Fields Without Fences


I love my friend Minca. Now that we’re no longer college classmates, we cherish the rare opportunities to spend time with one another. A little over a year ago she happened to be in New Jersey and I insisted that she and I visit one of my favorite farms of all time, Fields Without Fences (FwF). The farm was started by Lindsay and Johann Rinkens in 2012 with the intention to develop an ecologically appropriate land management strategy for growing certified organic food and medicine. The farm’s story is much more involved, but that day I learned about a new development: 2014 would be the first year with paid apprentices. That’s all I needed to know. I was in.

My body, mind, and emotions were tested this summer in ways that I didn’t originally anticipate. My body is no worse for wear, but a summer of farm work, along with hiking, biking, and swimming around the Delaware river, has definitely tuned me up (thanks to stretching and chiropractors for mechanical help). There’s something I love about the feeling at the end of a productive day outdoors. My body loves to do what it evolved to: walk, bend, pick, pull, plant, scrape, shape, peel, pluck, dig, rake, make, and mark. This is the third full summer I’ve spent working on a farm and, though at times I’d like to deny it, it makes me really happy. Working in and with the elements undeniably agrees with my heart and bones. And farm work, strenuous and stressful as it may sometimes be, connects me with my ancestors—to my great grandparents who immigrated with family from Austria to farm in Minnesota and Nebraska five generations ago. Working on the farm is my heritage. And I’m glad I inherited their work ethic.
James&Katie in FieldLindsay and Johann have tremendous work ethics, and I appreciate how they turn tedious labor into strength-training exercises. Their attention to detail and proper technique made repetitive tasks multi-functional—weeding, seeding, transplanting and harvesting with good posture, sensitivity and body-awareness also increased our efficiency, making work as effortless as possible while building balanced body strength. That’s permaculture! I mean, it’s one thing to say all that, and another to actually do it. Especially on a farm where dozens of different species of herbs are sharing bed-space with fruiting ground-covers, berry bushes, fruit and nut tree saplings…not to mention the volunteers. Physically performing at a high level at a farm like theirs requires an equally high level of mental effort.

The mental edge I gained working for Lindsay and Johann is a reflection of the mental level at which they work, as well as the complexity of the polyculture systems that they’re establishing. As a farm that seeks to mimic the ecological architecture of regional native plant communities, they’re ahead of the curve. Being ahead of the curve also means not relying upon experts to tell you what to do, and relying heavily upon your own observations to make adjustments as the systems grow. As the season progressed Johann and Lindsay challenged us to start thinking and acting more like managers. They challengsoutheastfield_0728ed us to take responsibility for our learning curves and move beyond the introductory hand-holding. It wasn’t until they brought this up that I realized how much easier it was to just follow instructions and do what I was told. They challenged us to increase our productivity and make more of the “little” decisions for ourselves. Up to this point I had thought I was working hard. I thought I was slowly starting to get a feel for the systems dynamics. But midway through the season it was clear that I wasn’t challenging myself enough. That was a spicy pill to swallow; it’s always more fun to get a pat on the back than a kick in the ass. That’s when I learned what Field’s Without Fences is really about: The fields are our minds, and the fences are all the self-imposed limitations we put on what we believe is possible and what we think we’re capable of. The fences are all the excuses we make up to hide our true genius. We fence-in our creativity, and fence-out our power of will. I guess I thought I was just keeping the deer from eating my vegetables. But I had to face the reality of the situation. I needed to take the challenge personally and accept responsibility for my full capacities. That’s the mental edge that Lindsay and Johann put to work. I’m still working on it.

Now that the 2014 season has come and gone I can say, without a doubt, that living and working at FwF has permanently altered my outlook and ambitions. I like to rationalize my work as a farmer and analyze it’s impact on civilization and the biosphere. But I’ve come to learn that my propensity for abstraction is not as meaningful to me as what I actually do. As much as I love the mental stimulation of ecological and philosophical concepts, this season on the farm has strengthened my emotional bond with the ecosystems that I am a part of. Living and working at FwF helped me see the necessity of being in relationship with the ecosystems on and beyond the farm. And that requires commitment (gasp). My life is moved by thoughts and emotions, and my inner landscape is mostly comprised of feelings. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “How do I want my life to feel?” A big part of the feeling that I want in my life comes from being in relationship with the biosphere and it’s ecosystems. As a producer, I am reliant upon the web of relationships that make plants and animals healthy. So I must be in tune with the reality of life on the ground, which is work. Committing to working with the land in some way, shape, or form requires me to exercise will-power to do something….And stick with it! There’s no way out of it. Accepting that challenge makes me a field with fewer fences. I want my life to feel un-fenced . As I commit to farming, I commit to being un-fenced.

