A Farmer’s Look at Nitrogen

I’ve been a farmer all my life and an organic farmer for more than thirty years. Agriculture is as much about routine as it is about knowledge and innovation. Maybe it’s just the molecular biologist in me, but in my opinion, a farmer who simply goes through the motions of seeding and harvest and everyday maintenance is missing the opportunity to learn about his land and take advantage of its potential. So if you look out the window at your fields or your garden, what do you see? Do you see dirt and plants and bugs? Or do you see a healthy, nutrient-hardy soil and the ecosystem it supports? Let’s get specific, what is it that makes a healthy, nutrient-hardy soil? There are probably as many answers to that as the climates they flourish in. So more specific, what makes those answers successful? Nitrogen.

Nitrogen plays an enormous and necessary part in both agriculture and in life. Basic organic practices make use of nature’s methods in producing nitrogen, such as diversified crop rotations which especially include legumes and pulse crops rather than applying expensive, synthetic, and often questionable, additives.

But what is nitrogen? Why is it so important? At the risk of sounding like your sixth-grade science teacher, nitrogen is an element essential in creating a number of plant-necessities, including proteins, which are one of the building blocks of life. But nitrogen by itself doesn’t do much; it requires other elements—like oxygen and hydrogen—to become accessible to the plants in your garden, as ammonium and nitrates. Whether you’re a hobby gardener or a fourth-generation farmer like me, these are two words you’ve likely heard before. They show up in most every type of fertilizer and, organically, can be developed using animal manure, compost or legumes.

For those more familiar with chemical fertilizers, legumes may appear out of place in this list of nitrogen fertilizer options, so let me explain. Legumes are often used in organic crop rotations—they are in ours—because legumes have the distinct ability to interact with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and create nodules of nitrogen on the roots that the plants can use. So the bacteria fixes nitrogen for the plant and the plant provides an environment for the bacteria in a classic symbiotic relationship between organisms. This is the reason we grow both spring and winter peas, clover, alfalfa and sometimes lentils here on the farm and till them into the soil to provide for the continued development and availability of nitrogen for the next crop.

The fixed nitrogen, in the form of nitrates, are the most active and useful for plants. Nitrates combine with other chemicals within the plant to produce things like enzymes, chlorophyll and proteins. Some of these proteins become part of the stored proteins in grain, which is why nitrogen is particularly important on our farm with our high-protein KAMUT® wheat.

With a better understanding of nitrogen’s vital role in agriculture, it’s important to know that a very large percentage of the nitrogen in the soil is lost. Nitrogen can be lost from the soil in several ways, such as, immobilization, which is when nitrogen is tied up by microorganisms in the soil or plant material. It is also very soluble in water and can be carried out of the soil by leaching or flooding. For these reasons, we keep a close eye on our soil’s nitrogen levels and adjust our crop rotations as necessary to accommodate.

The continual opportunity to learn, both how to adapt and improve, is one of countless reasons my conversion to organic was both on the farm and in my life as a whole. Organic farming encourages more than just cultivating crops, it encourages understanding, invention and education.

Smashed Twice-Cooked Potatoes with Leeks and Green Garlic

Summer will be here before we know it and we’re already harvesting tasty vegetables from the garden. But we still have what’s left of last year’s harvest to enjoy as well, particularly our potatoes. Our Yukon Gold potatoes were extremely popular this winter and we’re down to the last few pounds. And what better way to use them then a tasty new vegetable dish? Give it a try, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this flavorful recipe as much as I did!

2 1/2 pounds medium Yukon Gold potatoes
1/3 cup The Oil Barn® safflower oil (can also use olive oil)
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 leeks, dark-green parts discarded, cut into 1-inch pieces
4 green garlic bulbs, white and pale-green parts only (you can also use 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced)
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Steam potatoes in a steamer basket in a covered pot filled with 2” water until tender, 15-20 minutes. Transfer potatoes to a plate; let cool. Press with your hand to flatten until skins split and some flesh is exposed (a few may fall apart).

Heat half of 1/3 cup oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Add half of potatoes; season with salt and pepper. Cook, tossing occasionally, until potatoes start to brown, 8-10 minutes.

Add half of leeks and garlic; cook, tossing, until potatoes are brown and crisp and leeks are golden and soft, about 4 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl. Repeat with remaining oil, potatoes, leeks, and garlic.

Add lemon zest and juice to potatoes and toss well; season with salt and pepper.

Serve drizzled with more safflower oil.

Photograph by Christopher Testani

The Truth About GMO’s: A Continued Search for Answers

As a long-time organic farmer, it should be no surprise my thoughts regarding GMO’s are decidedly negative. As a scientist myself, genetically modified foods just leave too many questions unanswered. Such as, what are they doing to our soils and environment?

