciation). If scientists were panicking because we might freeze, and now they're whining because it's heating up, how do you even know what to believe?

The Ice Age

Ice ages occur periodically on Earth, lasting as long as 200 million years in the most ancient events, but more recent ice ages have been shorter, lasting 40-100 million years. The current ice age is only about 2.5 million years in progress, which would suggest a minimum of 37.5 million years before it would naturally end (a very long time). During an ice age, the climate cycles between glaciations, which last 40,000-100,000 years, and warmer interglacial periods which last 10,000-30,000 years (where we are today).

During a major glaciation, giant ice sheets form and literally crush the continents. These sheets can be miles thick, and not only is the rock under them compressed like a soft mattress, but as the ice shifts around, rocks are lifted, moved, and crushed into smaller pieces, until only a fine dust remains. During a major glaciation, the earth looks something like this:
As you can see, Canada and the northeast US are buried under a mile of ice, as is the majority of northern Europe, southern South America (up to Brazil) and the east coast of Australia, which is usually the only part of the continent that gets any rain.

Ice ages are characterized by falling sea levels and dry weather. During the last glaciation, there was also continuous El NiƱo conditions as the expansive polar ice sheets disrupted oceanic currents which normally create more diverse climate conditions. Technically, the most reliable marker of an ice age is the presence of polar ice sheets, as we see over Greenland and Antarctica. During warmer phases in Earth's history, these have been ice-free most of the year and even support a considerable diversity of plant and animal life.

The 'little ice age'

In order to get a better idea of what a glaciation really means for humans, it helps to look at history, which reveals a period in which we were threatened with the onset of a full glaciation. This para-glacial period lasted from about 1300AD to about 1850AD, and is known as 'the little ice age'. Having occurred in fairly modern times, we have good records of it available, and we know that there were about three major cold spells during that time in addition to the generally cooler conditions.

During this period there were several instances of 'years without summers' which occurred over most of Europe, and at least one instance where this occurred in post-colonial New York. During these years snow covered the ground all the way through July, providing no growing season for crops and leading to famines and other catastrophes. There were also times when large glaciers (but not full ice sheets) creeped across northern Europe, crushing villages and crops into dust behind them. While glaciers do not move fast enough to pose a serious or immediate hazard to humans, they would have left people plenty of time to dread the destruction of their homes and fields, completely helpless before the unstoppable and inevitable mass.

Creeping Doom

While not much is known about the cause of glaciations, scientists generally agree that when the ice sheets begin to descend from the poles it does not take them long before they cover continents. It would only take perhaps 5-20 years from onset to the disappearance of large landmasses under a sea of white.

If such a thing were to occur today, the disaster that would ensue is unthinkable. All Canadians would be forced south into the US, as would people in the northeast as far south as New York and west including all the great lakes states. Smaller glaciers would tear through remaining croplands, destroying our food security further in addition to the reduction of usable space and water. Similar disasters would occur in Europe and South America, and food production would become nearly impossible in Australia. Once begun, the reflective white ice creates a runaway cooling process that we would have little hope of reversing. However, as the ice moves relatively slowly, we would have plenty of time to ponder how we will starve to death and lose our homes in the mean time.

What about Global Warming?

I mentioned before that ice ages are dry periods, but "global warming scientists" link warming with expansion of deserts. Historically, it's the warm periods of earth which have also seen the most rain, so what gives?

Simply stated, the relationship is reversed. The creation and expansion of deserts has been a man-made activity for a long time, not to say that all deserts are our doing. This in turn causes a loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere and an increase in local temperature as the shade and evaporative cooling of plants is removed. We do this not by dumping CO2 into the air, as they would have you believe, but rather by tillage, fertilizer and pesticide usage. As with the dust bowls, the farmers came first, then later the deserts followed.

Not all of the affected land is or was forest, either. The great plains of the US were previously open prairies, with the primary vegetation, as it evolved, being primarily grasses. These soils, which were once at much as 10-15ft deep, held considerable water and moderated the climate of that area. Bison additionally contributed to the water-retention by digging tens of millions of large wallow-holes, which acted as infiltration basins to trap rain which otherwise would have run off. Successive tillage and removal of the deep rooted grasses caused this soil to erode and disintegrate, leaving behind a desert which would no longer support plant life. Similar processes have occurred around the world wherever modern farming practices have been adopted.

