"The soil is, as a matter of fact, full of live organisms. It is essential to conceive of it as something pulsating with life, not as a dead or inert mass."
- Albert Howard, The Soil and Health, 1947
MOF&G Cover Fall 2010


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 Letters – Fall 2010 Minimize

Believes in Cows, by
Robert Karl Skoglund
Deer Forsake All for Sunflowers, by Amanda Russell
Can You Change Soil Microbial Communities? by Jon Dyer
Will Brinton Responds
Disappointed in Meat Article, by Alice Percy
No GMO Potatoes for Plastics, by Jody Spear

Believes in Cows

To the editor:

Thanks for Joann Grohman’s cow article in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener (June-Aug. 2010).
I believe in cows. Cows have been legislated out of existence in Maine by the dairy conglomerates. Seventy years ago there were a lot of cows in St. George. I remember when our local milkman was legislated out of business.
In Holland, where small farms are still viable, many people have one or two cows. 
Although you could keep a cow here, it entails a lot of suffering, and you have to be tough, dedicated and perhaps both to get through a Maine winter with a milker and half a dozen steers. I’ve done it, so I know.
Give Joann Grohman my best. She is a hero.
Robert Karl Skoglund, The humble Farmer
St. George, Maine


Deer Forsake All for Sunflowers


I have always wanted to write my guaranteed-best-selling book about keeping deer out of the garden, but the length of it was so short it was silly. Here’s my book in its entirety: “To keep deer from eating all the good things in your garden, plant sunflowers.” That’s it. Isn’t it silly?

I have had deer stand in a sea of mature lettuce as they strip the sunflowers of their leaves. They’ve stepped on bush beans and stood beside pea vines as they devour the leaves of nearby sunflower stalks. They don’t touch the really good stuff! Really! Some years I’ve worried about not having let enough sunflowers self-seed all over the garden to protect the crops. Some years, I even plant sunflowers.

It works! Try it!

Amanda Russell, Edgecomb, Maine

P.S. That book is still on hold, by the way, because it’s too silly to even attempt a pitch to a publisher. The writer takes no responsibility for attracting deer when planting sunflowers!


Can You Change Soil Microbial Communities?

To the editor:

I read and enjoyed the article on Soil Microbial Activity in the June-Aug. 2010 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener and had a couple of comments. There is evidence that inoculating seeds with small quantities of beneficial microbes (Bacillus subtilis, etc.) can protect them against specific pathogens, such as Pythium.

Studies show that in these cases the biocontrol agent is "spermosphere and rhizosphere competent.”  According to studies at Cornell University, this means that the microbes can grow well and can effectively colonize the belowground parts of the plant as it develops.  If those species are present in a compost tea extract, then I assume the tea would be a source of this biocontrol agent.

Now we get to my passion … vermicompost. University and private research is being done to see if a potting media amendment (such as vermicompost) can affect the rhizosphere microbial community for the life of the plant...long after it has been transplanted to field soil. Currently researchers cannot document whether the treatment difference observed is due to original microbes from the amendment colonizing the rhizosphere, or to the original colonizers from indigenous soil microbiota.

I have actually done counts in my laboratory where composts have 108 to 109 bacteria/g dry weight, and extracts can have 108 bacteria/ml, so I'm not sure why the addition of the tea extract wouldn't change the overall soil community. The only difference with the extract is the lack of organic matter.

Anyway, very good article, and it may be that worm tea extract would work best in "sterile" environments (nurseries, greenhouses, etc.) where there is no indigenous flora but there could be a pathogen-prone environment.


Jon Dyer, Black Gold Vermiculture & Research
Belgrade Lakes, Maine


Will Brinton Responds

Hi Jon,

Thanks very much for your comments regarding my contribution in The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener.

I do agree that compost tea can have counts of 108 or even higher – up to 1010. Yet, I think you are overlooking factors in how you are doing the math. You cannot have two objects occupying the same space. Therefore, IF you could saturate every square centimeter of soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches with your tea (that’s a flood), the soil’s capability to absorb and hold it still is only 5 to 10 percent of it (unless the soil is already bone dry, in which case it'll hold 20 percent). That is automatically as much as a 20-fold dilution right there. What if the food source in the soil supports only a 108 population anyway? Something has to give. I believe a significant quantity of the added microbes would perish within the first few hours and the rest would probably (we hope, since this maintains ecological stability of the soil) be overcome by indigenous soil microbes, which are much better equipped to live where they are. If by chance you have discovered an available empty niche (I have a hard time believing nature leaves available niches anywhere but under severely stressed conditions), then the introduced organisms may survive.

I know many of the examples of successful introductions and even the use of hypovirulent strains of organisms to reduce pathogen pressure such as in grain fungal mycotoxins. In some cases a niche is being opened, sometimes by using a nearly identical organism to "substitute" into that niche. These are, however, carefully designed introductions. In the case of soil, we really don't have a design. In growing media such as peat, successful introductions are being made and commercially successful with Trichoderma and other organisms (e.g. Root-Shield®) that colonize the uncolonized peat. Also, compost teas do work to colonize the phyllosphere (leaf surface) of plants, which is the basis of the original innovation that came out of Germany, i.e., we know that it can work. Steve Sheuerell's work in Oregon (now in Washington) has also shown that some root-dip teas successfully colonize seedlings, helping protect them from damping off. (This is my favorite and most trusted strategy with composts.)

For compost applications to farm soil, I do my calculation quantitatively, where you must take into account the solids dilution. Ten tons of high microbe compost per acre is a two-order or higher magnitude dilution. With survival and other factors, that really makes it hard for the organisms to populate the situation. This is usually a good thing: So much E. coli is present in manures, and E. coli is capable of living in temperate moist environments, yet the indigenous soil-borne groups just smash them down over about 100 days. The great thing is then that the organic matter from the compost remains to add food sources to the indigenous microbes.