I see many GMO crops that are “Roundup ready,” meaning that they’re resistant to glyphosate so glyphosate can be sprayed on them to kill weeds without harming the crop. But increased applications of Roundup are contaminating our soils, our rivers and now even our rain water. I see herbicide-resistant super weeds, which require more and more chemicals to control. And I see Bt-crops—which have the toxin from the Bt bacteria inserted into the plant to kill insects—producing Bt-resistant insects. In the past, Bt was an effective, and organic, insect regulator but is now quickly becoming insufficient to combat the increasing number of Bt-resistant insects.

Environment and soil contamination concerns aside, the biggest and most important question is: What are GMO’s doing to our body when we eat them? In all my years as an organic farmer and advocate for sustainable, organic agriculture, Monsanto has never once published a single peer-reviewed article demonstrating that GMO’s are healthy or even safe to eat. They have, instead, focused on discrediting and destroying the careers of any scientist publishing research that questions the safety of GMO consumption. They have carefully avoided labeling initiatives and cleverly disconnected the right of ownership so that if anything goes wrong with GMO’s, they are not responsible for the damages.

Despite the lack of credible answers to these very important questions, Monsanto has reassured us that GMO crops are essentially no different than non-GMO crops. Recent studies coming out of the UK, however, are offering more proof that there are, in fact, significant differences and not all of them are benign.

Dr. Michael Antoniou, Head of the Gene Expression and Therapy Group at King’s College London, recently published an in-depth, molecular comparison of genetically modified corn to a non-GMO counterpart. Not surprising, the comparison produced results that were very different from Monsanto’s reassurances.

In the US, genetically modified foods have undergone testing to “prove” they are the same as their non-GMO equivalents. However, the tests done to achieve these results are little more than a basic nutritional analysis. Dr. Antoniou’s study utilized state-of-the-art molecular profiling and successfully proved just how wrong the “equality” claim really is.

More than 200 differences were discovered in Dr. Antoniou’s study between the genetically modified corn and its non-GMO counterpart. So what does that mean? Well, at least two of these differences can be toxic, which should be a concern for everyone. But it also calls the government’s approval process into question regarding the safety of genetically modified foods in general.

I don’t really know if it’s possible to taste the difference between GMO foods and non-GMO foods but I am not interested in being the guinea pig, either. And I would wholeheartedly support more published, peer-reviewed studies that take a closer look at the potential health risks of GMO’s.

For Dr. Antoniou’s published study, visit NK603 GM Corn Analysis.

Folks on the Farm: Randy Edwards

Tell us a little about yourself.

I grew up in a small town named Carey, Idaho. After graduating high school, I drove trucks for six years before jumping into manufacturing bronze hardware, during which I met my wife, Jocelyn. Just before moving to Fairfield, Idaho, we had our only daughter, Amaya, where I had the opportunity to travel the world laying pipe. But I got tired of being away from my family so when my childhood friend Thomas gave me a call and said, “I need you to come to Big Sandy and check out a job.” I couldn’t say no.

What is your position here in Big Sandy, Montana?

I am the new Production Manager for Big Sandy Organics and, just as it sounds, it’s my job to make and ship these delicious Kracklin’ Kamut® snacks as well as maintain the manufacturing process. With increased sales and a number of recent production changes, it’s been busy.

How long have you worked with Bob?

I started working here in Big Sandy late January this year, though my family and I didn’t officially make the move from Idaho until March. Before then there were a lot of road trips back and forth.

How did you become aware of Bob Quinn?

I met Bob in November last year when the General Manager of Big Sandy Organics and a good friend of mine, Thomas Dilworth, set me up with an interview.

What’s your favorite part of your job so far?

I work with some great people and, especially now that we’ve made the move to Big Sandy, it’s been nice to be home and with family more often. And I really like Big Sandy, Montana in general.

What sort of changes or additions would you like to make in your current position, and why?

I’ve only been here a couple months, so I’m still getting a feel for what needs to be done. And with all the new changes and expansions, it’s definitely keeping me on my toes.

What goals do you hope to help Bob achieve in your work?

My overall goal is to provide the production support for Thomas to grow Big Sandy Organics into a household name that people recognize and enjoy.

Did you grow up on a farm?

I did grow up on a farm, as well as a ranch for a brief period of time.

What sort of qualifications or education was required for this position?

I have several years of manufacturing and management experience and, believe me, I’ve put them both to good use.

What do you enjoy about working for Bob?