An Insidious Lie

So, if glaciation was going to kill us off, or at least cause us serious pain, and global warming is the cure, then why all the fuss? Quite simply, any idiot can spout gibberish about global warming and make doomsday predictions, and any idiot global warming scientist can now find time on TV to talk about it. The real reason, however, is to encourage fascism while hiding the real truth of what is happening to our environment. While governments make up arbitrary regulations about carbon credits, push solyndras and other non-technologies, and foam at the mouth about the evils of CO2, at the same time they actively encourage the very destructive practices which are leading to an ecological disaster far greater than a little carbon could ever create. In the interests of Monsanto and other mecha-chemical-GMO-farming companies, reality is swept under the rug behind the charade of global warming.

Consider, for example, the fact that companies are regularly allowed to dump toxic waste and human sewage into the rivers (and ultimately into the oceans). Add to that all the runoff of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides and we create huge dead zones in the ocean around interfluvial zones (where the rivers meet the ocean). These zones are otherwise naturally the most productive areas of the ocean; we have literally killed off all of our best fishing and oceanic food supplies.

By tilling and poisoning our farmland, we are slowly converting it into desert, reducing the quantity and quality of farmland available. In our wake, the climate changes against our favor, making it even more difficult to reclaim this destroyed land. Just as the rainforests of Brazil were slashed to make room for sugar cane and soy production, bringing the forest to critical levels and inducing abnormally severe droughts.

In addition, we are actively encouraging severe weather disasters by destroying the wildlife which otherwise would protect us from it. Only in the last decade we saw New Orleans and New York trashed by hurricanes. While 'scientists' blame this on global warming, it is clearly other actions which caused the damage to be as severe as it was. In some of the more vulnerable areas of India, there were recently projects to plant forests along the coast and rivers. Additionally, dams were built in the rivers to catch silt and form new barrier islands. These areas were, not coincidentally, spared from any serious damage during the recent tsunamis. Compare that to the practices in the US; barrier islands/reefs off the coast are destroyed by mismanagement and poisonous waste dumping, the rivers (ignoring the stupidity of building a city on the low end of a flood plain) were reinforced with brute concrete levies to try to prove that man could stop the water with his creations (and we know how well that worked), and forests both along coasts and rivers have been clear-cut to make way for concrete jungles. Result? The hurricanes kick our ass, man.

It should be obvious by now that you can only counter the force of nature with more nature, but that is not what happens. Instead, they will demand more tax dollars to be dumped into repairing the inevitable damage, while doing absolutely nothing to prevent a recurrence of similar disasters. Rather than taking responsibility for their own stupidity, they'll just blame it on that damn carbon and continue with the status quo until the money runs out or it kills them, whichever comes first. And the Keynesians will follow behind declaring an economic golden age for all the unnecessary damage we will be required to repeatedly fix, at least while it continues to fall within our ability to repair.

Living Soil

In any agricultural system the most important factors are sun, wind, water and soil. Out of these, soil is stressed the most and is perhaps the least well understood. In organic circles, it is usually considered sufficient to input large quantities of organic matter, and this is also how most home gardeners approach things. However, soil forms a complex ecosystem of its own which includes a variety of organisms from worms and bugs down to bacteria and fungi. Additionally, the roots of plants host complex ecosystems that are distinct from bulk soil, and which can dramatically affect the health of the plants themselves. Merely digging organic matter into the soil will not support these ecosystems, and may damage them instead. Managing soil to support these ecosystems requires first understanding how they work.

The Basic Soil Cycle

All soil starts out as rock. Either through glacial action or biological and rain action the rocks are gradually broken down into finer and more chemically available silt. Given sufficient conditions, plants then colonize this silt and extract its nutrients, combining them with carbon and nitrogen from the air in order to grow. Dead plant material that falls to the ground then breaks down into humus, which binds various nutrients as well as providing carbon and nitrogen for plants and soil organisms. Humus also softens the soil and holds water, which further benefits the growth of plants.

There are three main factors which determine how a soil will evolve: the parent material, temperature and rainfall. Parent materials which are richer in mineral nutrients tend to break down into more fertile clays than mineral-poor materials such as granite. Mineral-rich parent materials also support more plant life throughout their productive lifetimes. In nature, the richest soils are called 'loess', and are formed from deposits of silt which glaciers leave in their trails, and which are then blown by wind and deposited over large areas.