North field at the end of the summer, prepped for cover crop and tree plantings


SummaReview: The Lost Language of Plants

cover_LostLanguageOfPlantsThe Lost Language of Plants unveils a world (our world) that is both shocking and stimulating, spectacularly disturbing and deeply moving. In this world there are plants, yes, but the book is about much more than plants. As Buhner comments in a note to the reader, “…this book explores the complex, multidimensional, intricately interconnected, synergistic, living organism that we call Earth, and it is designed to be complex and multidimensional as well” (viii). The book itself intentionally transmits multiple layers of communication, reflective of the plants and living organisms that are featured throughout.

He describes how plants communicate using self-generated natural chemicals—affecting, directing, and responding to the environments and communities that they live in. Unfortunately, our global environment has become completely inundated with trace amounts of pharmaceutical chemicals, radioactive materials, and medical, infectious and pathological waste, all of which significantly disrupt the healthy function of ecosystems (including human ecologies). Beyond that, he urges us to see that the simplification of species in ecosystems worldwide dangerously reduces the regenerative capacity of Earth’s ecosystems, and has grave consequences for human health; human health is inextricably tied to the health of ecosystems worldwide.

Man sees the morning as the beginning of a new day; he takes germination as the start in the life of a plant, and withering as its end. But this is nothing more than a biased judgment on his part. Nature is one. There is no starting point or destination, only an unending flux, a continuous metamorphosis of all things.
–Masanobu Fukuoka (148)

The mountain of devastating and publicly available data and statistics about the environmental impacts of technological medicine highlights deeper issues of our modern predicament; these deeper issues have to do with the reductive and mechanistic paradigms, epistemologies, and concepts that we use to understand and interact with the world; this includes the “universe-as-machine” metaphor, which denies the possibility of intelligence, self-awareness, and sanctity in the non-human organisms of Earth.

Ironwood Archepelago

The Ironwood archepelago exemplifies the non-linear affects of the language of plants on ecosystem function.

By describing the systemic and multi-functional uses of plant chemistry throughout Earth’s ecosystems, Buhner makes the case that the chemical language of plants is much more than mere chemistry; it is an intentionally meaningful language that is crucial for maintaining the health of ecosystems. The “lost” language of plants, then, has more to do with the loss of meaning ascribed by humans to the world around us. In other words,  “this book delves into the meaning embedded within plant chemistry, the language of plants—a language human beings in the Western world lost knowledge of when we began to think so insistently with the analytical portions of our brains and quit thinking with other more holistic parts of ourselves” (ix). Thus, what is deeply needed is for us to recover the innate capacity to understand the world as a living system. This means interacting with the land as a sacred place, filled with sacred beings. It’s the foundation for healing the interior and exterior wounds created by the “universe-as-machine” mentality.

“Without deep connection to the land our healers remain anthropocentric—human centered—in their approaches, their theories of human health generated in isolation from the environment with which we evolved. They contain the same category error that all reductionist sciences contain. The solution is reconnection to the natural world and the living intelligence of land” (230).


SummaReview: Plant Intelligence and The Imaginal Realm

“…you must not extend awareness further than your culture wants it to go.(19)

Plant Intelligence BuhnerThis is Buhner’s fourth book in his series of books on plant intelligence, inter-species communication, non-linearity in nature, including the various non-linear and intuitive capacities in humans. This book dives deeply into the fascinating and emerging scientific fields of plant-neurophysiology, molecular microbiology, systems ecology/complexity theory, and gaia theory, including the effects of psychotropics in nature and in the human brain. But this heavy (very well-written) reading is not the central focus of the book. His synthesis of vast amounts of scientific information exposes a reality that runs contrary to scientific reductionism and materialist maps of the world. He exposes a new scientific understanding that the qualities of “self-awareness, intelligence, and the search for meaning—that have (erroneously) been ascribed as belonging only to human beings, are in fact general conditions of every living organism” (28). Of course, this understanding is not new, as many indigenous groups of humans have known this for a very long time.

