The Farm as Ecosystem: Tapping Nature’s Reservoir – Biology, Geology, Diversity

reviewed by Julie Rawson

This book is hot off the press. I am a person who regularly devours Jerry’s articles in Acres, USA because they are so information-packed, so positive spirited, so thoroughly researched, and always based in the practical on-farm application. Brunetti’s writing (and public speaking) is always something to be sought out by anyone who is involved with grass-based agriculture. This book goes one step further in that it is relevant for the vegetable grower, also.

Each of the 13 chapters takes a topic and discusses it at length including some deep scientific facts, some anecdotes about leaders in that particular area of science or its agricultural application, and some recipes for successful farm or garden management regarding that topic. Throughout there are recommendations for further research on any topic that piques the reader’s interest. The chapters are titled as follows – Soil as Supraorganism, The Mineral Nature of Soil, Trace Elements, The Biological Nature of Soil, Compost and Compost Tea, Foliar Nutrition, The Eternal Earthworm, Water: A Medium for Metamorphosis, System Acquired and Induced Systemic Resistance, Our Precious Pollinators and Predators, Cover Crops, The Tools of the Trade, and Back to the Future: a Permanent Agriculture.

There is way too much here to try to summarize, so let me just give you a couple of tastes.

Foliar nutrition is the subject of chapter 6. According to Brunetti, there are 5 primary advantages to foliar feeding;
enables rapid and efficient uptake of nutrients
provides nutrients in problem soils where there is limited biology, inhibiting the uptake of soil nutrients into the plant
minimizes the stress of weather extremes
incites Induced Activated Resistance – which is a grower’s way to stimulate a protective response in the plant
manipulates the metabolism of plants so that the growth or vegetative phase can be morphed into a reproductive phase when desired.

Cracks in the cuticle of the plant leaf, and also stomata, which are open in the cooler times of the day, are the entry points for foliar nutrition. This chapter discusses, along with leaf anatomy, timing for foliars (of the day and in the plant’s life), necessary physical characteristics of a successful mix, temperature parameters, and appropriate equipment to be used. Sticking agents and solution pH (finished tank between 5.0 and 6.0) are considerations to manage. Seaweed extracts, humic and fulvic acid, sea crop (a sea water product that has had most of the NaCl removed), blackstrap molasses and fish hydrolates are all components favored by the author.
I became a foliar fanatic about 4 years ago. Though I have been using mixes of commercially formulated fertility products, along with trace minerals, to good success, I have been on the search for the perfect homemade foliar spray. I think I found it here and will be using it regularly this summer. It features one of my favorite bio-accumulator plants, which I have growing all over our farm. It is comfrey.

cutaway leaf“Comfrey tea foliar can be produced by harvesting about twenty pounds of fresh leaves per 55 gallons of water. Add 10 pounds of compost or worm castings, 4 ounces of Epsom salts, 10 lbs of molasses, one ounce of sea salt and five gallons of milk. Let this all ferment in a vented container, stirring and shaking at least every couple of days for 3 weeks. Comfrey is very high in nitrogen because it is 25 percent or more protein. It’s loaded with macro and micro-nutrients as well as polysaccharides (long chain sugars) as a source of carbon. Strain and use as a soil drench or foliar at 3 to 4 ounces per gallon of water or 2-3% dilution.”

The lowly earthworm is the subject of Chapter 7. For good reason, Jerry has incredible respect and love for these creatures which he characterizes as a kind of hybrid between a chicken and a cow which sometimes acts like a “whale in the soil.”

Already convinced of their incredible capability to improve fertility, manage soil air and water, and build organic matter, in this chapter I was most interested in how to successfully increase the number of earthworms in a shovelful of dirt. Earthworms need an aerobic, cool, moist environment with adequate organic materials to flourish. They prefer soils with a pH between 5.5 and 8.5, and that has adequate calcium levels. That element is necessary for the mucus secretions of their calciferous gland. Direct contact with ammonia fertilizers (including slurry manure), insecticides, and tillage are hazardous to earthworms. A healthy soil food web that includes good numbers of protozoa will attract a strong earthworm population. Using alfalfa products as mulches, in compost teas, and as soil amendments will attract the protozoa that feed the worms.

An interesting fact that I learned in this chapter was that Charles Darwin studied earthworms for 39 years and published an important work on them in 1881. No scientist prior to Darwin had taken such an interest in earthworms, and many believed them to be vegetable pests that attacked plant roots as do parasitic nematodes.

Jerry’s love of earthworms is summed up in his closing words in this chapter – “…earthworms may provide answers for many of our challenges associated with topsoil conservation, feeding the hungry, recycling all of our biological wastes, preserving our watersheds, decontaminating toxins, restoring damaged landscapes, and providing a low cost feed for poultry (worms are rich in quality amino acids, fats, vitamins, and minerals). And there’s even the potential for cottage industries that can sell fish worms, compost worms, worm castings, and vermitea. Long live the earthworm.”

This tome is a textbook, a storybook, a practical how-to manual, and an inspiring call to action all in one wrapper. Jerry’s love of science, nature, farming, and humankind is a constant throughout the book. That enthusiasm kept me going until the end. Even during those periods where it got too “deep” for me to understand, I could always count on a return to practicality and lessons for me to put into place on our farm in 2014.