Temperature and rainfall determine the growing season. This is the period during the year in which plants are able to retain green foliage, and also the period during which decomposition is able to occur. In places which are either very cold or very dry, soil evolution occurs much more slowly and soils tend to have larger particle sizes and higher mineral contents. In places which are cold and wet or in which the soil is waterlogged much of the time, organic material may be deposited faster than it decomposes, leading to soils which are relatively poor in minerals but high in organic matter. In places which are warm and wet, such as the southeast United States or the rainforests of Brazil, decomposition tends to be faster than the rate at which organic matter accumulates, and the soils tend to be weathered all out of nutrients as well as low in organic material.

The Rhizosphere

Plants by themselves cannot generally extract nutrients from silt. In order to achieve this, plants secrete sugars from their roots which feed a host of bacteria and fungi which symbiotically solubilize and collect nutrients for the roots. Only certain species of fungi and bacteria have evolved to form this type of relationship with plant roots.

The most ubiquitous inhabitants of the rhizosphere are a class of fungi called 'mycorrhiza'. Mycorrhiza form a coating around root hairs that extend fine fungal threads into the soil which increase the effective surface area of plant roots and allow them to absorb nutrients and water more effectively. The fungal coating also buffers the roots against harsh environmental conditions and provides a measure of protection against root pests. The fungal networks tend to connect together, and through them plants can trade nutrients and water with other nearby plants.

Mycorrhiza are divided into three main groups, endomycorrhiza, ectomycorrhiza and ericoid mycorrhiza. Endomycorrhiza send fungal shoots into the living plant's cell walls to increase nutrient transfer. Most herbaceous plants and grasses associate with endomycorrhiza. Ectomycorrhiza only coat plant roots without fusing with the plant's cells. Most trees as well as roses and orchids associate with ectomycorrhiza. Ericoid mycorrhiza are similar to endomycorhiza, but are more specific to plants such as blueberry, cranberry, and azaleas.

There are also a number of bacteria which have evolved to be able to live symbiotically with plant roots, either directly in contact with the roots or in the vicinity of mycorrhiza. Rhizobia, bacteria which live inside special nodules in the roots of legumes and which fix nitrogen for the plants, are the most well known of these. While rhizobia can only fix nitrogen inside legume nodules, other bacteria such as Azospirillum spp., Azotobacter spp., Bacillus Polymyxa and Klebsiella Pneumonidae can fix nitrogen while living on the outside of any plant's roots. Other bacteria have been discovered that produce a variety of benefits for their host plants, including solubilizing phosphorous and other nutrients, attacking bacterial and fungal root diseases and forming a moisture-retaining slime layer around the roots.

The use of symbiotic bacteria and fungi is very effective and can convey many different benefits to crops. Field experiments have shown increases in yield, biomass and root growth, increases in vitamin, mineral and antioxidant contents (1.5-2x on average), increased resistance to pests, diseases and drought, and with nitrogen fixing bacteria crop nitrogen requirements can be cut in half. However, standard practices of chemical fertilizer (and other chemicals) and ploughing discourage their growth and proliferation. Soluble phosphorous fertilizers inhibit the growth of mycorrhiza, while chemical nitrogen fertilizers cause rapid changes in pH which are damaging for many beneficial organisms. Ploughing physically disrupts bacterial and fungal colony structures in the soil, and repeated ploughing and chemicals kills off beneficial organisms while favoring pathological ones (thus requiring more chemicals to 'fix').

The Detritosphere

In nature, the top layers of soil tend to accumulate all sorts of dead and decomposable matter. This includes things like the manure, sheddings and carcasses of insects and animals, dead leaves and other plant parts, and whole dead plants and roots. This dead material provides food and habitat for a number of organisms including worms, woodlice, earwigs, springtails and other "crawlies" as well as bacteria and fungi which collectively recycle nutrients within an ecosystem.

As organic matter is broken down, it is mixed into the soil by the constant burrowing activities of the various "crawlies". Natural soils have an "O horizon" or "mollic horizon" which is rich in humus that is gradually mixed down in this way. Depending on soil and climate conditions, mollic horizons can vary between nonexistant and three feet in depth. "Crawlies" also carry spores of symbiotic bacteria and fungi between the roots of different plants, and destruction of their ecosystem can halt this transfer.