The idea that humans are separate from and superior to everything else in the biosphere has taken a terminal blow from the new knowledge about bacteria….There’s no going back.(95)

Using concepts and language from neuroscience, such as “sensory gating channels,” he enlightens us to the reality that our perceptual capacities are flexible, fluid, and multi-dimensional; in other words, we can perceive multiple perspectives, and change our own perspective whenever it benefits us to do so. However, “gating parameters tend to set themselves as time progreses, and all organisms tend to habituate to cetain ranges of sensory intake and response to environmental perterbations.” This habituation can and does limit what and how we perceive, and how resilient and creative we are in the face of adversity. But nature has built in ways for organisms to remain fluid and adaptable; altered states, and the expansion of our perceptual capacity through drugs and other experiences, has been a fascination of humans and other organisms for a long time, and rightly so. Ingesting psychotropics (the psychoactive quality of psychedelic plants) break habituated patterns of gating by opening sensory gating channels more widely, which enables the organism to perceive a greater degree of novelty in ordinary or common experience; this opens the doors to new information and is an evolutionary advantage. Expanded gating also enables us to perceive deeper meanings in things that we are normally closed off to. As Buhner elaborates, “The more sensory data from the image that flows inside us, the more of the text that is embedded within it will flow into us. The more of the text we have access to, the more meaning we can distill out of it, the more rays of relation we can find and experience.”

Thus, the different kind of thinking this book seeks to inspire is one that enables us to access this deeper web of information and meaning that run throughout our lives and everywhere on Earth at all times. He explains that we don’t need psychotropics or advanced trainings to deepen and expand our sense of the world around us. We merely need to regain an embodied feeling sense that touches and perceives the world in a non-linear way.

Although the beauty is what we are most drawn to, in the darkness and terror are truths that all travelers in the metaphysical background of the world eventually encounter, must face, and come to terms with. They have teachings that are necessary.” (279)

This book takes the reader into tremendously deep waters, and challenges you to examine your preconceived ideas about the way the Earth functions. Buhner invites you to discover the “imaginal realm,” where real information flows at the level of subtle meanings; meanings that guide and direct all organisms through the environment; meanings that literally reveal the underlying unity between the environment and its actors, dissolving the illusion that the “environment” is merely a passive backdrop to the moving actors and organisms. The environment shapes organisms and communities just as organisms shape the environment; they are not truly separate, the boundaries are fluid.


The Art of Composting

Wooden Road In Forest
“Everything is a process, even the [farmer].”

– Michael Phillips

Maximizing the soil food web for your farm and garden ecosystems is not only possible, but inevitable. As topsoil continues to be depleted and lost at record rates worldwide, farmers are feeling the pressure to adopt new strategies for ensuring the long-term productivity of the land. The agricultural community at large is becoming more aware of the ways in which plants depend on healthy soil, and the soil food web is coming into the spotlight. Those who treat the soil as a living ecosystem are experiencing breakthrough success, as their farms demonstrate more resilience to droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events. Farmers and gardeners who treat their soils as a living ecosystem are tasting the results; more vibrant, nutritious, and abundant yields than ever before. And the ecosystem of beneficial insects and pollinators are coming back with authority. (citations)

An increasing number of farmers, gardeners and scientists alike are adopting this new paradigm of “living soil.” It’s not like adopting a child or even a family. When you adopt the living soil paradigm you adopt an entire community; in reality, this shift in understanding is an acknowledgment of an entirely new world. It is changing people’s entire relationship with the process of farming, gardening, and scientific study. The time has come to reform our notions of superiority in the web of life. Nature is not an inanimate resource bank awaiting our plunder. It is an ever-evolving dance of mutuality, collaboration, and adaptation. Time has come to see ourselves as part of this dance, not separate from it. Our roles as participants are many. The integrity and health of the niches that we occupy are largely the result of our attitudes and approaches to management.

Thus, the art of composting has as much to do with your approach as it does your execution. When you approach composting (and farming as a whole) with a sense of reverence and respect, your relationship with the process changes. If you can let go of the assumption that you’re the only intelligent life form on your farm, you can access an even greater ability —a greater sensitivity— to the process. The art of composting is the art of transformation, the art of succession and evolution. If you’re willing, you can begin to tune yourself to that process and become sensitive to the relationships between plants and the living soil. If you’re bold, you might even begin to treat your soil and plants as legitimate business partners and listen to their ideas about how the farm should be.