Bob travels a lot, but when he’s home it’s interesting to get a glimpse at his perspective of the world around him. Whether it’s in his work with organic farming or regarding one of his many entrepreneurial endeavors, including Big Sandy Organics, he’s just an optimistic and thoughtful person to talk to.

Were you familiar with organic farming before working for Bob?

Yes. There were a couple farmers in the Fairfield, Idaho area, where we were living before, that grew organic. But it’s interesting to see it a manufacturing perspective.

What are your thoughts on organic farming at this point?

At its most basic, it’s just nice to know, as a consumer, what you are eating, particularly without all the chemicals and GMOs.

Would you encourage your children to be organic farmers?

Most definitely!

In conclusion, has working with organic farmers changed your perceptions about farming and food supply?

As far as I’ve seen, Bob is a huge advocate for eating what’s local and available to you in your area and my wife and I completely agree! We prefer local foods when possible for the simple reason it just tastes better. Not to mention, we have a much better idea of how long it’s been on the shelf and sometimes even who grew it. Organic products may be a little more expensive but I believe they are well worth it.

Establishing the Organic Farmers Association

After years of effort, including a couple unsuccessful starts, a representative voice for the organic farmers in America is finally becoming a reality. This effort began as a shared idea between a few organizational representatives from various regions throughout the country, myself included. Nearly five years ago, we formed a committee working slowly toward a national organization specifically for organic farmers. Last fall, the Rodale Institute launched a similar idea and after a great deal of deliberation, we have combined forces with the official organization of the Organic Farmers Association (OFA).

Prior to the merger, the organizational committee represented six regions within the United States which contained nearly equal numbers of certified organic farmers, according to USDA records. The committee then appointed two organic farmers and one supporting organization representative from each region and began establishing procedure and organizational recommendations for the steering committee’s consideration.

The steering committee met for the first time in La Crosse, Wisconsin just before the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference in late February of this year. At the time, we still had four steering committee positions to fill but most of the appointees were present along with Rodale Institute representative, Jeff Moyer. The primary focus of the meeting was to make formal recommendations regarding organizational structure, policy development procedures, a mission statement and overall vision as well as developing a budget and fundraising strategies. Our goal is to officially present, discuss and adopt the results of this meeting with elected representatives at our first annual conference which we hope to hold this coming winter. And although we made significant progress, the steering committee’s task is far from over.

Perhaps the most noteworthy and important decision of our newly-founded Organic Farmers Association thus far, is that only certified organic farmer members will be allowed to vote. This ensures that the organization will be give organic farmers a voice, both as a part of the OFA and on behalf of organic farmers throughout their region and America.

In the end, we hope to establish an organization that represents organic farmers throughout America, rather than favoring one region, special interest or organization over another. We are well on our way to creating an organization which is truly representative of the American organic farmer.

Irish Stew with Parsnips

Spring hasn’t quite reached us up here on the plains of northern Montana but mid-February the snow had more or less melted and the ground had thawed which made it the perfect time to harvest the parsnips in our garden. Parsnips look like white carrots and are planted in the spring. Of course, you could harvest them in the fall but their flavor and sweetness improves dramatically if you harvest them in the late winter after the snow melts and the ground is no longer frozen. They tend to start growing in the very early spring and will bolt and go to seed quickly. It is important to harvest them before they start growing so the roots do not become soft and woody. Timing is important.

Despite the melting snow, it’s still pretty chilly here on the farm and call me old-fashioned, but there are few things better on a chilly day than a warm bowl of stew. Especially when that stew is largely made up of some of the vegetables we grow right here. If you’ve never eaten a parsnip, this is a great introductory recipe. And what better way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day than a bowl of Irish Stew?

1 tablespoon The Oil Barn® safflower oil (can also use olive oil)
2 pounds boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1½ inch pieces (or substitute with beef—grass-fed is best, if you can get it)
1 large onion, sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 large parsnip, peeled and cut into large chunks
4 cups water, or as needed
3 large potatoes, peeled and quartered
1 tablespoon rosemary
1 cup coarsely chopped leeks (or green onions)
½ teaspoon salt
black pepper
chopped fresh parsley for garnish (optional)

Heat oil over medium heat in a large stockpot or Dutch oven. Add meat pieces and cook, stirring gently, until evenly browned. Season with salt and pepper.

Add the onion, carrots, and parsnips and cook gently alongside the meat for a few minutes. Stir in the water. Cover and bring to a boil before turning the heat down to low. Simmer for 1 hour or longer, depending on the cut of meat used and if it is tender yet.

Stir in potatoes, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, before adding leeks and rosemary. Continue to simmer uncovered, until potatoes are tender but still whole. Serve hot with fresh parsley.