Ploughing destroys the structure of the mollic horizon, kills many "crawlies" with each pass, buries their food where there isn't enough oxygen to support bugs, and mixes oxygen into the soil which promotes the consumption of humus and its conversion into carbon dioxide. Ironically the crawlies that are killed by ploughing would normally mix and aereate the soil naturally free of cost and labor. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides can also kill off many or all of these beneficial organisms. Compost, which has already been broken down, also cannot provide food for these organisms and as such is not a sustainable method for building soil.


Certain minerals, particularly sulfur, can only be released from humus when it is fully broken down and converted into carbon dioxide. In most places, soil humus breaks down at an adequate or even excessive rate, and disrupting the soil is particularly damaging. However, in certain places such as the Congo and the British Isles, the soil is frequently waterlogged which prevents organic material from ever fully breaking down. In these systems, accelerating the breakdown of soil through aeration may be necessary to facilitate the release of nutrients to growing plants. 


Out of the many techniques used in permaculture, Hugelkultur is probably the most well known and most discussed. Hugelkultur is a technique developed in Austria and Germany, literally meaning "mound culture". Essentially a raised bed technique, many miraculous properties have been ascribed to it, however as with most things hugelkulture does not live up to its hype. There are specific situations where it is the technique of choice, but in order to understand when this is the case, it is necessary to understand how hugelkultur works and what it does.

How it Works

Hugelkultur is simple in theory, although labor intensive. In hugelkultur, woody material of various sizes/thicknesses is laid down into a bed-shaped pile on top of the soil, and then covered completely with dirt and planted as a raised bed. Usually the beds are stacked about 6 or 7 feet high, although they can be of any reasonable size. Greens are often added along with the wood to provide extra nutrients and nitrogen for the decomposition process. The covering of dirt speeds the decomposition of the wood, which when rotting becomes very sponge-like and holds a lot of water as well as producing heat. The rotting material also attracts large numbers of worms, which till and areate the pile and also aid in breaking down the material. As the material breaks down it settles and decreases in size until it is purely soil and much shorter than it started out. How long it takes the pile to decompose depends on the size of the wood used and on the climate, but varies from a few years to a decade.

What It Actually Does

In practice, hugelkultur is best suited for use in cold climates. If the tall piles are aligned well with the sun, they can collect heat very efficiently, and the rotting material provides additional heat from below to prevent roots from being frozen. Combined with other techniques this can significantly extend the growing season in places where the growing season is typically short.

In dry climates, the exposed piles tend to dry out very quickly compared to deep soil layers or ground water. In warm climates, wood chips mixed into the soil (but not so many that roots can't grow through) or sheet mulching both outperform hugelkulture and attract more worms and bugs. Large pieces of wood make it difficult for roots to grow through, and can actually perform worse than not doing anything at all. Combined with the large amount of labor required to construct hugelkultur piles, this makes hugelkultur an unattractive option in most circumstances.


"Permaculture" is a neologism from "permanent agriculture" or "permanent culture" which describes a system of methodology and philosophy intended to produce a sustainable, productive, efficient and ecologically sound alternative to modern culture, building techniques and industrial farming. Modern permaculture is based on the ideas of Masanobu Fukuoka, Ruth Stout, Sepp Holzer, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren amongst others, and includes many topics ranging from advanced organic farming techniques to sustainable building, sometimes including traditional and even ancient techniques whenever they are found to be useful.

While there is no single standard that constitutes "permaculture", there are many themes which are consistent between different practitioners and sects, including the philosophy of working with nature rather than against it, the use of polycultures, and the ethic of producing no "waste". Some of the best examples have produced relative agricultural miracles and even demonstrated commercial-scale production and good profitability. However, there are also a number of false or dubious ideas which are propagated as justifications for permaculture, and which only serve to harm the credibility of the field and hinder its acceptance. This has bothered me for a while, and it is because I respect the value that permaculture has to offer that I find it necessary to expose the junk that doesn't qualify.