“Organic gardening is complex and simple, a blend of good science, fact, experience, intuition, experiments, play, speculation.” -Robert Kourik

Please remember that the science of compost, the science of the soil food web, is all metaphor. Cation exchange capacity, the nutrient cycle, carbon to nitrogen ratios – are all metaphors. The reality of the soil food web is something beyond our ability to express in words, which is why plants don’t grow in books. All the information up to this point in the paper, especially in Part 1, has been expressed in linear terms. Nature is not linear; nature is non-linear. The intelligence in the soil food web goes beyond our maps and diagrams, and cannot be explained by our facts and figures. The reality of life (and composting, farming) is not easily predictable. And this is the difference between living soil and dead soil, between an ever-depleted soil from which we extract life, and a regenerative soil that is teeming and overflowing with life. The paradigm of living soil acknowledges the vital interconnectedness between microbes and plants, air and water, sun and people. What we do to the web we do to ourselves, the earth is not a machine. And even the tiniest changes in one place can change everything in ways we wouldn’t expect. Living systems cannot be reduced to their component parts; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is already well-established. This is the glory of natural law; this is the genius of creative intelligence. We are meant to live in abundance, but we need to drop our arrogance and learn how to listen again.

“When it is understood that one loses joy and happiness in the attempt to possess them, the essence of natural farming will be realized. The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
― Masanobu Fukuoka

I understand that if you’re committed enough to have sought out the information in this paper, you probably already consider yourself a natural farmer or gardener. Let this be an appeal not to reason but to intuition. As you take the information, the compost pile recipes, materials lists and instructions, and prepare to apply it to your current operations, do your best to carry yourself more as a midwife than a chef. Realize that with every compost pile you make you’re giving birth to an entire community of new life forms, and your farm will be a stronger community because of it. Like any good community organizer (which you are), you’ll need patience, compassion and understanding, as you already know. Engage in the process of growing more abundant and healthy plants so that you might become more healthy and abundant in spirit. Farm so that you might create more harmony on earth. Your job is not easy and you know it, and it never ends

Exerpt, taken from the full paper: The Art and Science of Compost: Maximizing the Soil Food Web For Your Farm and Garden Ecosystems

The “Soil Food Web” Paradigm

Healthy soil is built and maintained by a universe of soil organisms. These organisms make up the soil food web and are the key to unlocking fertility in the soil. The soil food web forms the basis of a healthy farm ecosystem. Without them, farmers and gardeners are required to do the extra work of fertilization, pest/weed and disease control. It doesn’t need to be this way. Healthy soil and healthy plants can happen without our endless toil. But this all hinges on a sound understanding of “soil food web science.” Over time, healthy communities of life underground have been devastated as a result of annual tilling, compacted soil, mismanagement of organic matter, and relentless applications of chemical fertilizers and pesticides/herbicides/fungicides. Various farming practices such as no-till, cover cropping, and chemical-free organic farming are all effective ways to support the soil food web. Gardeners and landscapers can utilize similar strategies to promote the vitalizing force of the critters below. However, nothing has been demonstrated to be more effective and important than compost for establishing the vital, regenerative and chemical-free growing power of the soil food web.

From: USDA's "Soil Biology Primer"

From: USDA’s “Soil Biology Primer”

“Viewing the soil as a regenerative living system is one big kick in the pants for anyone who has been taught that NPK fertilization is more relevant than soil biology.” 
-Michael Phillips

“Soil food web” science includes the following components: Sun, water, air, plants and their roots, bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro and macro-arthropods, earthworms etc, humus (decomposed organic matter) and the mineral components of soil – sand, silt, and clay, as well as humans and their management decisions. The web starts with and is governed by plants, who use the energy of the sun to make carbon chains (photosynthesis); much of these carbon compounds are used as root exudates to attract and develop beneficial microbial communities in and around their root system. Exudates are simple sugars, proteins, and carbohydrates released by plant roots to feed and stimulate populations of beneficial microorganism. They do not feed pathogens. (Lowenfels and Lewis 23-24). Understand that the energy going into roots is not only used to build root structure for stability and fertility; in general, about half of a plant’s energy that goes into its roots is released as exudates (Kourik 10). Why do they do this? Because the energy they give away comes back to them many times over.

