John Kempf is leading a counterrevolution against chemical-based farming. The founder of Advancing Eco Agriculture, Kempf has already accomplished more to improve organic agriculture than entire research teams of large corporations. And, he’s only 26 years old.
Kempf is an Amish farmer from the American Midwest. As writer Roc Morin reveals in an intriguing profile in this month’s Atlantic, his incredible discoveries are rooted in hard experience wrung from the land, plus a dynamic curiosity:
“A series of crop failures on his own farm drove the 8th grade-educated Kempf to school himself in the sciences. For two years, he pored over research in biology, chemistry, and agronomy in pursuit of a way to save his fields. The breakthrough came from the study of plant immune systems which, in healthy plants, produce an array of compounds that are toxic to intruders. ‘The immune response in plants is dependent on well-balanced nutrition,’ Kempf concluded, ‘in much the same way as our own immune system.’ Modern agriculture uses fertilizer specifically to increase yields, he added, with little awareness of the nutritional needs of other organic functions. Through plant sap analysis, Kempf has been able to discover deficiencies in important trace minerals which he can then introduce into the soil. With plants able to defend themselves, pesticides can be avoided, allowing the natural predators of pests to flourish.”
Kempf is taking organic farming beyond a by-the-book approach that focuses on checking all the right boxes on an organic certificate. As he tells Morin, “Organic certification is a negative-process certification. You can do nothing to your field and become certified. In contrast, we focus on actively restoring the balance found in natural systems.”
The young farmer enjoys analyzing minute details of agricultural processes, digging deep to understand what is really going on in the soil. An example of that is a discussion of crop rotation that he recently posted on his Web site, www.advancingecoag.com:
“When farming the same land year after year, it is important to understand crop succession and the carryover effects that plants contribute to the soil for future crops.
“Some of the well known benefits are nitrogen fixation and nutrient retention. If we focus only on these benefits we miss some other critical pieces. There can be many potential crop carryover effects, ranging from improved soil aggregation to improved trace mineral availability.
“We expect a yield increase when we plant corn after soybeans, which we attribute to nitrogen carryover from the prior legume crop.
“But why is there a yield bump on soybeans planted after corn?
“Why is wheat resistant to [the plant disease] take-all for multiple seasons after a single planting of oats?
“Both corn and oats produce a strongly reduced environment in the rhizosphere surrounding their root systems; oats very aggressively so.
“In this environment, trace minerals, particularly manganese, are converted to the reduced form (Mn+++) which is the form plants can utilize very readily. Manganese in the oxidized state (Mn++) is not bioavailable, and does not contribute to plant health and immunity.
“When soybeans are planted after corn, they benefit from the reduced soil environment generated by the corn root system, and have access to better manganese nutrition, resulting in improved reproduction and better yields.
“When successive wheat crops are planted after a single planting of oats, they have access to higher levels of manganese and other trace elements, resulting in improved resistance to take-all.”
Kempf’s guiding philosophy is simple and elegant: “Farmers choose to farm because of a sense of responsibility to their families — and to all families,” he writes. “Farmers desire to work closely with life and living processes. Unfortunately, we have adopted a model of agriculture which directly antagonizes the core values that originally attracted us to the ethics of farming. We have replaced nurturing empathy with a warfare mentality — a combat mindset in which we are fighting diseases, killing insects, and destroying weeds. …
“We have proven there is a better way.”
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