Early Humans Were Egalitarian

The claim that all hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian is ironically often stated along with the idea that tribe leaders were absolute rulers. While both claims are false, it is at least true that all hunter-gatherer societies were egalitarian to some extent. Since the productivity of each person was so low in those societies, and since the hunt depended on a group, the survival of tribes depended on the sharing of what little excess each person could produce. There was also some trade between groups, but prior to agriculture this was very limited. In reality, social structures and customs varied considerably between different tribes, as it does today between isolated 'traditional' tribal societies. This argument has also been used against money and capitalism in general, but only demonstrates complete ignorance of how economics works and what it does for a society.

Tribe Leaders Micromanaged Their Tribes

The way I often hear this stated goes something like this: the tribe leader was the male who happened to be the best at hunting, he would lead every hunt, and the leader's instructions were absolute such that when he said 'jump' everyone jumped without question. Dead wrong. Tribal societies were never organized like a modern military, nor did the tribe leader's primary duties even have anything to do with micro decisions like hunting behavior. While the tribe leader usually was indeed a good hunter as well, early humans eating natural diets were far more intelligent than most people are today, and could easily outsmart our out-tech their prey, not to mention all but the most inexperienced of hunters would know how to cooperate with only minimal communication or leadership. In reality, the decisions the tribe leader would make would involve whether to stay in an area or whether to migrate, and if he determined that migration was necessary, he would also have to decide where they would go in search of better food sources. Undoubtedly there would be some variety in who these decisions were assigned to, but the basic structure would not differ between tribes. This was also the most important decision concerning the tribe, if the decision to migrate was not made (or made too late) and a drought (or whatever) caused the food to dry up, it could easily mean starvation and death for everyone, which necessitated a leader with good judgement.

Hunter-Gatherers Had More Free Time

The idea that hunter-gatherers had more free time than their agricultural contemporaries is dubious at best. It is true that the first agriculturalists, due to the lack of crop variety, suffered from poorer health and were shorter than their ancestors. It is also true that the first agriculturalists spent a great deal of time doing scoliosis-inducing labor grinding grain manually with a grindstone. However, it was only the agriculturalists who had the free time and excess production to create diversification of labor, philosophy, science, architecture, industry and everything else which has made humans successful as a species and which provides the quality and security of living that the developed world enjoys today. Hunter-gatherers never could have accomplished any of that, since in addition to being obligate nomads they also had to make their own clothes, bows and arrows, knives, axes, teepees and so on as well as hunt and gather. It is unlikely they even had a concept for 'free time'.

Agriculture Caused Dictatorships and War

This argument states that, with the excess production of agriculture came the need to defend the tribe's produce from enemies, and with it the rise of the warrior class and consequently a conversion from egalitarianism to dictatorships, which led to wars. Parts of this are true at least. Agriculture did indeed necessitate defense, especially since agriculturalists were sedentary as opposed to their nomadic ancestors, however humans have been killing each other and stealing each other's stuff since long before agriculture was invented. Agriculture also did lead to some dictatorships, however agriculture allowed for greater cultural diversity in general, including the development of democracies, republics and even free-trade states. Trade, rather than war, was far more common after agriculture than it was before it, if not simply because of the support for diversification of labor beyond what is possible in hunter-gatherer societies.

Hunting and Gathering is the Only Sustainable Lifestyle

This is a variation on "native americans were all perfect egalitarians and we should only be so wise as to live like they did". Supposedly, if we all just ran around in  nature hunting and gathering and threw our waste seeds around then pretty soon everything would be food and we'd have no need for supermarkets. Of course, the same people would have us believe that we should eliminate most of our population in order to support this lifestyle, although they never explain just how we should do that (russian roulette anyone?). More realistically, they're mostly covering for their own failure to produce results, since the ability to scale to commercial level production sustainably has already been demonstrated.

Agriculture Does Not Make Us Human

This argument states that while humans as a species have been around for about two million years, we've only been farming for ten-thousand years or so, and thus agriculture is not what makes us human. This argument is downright absurd, as the exact same things could be said of writing, history, art, music, architecture, science, philosophy, economics, medicine and everything else humans have ever done besides hunting and gathering. If you want to get technical, the only thing that makes humans humans is our genetic compatibility (ability to breed) with other humans, nothing more and nothing less. Of course, the line they're trying to draw is that "permaculture isn't agriculture at all", and although permaculture isn't just agriculture, by any common definition it definitely includes agricultural activities.