The strange reality is that while humans garden plants, plants garden microorganisms. They do this because of the crucial role microbes play in the nutrient cycle. Whereas humans are fed by plants, plants are fed by microorganisms. Microbiologists have found that the number of microorganisms in the rhizosphere – a zone immediately around the roots, extending out about a couple of millimeters – is far greater than in the surrounding soil (Ingham, “Living Soil” 2011). What’s more, studies on foliar dynamics have revealed that living leaves produce exudates through their phyllosphere that attract microbes just as roots do through the rhizosphere (Lowenfels and Lewis 25). All this “life” competes for the exudates in the rhizosphere and phyllosphere. At first glance it would seem like the microbes are the ones being fed, but if you look a little deeper things get much more interesting.

“Soil organic matter is the storehouse for the energy and nutrients used by plants and other organisms. Bacteria, fungi, and other soil dwellers transform and release nutrients from organic matter.”
-Dr. Elaine Ingham

Soil life creates soil structure and produces soil nutrients. The activities of its members bind soil particles together into microaggregates as they create air and water pores. The chemical and biological activity in the thin layer of moisture around aggregates convert nutrients into soluble forms that roots can absorb via ion exchange. Unlike applications of fertilizer, soil nutrients in living soil releases slowly over time; they are available when plants need them. As compost, mulch and other organic matter is added to the soil, their nutrients become immobilized in dead bodies and subsequently mineralized (made available to plants) through digestion or decay. The proximity of microbial action in the rhizosphere is what makes mineralized nutrients far more bioavailable than soluble fertilizer forms.

“There must always be a perfect balance between the process of growth and decay. The consequences of this condition are a living soil, abundant crops of good quality, and livestock which possess the bloom of good health”
– Sir Albert Howard

An increasing number of farmers, gardeners and scientists alike are adopting this new paradigm of “living soil.” It’s not like adopting a child or even a family. When you adopt the living soil paradigm you adopt an entire community; in reality, this shift in understanding is an acknowledgment of an entirely new world. It is changing people’s entire relationship with the process of farming, gardening, and scientific study. The time has come to reform our notions of superiority in the web of life. Nature is not an inanimate resource bank awaiting our plunder. It is an ever-evolving dance of mutuality, collaboration, and adaptation. Time has come to see ourselves as part of this dance, not separate from it. Our roles as participants are many. The integrity and health of the niches that we occupy are largely the result of our attitudes and approaches to management.


The World Goes Green: Eco-Friendly Construction Finally Comes of Age

A nice article below by Sam Marquit – more about him and his work at

“Green building materials and technologies has never shown more promise in terms of saving the environment and in terms of creating jobs and wealth. Indeed, this industry is set to increase in value from $116 billion in 2013 to more than $254 billion in 2020. If you work in the construction business, you almost can’t afford not to go green.”

“A number of facilities are embracing going green, especially in New York City. Ink48 is a Manhattan hotel owned and operated by the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc. It serves organic foods and beverages — including fair-trade teas and coffees — to guests. It hosts sustainability conferences for members of its Earthcare program. And each of its rooms is full of environmentally friendly features such as recycling bins, ceramic mugs to discourage wasteful paper cup usage, low-flow faucets and showers, and low-flush toilets. Energy-efficient lighting fixtures and eco-friendly cleaning products are employed throughout the property as well. Ink48 recycles extensively. What’s more, many private homes are beginning to follow the lead of establishments like Ink48. For instance, drip irrigation systems are growing in popularity; they’re especially useful in drought-ridden areas. These underground systems hydrate lawns and gardens with recycled water from showers and washing machines. They significantly reduce homeowners’ water bills in the process.”

“Many businesses are also beginning to take advantage of solar power. Hotels across the United States are installing enormous skylights and heating swimming pools with energy from the sun. Outdoor rooms are becoming increasingly prevalent in a wide variety of commercial enterprises and private residences as well. Not long ago, outdoor rooms were limited to decks, patios, and terraces. However, an outdoor room today might be a screened-in porch or an elaborate courtyard. Many of these rooms contain designer furniture, electronic entertainment devices, and even fireplaces. As such, they can be enjoyed at any hour of the day and at any time of the year.”