I think you would have to argue that you have fundamentally novel and superior strains (or overwhelming environmental odds in your favor, as in the examples above) to report successful introduction.

None of this means the practice you and others propose is not great, and I would not still be in this field if I did not think so. Microbially mediated nutrients could be more important than we believe, and antibiotic substances and plasmids that they can shed and "communicate" to other microbes "carry on their mission" even when they perish (unfortunately, too, with genetic manipulated organisms).

Another tantalizing reason that I think I am right about this "holistic system response" dampening the effect of introductions is that molecular biologists are telling me that even with successful GMOs, the genetic content is being altered, diluted or inactivated over time and successive generations, which shows that the cell itself is acting to control, compromise or reduce the introduction – assuring the primacy of the whole organism as distinct from the part.

Anyway, I think probably we are mostly in agreement. Keep up the great work.

Will Brinton, Woods End Lab
Mount Vernon, Maine


Disappointed in Meat Article

Dear MOF&G,

If I had encountered the article “Maine’s Growing Meat Sector” in my daily newspaper, I would have been elated. I was less than pleased, however, to find it in The MOF&G. Why? Out of the seven livestock farms highlighted in the article, only one was certified organic.

As a certified organic livestock producer, I constantly battle the widespread misconception among consumers that “natural” meat is just as “good” (in terms of animal welfare and environmental sustainability) as organic meat, but a whole lot cheaper. Why would consumers pay for my organic sausages when they can get “practically the same thing” for two-thirds the price?

In fact, natural and organic meats are generally not the same thing at all. The USDA National Organic Program requirement that organic animals be fed organic feedstuffs represents a huge difference in the environmental impact of natural and organic meats. While the insecticides and herbicides used to grow the conventional grain fed to conventional and “natural” livestock may not directly taint your diet, they endanger the people living where the grain is raised, and they certainly taint the water and soil that we pass down to our children. Pesticides are far less likely to play a role in the growing of conventional forages, but the use of synthetic fertilizers on these crops is common, and these too harm soil and water quality.

Secondly, organic certification offers third-party verification to the consumer that the meat producer has followed a certain basic set of practices – outdoor access, no overcrowding, no antibiotics or other synthetic drugs. While no one-size-fits-all set of rules can guarantee that a farmer’s practices are everything they should be, the inspection process of organic certification offers a much better guarantee to the consumer than self-advertisement of unverified claims. I know of a few local labels of natural meat that imply standards of sustainability and welfare far beyond what is actually provided.

Discussing these differences is always a sensitive subject. I absolutely do not mean to censure the producers mentioned in the article. I know several of these farms first-hand, I admire their devotion to good animal husbandry and consider their meats infinitely preferable to the products of factory-style animal farming. On the other hand, I have spent a lot of time and money to develop a workable model of organic livestock husbandry and to earn my organic certification. There are at least three dozen farms in Maine that have done the same that would have been suitable subjects for this article. I believe strongly in the importance of the practices I use that qualify my farm as organic, and I would appreciate MOFGA’s help in educating consumers and retailers about the importance of buying organic meat.


Alice Percy
Treble Ridge Farm, Whitefield, Maine

Ed. Note: To search for certified organic meats raised by Maine growers, please visit www.mainefoods.net/mofga/certitem.php. For help with sourcing or selling Maine organic meat, please contact MOFGA’s organic marketing coordinator, Melissa White Pillsbury, at 568-4142 or Melissa@mofga.org.


No GMO Potatoes for Plastics

To the Editor:

Thank you for alerting readers that the European Commission has approved the new Amflora GM potato, engineered by BASF for industrial starch production (The MOF&G, June-Aug. 2010). This is a development to watch closely in Maine, since a new consortium plans to ferment potato starch to make a plastic resin (polylactic acid, or PLA) as a green alternative to petrochemical polymers. The Sustainable Bioplastics Council of Maine (SBCM) includes partners such as the Maine Potato Board and Aroostook Starch Co. that may or may not be willing to reject GM feedstocks.  
A MaineBiz story (March 18, 2010) about funding the potato-plastics enterprise relates that one manufacturer involved (Interface Fabrics, now True Textiles) wants "eventually" to move away from reliance on GM crops. The industry is to be applauded for good intentions, but the Amflora potato introduction in Europe signals a trend that cannot be reversed, and it should be blocked before it becomes entrenched in U.S. business practice. So often we are in the awkward position of objecting after the damage is done. Let's get out in front this time.
Part of the problem lies in guidelines issued for "sustainability" criteria (likely to be followed by SBCM) that sanction use of GMOs for PLA if offsets are part of the deal, matching GMO PLA production to an equivalent purchase of non-GMO feedstock.  Unlike scientists at the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, who define environmentally sustainable plastics as "manufactured from renewable raw materials and energy (without the use of GMOs)," "green" chemists and their promoters maintain that compromise is necessary to market bioplastics and that the risks of GM crops can be managed. Intent on using whatever modification will simplify the process, they demonstrate a collective blind spot in failing to acknowledge the gravity of biotechnology's risks. 

SBCM's effort to remove the most dangerous plastics from consumer products is commendable. But industry pressure to get a foot in the door for biotech must be countered by specific demands from the grass roots. I encourage others who see a red flag in the advent of Amflora to urge environmental policy leaders in this collaboration – both the Environmental Health Strategy Center and MOFGA – to hold to strict standards for crops used in bioplastics production. If you believe that organic and biotech crops cannot coexist and that agriculture in Maine needs to be diversified and appropriately scaled, you must conclude that the BASF and other GM potatoes do not belong here.  
Jody Spear, Harborside



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