All Civilizations Collapse Due to Agricultural Failures

This is easy to disclaim historically. Civilizations collapse for a variety of reasons, including desertification from unsustainable agricultural practices. The Phoenicians, for example, were probably the first to widely employ contour farming and had a free-market society with immigrants from around the Mediterranean. They were felled, not by destruction of land, but by foreign invaders. Greece fell not because their agriculture failed, but because their democracy degraded into an ochlocracy and their army was in an ill trained and ill equipped state of degeneracy when the Romans invaded. Rome fell for similar reasons, after degrading from a republic to an ochlocracy, then further degrading to an imperial republic which slowly decayed into totalitarianism and eventually religious totalitarianism with various civil wars and economic destruction. The land the Romans occupied continues to be used for agriculture even today. The Soviet Union fell because their economic system was strictly unrealistic, and it fell with plenty of state vs citizen violence every step of the way. The Soviets were certainly responsible for plenty of ecological disasters, but as a direct result of their corruption and incompetence, and that was not the reason the Union fell. Of course, I'm not trying to suggest that the ecological destruction caused by modern agriculture is unimportant, just that civilizations more often fall for other reasons (like where the modern developed world is headed today).

With 'X' Technique(s), the Desert can be 'Greened'

Talk of 'greening the desert' is more dubious than false, but it depends on a number of factors. There was some talk not long ago about taking on the hyper-arid (it only rains once every couple years) areas of sub-saharan Africa, where the only greenery is tiny patches of grass that grow in the few places where water collects at the surface when it rains. With some intelligently directed work, it might be possible to turn those tiny patches of grass into larger patches of grass, but saharan Africa can never be turned into a forest that way. More realistically, it would be better to start with a regular-arid or sub-arid region nearby, where dryland techniques could achieve profound results, but of course the peoples in those areas could care less about improving their water usage since it's "good enough" for them already. Other deserts, like the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona, could very possibly support a large number of desert plants with only minor modification, and might be significantly 'greened' if surrounding sub-arid areas were improved. In general, though, it makes better sense to start with land that has more potential than to start in the middle of the desert and try to 'green it'. The advantage of permaculture is that 'marginal' land can be easily made into 'prime' land, pushing the boundary into areas that are unattractive to conventional farmers, but 'subprime' land (using financial terminology) still presents severe limitations to what can be done with it.

A Forest is the Most Productive Ecosystem

It is often claimed that a closed-canopy forest is the most productive ecosystem, and that it produces X times the amount that a monocrop field produces. Technically, plants are only able to use about 10% of full intensity sunlight, so a large portion of sunlight is wasted in single-layer single-crop systems. However, in terms of light usage and in terms of producing staple crops, a closed-canopy forest is strictly inferior to a savanna. In a closed-canopy system, trees have to compete with one another for light, and understory vegetation is scarce due to low light availability and high leaf cover. In a savanna system, trees provide wind protection and partial shade, which reduces water stress, while allowing the trees to spread out in more productive forms and leaving plenty of light for the understory vegetation. Savanna systems are also much more animal-friendly, and to date the most productive permaculture systems have been savannacultures rather than 'food forests'.

Horticulture of the United States of Pocahontas (HUSP)

HUSP is a concept which is intended to serve as a guide for permaculture design. The basic idea is to imagine what agriculture would be like if the Native Americans had maintained sovereignty of all of North America and had developed an agricultural system that respected the land and nature and everything was basically perfect, and then make your farm like that. As a design method, however, this is virtually useless. Simply figuring out what techniques and overall management is 'best' for working with and reinforcing nature is a non-trivial task that requires solving specific problems and finding solutions with solve multiple problems at once. Furthermore, in reality a large amount of land has been severely damaged by irresponsible construction practices, farming practices, chemical dumping, lead contamination and other things. Since it is impossible to reverse time and undo all of that damage, it is instead necessary to figure out how to work with damaged land as a starting point, which is far more challenging than merely imagining that everything was perfect.


As with every other field of study, permaculture is not without its share of unsubstantiated nonsense. Luckily, none of the above arguments are actually required to be true in order for permaculture to work, but when considering the structure of something like a sustainable community these kinds of broader arguments do arise and are very important. Over the next few articles, I hope to cover permaculture topics in more depth and demonstrate how permaculture can work really well for making organic farming both sustainable and profitable.