“Just about anywhere you go these days, there’s an eco friendly building or retrofitting project going on somewhere nearby. In cities of all sizes, businesses are installing sustainable systems, this is especially evident with the green hotels in New York City. In the process, they’re saving money. They’re also making a personal contribution to the health of the environment, and every such contribution helps. ”

Shoutout to the new Sustainable Living Center at Maharishi University of Management and the Abundance Ecovillage in Fairfield, Iowa – 2 examples of what’s possible if we want to take this green building movement close to home!

“So God Made a Farmer…”

This almost feels like the distant past now, but in the late winter this ad ran as a super bowl commercial. I didn’t actually see it on tv, but when I came upon the commercial on a web page recapping the best and worst super bowl commercials I watched it, and couldn’t help making a comment on the web page below the video. I knew my comment would most likely stir an adverse reactionary comment, and I was right. Below are a series of comments between myself and an anonymous person, who provided me the opportunity to seek out some valid citations for my point of view. The thread didn’t attract any other commentators, and after my last reply (shown below) there were no further comments by anyone. I decided to put it up on my blog for future reference and to document the conversation. Here is the commercial that started the comments:

JamesSchleppenbach Feb 4, 2013

I live in Rural Iowa. The people in these commercials are my neighbors. They love their families, they work hard, their jobs are thankless. Meanwhile, multinational corporations feed them seeds that are poisoning animals and people, chemicals that poison the water, and plows that send the fertile topsoils into the rivers that end up in the Gulf of Mexico, killing and disrupting ecosystems of the Delta. I love this country. And I am a revolutionary. My revolution is for regenerative agriculture practices that support the growth of soil fertility rather than chemical companies, and the ability to save seed rather than risk patent infringement from the company that owns my seeds. Thank you Dodge for this beautiful ad, which highlights and celebrates real people doing work that has built one of the greatest countries of all time. Yet the ad is sadly ironic because it highlights how ignorant we are of the full-range impact our modern industrial systems have on the health of individuals, families, communities, ecosystems, etc. etc. etc. I understand this conversation is complex, and there are many truths on both sides. So here I make the first comment. This is me:  This is where I go to school:

jrobs585 Feb 5, 2013

@JamesSchleppenbach: Who here is ignorant?  Because science says its you.
When you have any actual proof or scientific finding to back your claims, maybe I (and other farmers) will listen to you.  Until then, I’ll stick with real science.

JamesSchleppenbach Feb 5, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbach: Woah, well I’m not gonna take your condescension personally. And you clearly have not done thorough research on this subject. It took me less than 10 minutes to find these:
This article describes a United Nations report based on studies in East Africa that conclude Organic Farming is the recommended way for long-term food security and environmental sustainability:

“The evidence presented in this study supports the argument that organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and that it is more likely to be sustainable in the long term,” write Supachai Panitchpakdi, secretary-general of UNCTAD, and Achim Steiner, executive director of UNEP. “The great technological progress in the past half century has not led to major reductions in hunger and poverty in developing countries.”

Study: Long-term effects of organic and conventional farming on soil erosion
http: //
JamesSchleppenbach Feb 5, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbachAnd have you not taken the time to watch “Food, Inc.”? Because regardless of the scientific debate, do you really think our current dominant food system is good for people and the planet?

jrobs585 Feb 6, 2013

@JamesSchleppenbach@jrobs585: Forgive me for not trusting something from as truly scientific.  Can you find me the actual peer-reviewed study, rather than a pro-organic site’s interpretation of the study?  I’d honestly like to read it. If organic farming can bring higher yields, why do they consistently bring in such lower yields in developed countries?  You’d think it’d be easier in a developed country.  Could it be that they’re comparing the ‘higher organic yield’ to the undeveloped country’s original poorly-managed low-yield techniques?

I do appreciate the nature article (though i could only read the abstract), you now have me thinking that soil erosion may be a problem we ought to look into.  But by ‘look into’ I mean do more peer-reviewed studies… Plows have been used for thousands and thousands of years, so I kind of doubt the urgency.  Why haven’t older countries plowed their way down to the bedrock yet?

And no thank you, on Food Inc… I don’t need Hollywood’s “informed” opinion on anything, really.  Give me more peer-reviewed journals, can’t get enough of those.