Cracked Agricultural Pots

Well, the holidays have been rather brutal, but I assure everyone that I am still alive! At this point I'm basically assuming that Jay Earley isn't going to get back to me. I guess he's too busy polishing the frame he keeps his PhD in. However, I did find some other interesting stuff that answered some of my questions anyway. I went back and updated several of the articles accordingly. I've also had a chance to try a few of the clips from, which I wrote a brief blurb about in that article.

As you might have guessed, today's topic is the source of some of the agricultural nonsense that I've so far had the misfortune of being informed of. The utter horse excrement that people are willing to believe and spread around never ceases to amaze me. Don your tinfoil hats and grab some popcorn, it's a zodiac deathmatch.

Rudolf Steiner

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was a polymath crackpot extraordinaire. He sought to unify science and mysticism (think astrology meets luminiferous aether) and in spite of his abominable architechture he went on to found Waldorf education, Biodynamic farming and a woo-woo hippy dance which he called "eurythmy" and tried to promote as an art form. He was also a crackpot philosopher. He founded a school of thought which he called "Anthroposophy" based on the idea that there is a real, tangible spirit world which can be directly perceived with the brain. According to his epistemology, "ideas" are real things floating around in this spirit world, which the brain perceives just like ears hear sound and eyes see light (an idea he borowed from Theosophy). The rest of "anthrosophy" strongly resembles accounts of past life/interlife regressions in hypnosis, which is interesting but crackpottery of a different sort.

While Mr. Steiner presents enough crackpottery for a whole series of articles, we're primarily concerned with Biodynamic Farming here. Becoming a biodynamic farmer requires going through a process (of paying) which is highly reminiscent of Scientology, with paid memberships, secret meetings and special koolaid. Biodynamics itself is like a collection of every old wives tale ever told about gardening, along with some pseudoscientific gibberish which uniquely belongs to Mr. Steiner (and for which there are many expensive books).

Probably one of the core practices of BD is planting by the moon signs. Of course, you also have to account for the planets and zodiac signs, and there are several different and conflicting calendars used by different people, but nevermind that. Failing moon plantings, BD has a huge and dogmatic list of herbal concoctions used for everything from making compost to warding off evil spirits.

Of course, there is a special procedure for making these potions. The water must be swirled counterclockwise in order to absorb aether properly (unless you live in the southern hemisphere), and you should only use copper or bronze, since iron and steel interfere with the paramagnetic energy. The same applies to shovels and other gardening tools, although you may end up paying several times as much for the unusual (and impractical) metals.

There are, of course, many other BD practices, such as waiting until tomatoes fall off in your hand before picking them (they rot first) and sending "spirit energy" at the plants to make them grow. I'm trying to keep this finite, however.

Carey Reams

Carey Reams (1904-1987) was a more modern crackpot who seems to have tried his best to trump Rudolf Steiner. Reams claimed to have 6 PhDs, including some sort of medical degree. He was arrested in 1976 for practicing medicine without a license and convicted as such. Apparently, he liked to recommend that people eat kelp as a treatment for cancer and things of that nature.

His crowning "achievement" came in 1931, when, during a period of prayer and fasting, Jesus came to him and gave him a random list of numbers which he claimed was the formula to perfect health. These were sugar brix (1.5), urine pH (6.4), saliva pH (6.4), conductivity (7), cell debris (1), nitrate nitrogen (3) and ammonia nitrogen (3).

In order to justify his arbitrary numbers, he came up with his very own theory of physics. While he used a lot of familiar terminology, he was careful to make sure that none of his meanings corresponded to anything in real science. To him, "anion" and "cation" refer to the direction of electron orbit, carrying between them "paramagnetic energy", which is reduced by pH (resistance).

I won't say much more about Carey, since I'm already practically copying the skeptic's dictionary page, but I will add that while I'm not sure that it has much relevance to his original ideas, there are people today who use sugar brix as a measure of nutritional content in food even though brix is mainly genetic and has no direct relationship to vitamin or mineral content. Supposedly Reams was the source of this non-revelation.

John Jeavons

John Jeavons gets an honorable mention for his "Biointensive" system. He borrows a lot of concepts from others, then claims that you have to use his system exactly or else it won't work. Aside from only considering veganism to be sustainable, his methods involve a yearly double-digging in of new compost (which you have to buy) along with frequent fallow periods which waste a great deal of available space. Unlike the wackos listed above, Jeavons actually does incorporate some useful things, such as intercropping and succession planting in order to get more frequent harvests, but overall his method makes you a slave to your garden and isn't nearly as sustainable as he claims.

Health, and Why We Don't Have Any (Part 2)

Previously, I discussed Weston Price and his work with native groups around the world and what he found. I mentioned that around that same time, one of the first soil scientists by the name of William Albrecht was coming to similar conclusions back in the states.

Dr. Albrecht worked frequently with beef and dairy ranchers to try to figure out why birth rates were falling and why healthy cattle were seemingly disappearing. He found that the cows already instinctively knew what was wrong - the soil under them was becoming depleted, starving them of the vitamins and minerals which they needed to survive and reproduce in a healthy fashion. Over many experiments, he found that cattle could tell the difference between plants grown on soil that had been fertilized and plants grown on depleted soil, and showed a clear preference for the former.

As it is today, the only mineral nutrients which were considered important for plant growth in his time were Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium. Lime (calcium) was only considered as useful to raise the soil pH, and not as a nutrient in and of itself, and magnesium (as dolomite) was only valued because it raised pH more than regular lime. Even beyond that, it's now common knowledge that animals require a much greater diversity of minerals in order to be healthy. Cobalt, selenium, iron, copper, manganese, and so on can be found today in multivitamins in recognition of that fact, and yet even today farmers do not add these things to their soils. In fact, they take the same attitude even towards lime that they did in the 30s.

In his work, Dr. Albrecht often looked at data for various diseases correlated to regions in the US. He found that in the midwest, where moderate precipitation and glacial till had allowed soil fertility to build to a high degree, all diseases were found at lower rates compared to the rest of the country. Dental caries, cancer, heart disease and so on were all reduced in the areas where the soil had a high mineral content, and much higher on the humid east coast where the soils have been leached completely.

Back then he was complaining that exploitative farming techniques had caused reduced the mineral content of the midwestern soils by around 50% compared to 50 years prior. Today, even the USDA admits that since the 1950s the mineral contents of food produced in the US have fallen in half yet again. This bodes poorly for our health.

Besides mineral nutrients, Dr. Albrecht also made some important observations regarding soil humus. He noted that plants grew significantly better in humus than they did from sterile, chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Further experiments revealed that plants will utilize fully formed amino acids and proteins from the soil whenever possible, and from humus often partly formed amino acids. These forms require far less energy to convert into protein than does manufacturing it from nitrates, since the work is already "half done". He did several experiments involving cats and pasteurized vs raw milk, and found that not only did the pasteurized milk cause sterility in the cats, but the proteins in the milk passed through virtually unchanged. Weeds did not grow in the poo from the cats fed pasteurized milk, but grew without encouragement from the poo of the wholemilk group. When peas were grown on the pasteurized poo, they not only grew different in form, but they also took on the flavor of the poo, demonstrating that not only couldn't microbes break down the denatured proteins, but the plants absorbed them completely (or at least mostly) unmodified.

 (Top: pasteurized milk poo Bottom: raw milk poo)

Dr. Albrecht recognized the problems inherent in removing all crop residues from the field post harvest. Back then, as today, it was customary to sell the residues (particularly of corn) as silage for cattle. He noted that the loss of topsoil resulting from selling residues and repeated tillage had greatly reduced the ability of the soils to hold water, and to provide adequate nitrogen in available forms.

Likewise, animals cannot use minerals in their mineral forms. We require them combined into proteins: thiamine with sulfur, vitamin B12 for cobalt, and so on. We, and other animals, can't simply eat minerals off a salt block and derive benefit from them. In that respect cows have more capability, but it is still to their disadvantage compared to plant-processed forms.

One other thing that was notable about Dr. Albrecht is that he was probably the first person to recognize the importance of microbes in plant growth and health. It wasn't until about 30 years later that scientists began experimenting with mycorrhiza and plant growth promoting bacteria. Today we know that they can dramatically improve plant growth and yield, as well as nutrient content, disease and drought resistance.  In many poorer countries they are used instead of chemical fertilizer with good results.

Obviously, it is in our interest both to mineralize our soils and to grow our food in such a way as to maximize the mineral content, and soil retention of minerals. I'll be discussing these techniques further in future articles, and also discuss some of what does not work.

Further reading:
"Soil Fertility and Animal Health" by William Albrecht (free pdf)