I get the feeling that you didn’t read my link (or chose not to address any of it) so I doubt you’ll actually look into any of these.  But they are there, peer-reviewed arguments against the claimed benefits of organic food and organic agriculture, for anyone to read.
Avery, Alex. The Truth About Organic Foods. St. Louis: Henderson Communications, L.L.C.; 1ST edition (2006), 2006.
Dangour, A., Aikenhead, A., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., Uauy, R. “Comparison of Putative Health Effects of Oragnically and Conventionally Produced Foodstuffs: A Systematic Review.” Food Standards Agency. Food Standards Agency, 29 Jul. 2009. Web. 12 Jan. 2010. <>
Hughner, R.S., McDonagh, P., Prothero, A., Schultz II, C.J., Stanton, J. “Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food.” Journal of Consumer Behavior. 21 May 2007, Volume 6 Issue 2-3: 94-110.
Kristensen, M., Østergaard, L.F., Halekoh, U., Jørgensen, H., Lauridsen, C., Brandt, K., Bu¨gel, S. “Effect of plant cultivation methods on content of major and trace elements in foodstuffs and retention in rats.” Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. 1 Sep. 2008, volume 88, Number 12: 2161-2172.
MacKerron D.K.L. et al. “Organic farming: science and belief.” Individual articles from the 1998/99 Report. Scottish Crop Research Institute, 1 Dec. 1999. Web. 22 Jan. 2010. <>
Mondelaers K., Aertsens J., Van Huylenbroeck G. “A meta-analysis of the differences in environmental impacts between organic and conventional farming.” British Food Journal. 1 Nov. 2009, 111, 10: 1098-1119.

jrobs585 Feb 6, 2013

@JamesSchleppenbach: We (American farmers) are just sick of being chastised by organiacs like yourself that think that Food Inc is a form of scientific evidence, yet have no real scientific backing for most of your claims, yet you pretend to have our interests at heart.

Don’t think for a minute that any well-managed food company has not already been on the organic bandwagon since it started rolling.  Nearly 100% of organic food in supermarkets comes from a producer owned by one of the major food companies that also sells regular food.   It’s an ironic little secret that the very same corporate food producers taking our money to sell us organic foods are the same ones spending it on the ad agencies to stoke the anticorporate message that drives them.
If you prefer organic foods, that’s fine.  Nobody is campaigning to eliminate organic food, because it doesn’t hurt anybody.  But your money (and more of it) is going to the same companies, regardless of whether you buy organic or not.

If you believe in science, there are no health benefits to eating organic.
You don’t need to believe in science to see that organic agriculture is way less cost-efficient than traditional agriculture.

And if you believe in science, the environmental impact of organic ag is unproven and likely negligible.
If you don’t believe in science, but some transcendental earth life-force stuff, that’s fine too.  But when you’re making extraordinary claims about how society needs to make sweeping changes, you need some very serious backing from the scientific community.  You guys simply don’t have that.
JamesSchleppenbach Feb 12, 2013

: I’m currently enrolled full time in school and have a job so its taken me a little time to get through the links you posted. I agree about “big organic” industry being essentially just another arm of the big ag industry. Thats why I’d rather buy a vegetable grown locally and sold at the farmers market than by an organic veggie grown in California and trucked to Iowa.
I also agree that its not a good feeling being chastised. Chastising is hardly a productive form of communication, and I’d rather be friends with my neighbors, even if they’re living a lifestyle that I don’t choose. I see the links to the studies and I know the hundreds of millions in scientific research over the years has produced lots of sound science. I also think the smaller pool of available research regarding organic and regenerative (beyond “organic”) practices are reflective of the need for more research funding. I also see in the first link you posted, the author says about the organic industry: “The people promoting it generally have questionable scientific credentials, and they support their claim primarily by pointing out flaws in the norm. These are all characteristic of pseudoscience.” I agree that most people don’t distinguish between science and pseudo science. I agree that marketing in the organic industry plays on people’s fears as much as the news media does about politics and world events.
Also, from the article you posted: “We should choose farming methods that truly address our real concerns — safety and sustainability — not simply methods that satisfy an arbitrary marketing label.” I’m all about it. And I understand that where we go from here is dependent on our different paradigms.You think 1000acre corn and soybean fields, tilled and plowed every year, genetically modified, sprayed with chemicals is just fine, and is good for you and the earth. I don’t. I don’t think we need sweeping changes, I think we need responsible ones. Sweeping changes create instability. This is my last comment on this thread just because I have too much homework to give this the attention it deserves. 

Finally, for you to keep insisting that the science is so one-sided shows me your focus on “organic vs conventional” has given you paradigm blindness. My point has more to do with rethinking and reconsidering the entire notion of annual agriculture. I’m saying we need to consider mimicking forest ecology to create polyculture systems based on perennial plants. This would be a long-term, gradual shift. See Mark Shepard’s work. This is one of the main reasons:

Professor of Soil Science at Ohio State University Dr. Rattan Lal has calculated that 476 Gigatons (Gt) of carbon have been emitted from farmland soils due to inappropriate farming and grazing practices (Christine Jones, PhD, In contrast, 270 Gt have been emitted over the past 150 years of fossil fuel burning (Jones,

In their study, “Carbon Sequestration Potential Estimates with Changes in Land Use and Tillage Practices in Ohio, USA,” Zhengxi Tan and Rattan Lal explain that the conversion of natural ecosystems to those managed agriculturally can reduce the soil organic carbon pool by up to 50% in the top 20 cm of the soil and 25-30% in the top 100 cm depth after 30-50 years of cultivation (Tan, Lal, 2005).

It makes sense that more carbon comes out of the soil being tilled than the carbon released making and running the engine tilling it. For, fossil fuels are mostly buried and compressed landscapes of once living organisms. These fossil organisms are no different from the organisms in our soil still. Destroyed, they release the same kind of carbon that was put there by the same photosynthesis.

All exposed soil will lose this soil-organic-carbon. Inappropriate tillage expands the process exponentially. Today we have realized that inappropriate agriculture has successfully released the carbon of a 30 foot thick organism that once covered the entire Midwest, the topsoil and root system of the tall-grass prairies. Bare soil is potentially a more feasible culprit for global warming than even electricity.

JamesSchleppenbach Feb 12, 2013

@jrobs585@JamesSchleppenbach: Published in “Science” Journal – published by American Association for the Advancement of Science, full pdf on Google Scholar: “David Pimentel”, et al “Environmental and economic costs of soil erosion and conservation benefits”

Soil erosion is a major environmental threat to the sustainability and productive capacity of agriculture. During the last 40 yeras, nearly one-third of the world’s arable land has been lost by erosion and continues to be lost at a rate of more than 10million hectares per year.
From the body: About 80% of the world’s agricultural land suffers moderate to severe erosion. Croplands are the most susceptible to erosion because their soil is repeatedly tilled and left without a protective cover of vegetation.

The U.N. Environmental Programs first “Global Environment Outlook Year Book” was released in 2003. The program executive director, Klaus Toepfer, noted that the dead zone problem was likely to rapidly escalate. He stated that there are 146 dead zones, most of which are in Europe and the east coast of the U.S. The most infamous is at the end of the Mississippi River, due to fertilizer from farm fields of the Midwest.

From the published paper “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems”

Dead zones in the coastal oceans have spread exponentially since the 1960s and have serious consequences for ecosystem functioning. The formation of dead zones has been exacerbated by the increase in primary production and consequent worldwide coastal eutrophication fueled by riverine runoff of fertilizers and the burning of fossil fuels. Enhanced primary production results in an accumulation of particulate organic matter, which encourages microbial activity and the consumption of dissolved oxygen in bottom waters. Dead zones have now been reported from more than 400 systems, affecting a total area of more than 245,000 square kilometers, and are probably a key stressor on marine ecosystems.
So the conclusion is that my viewpoint has to do with “real science” as well. Please take me out of the “organiac” box. Though I do enjoy hugging trees…

Read more:

Oh Freedom! ~Three Lessons from the Iowa Freedom Choir Experience

As the 4th of July draws near I figured the time is ripe to reflect on the civil rights history trip I took 4 months ago thanks to Patti Miller’s Keeping History Alive Foundation! Now that I’ve graduated from college I’m gaining more appreciation for the privileges that I’ve enjoyed as a handsome intelligent athletic 6ft. upper-middle class white male. I’m just beginning to recognize and appreciate the access granted to me my whole life and how easy its come. I’ve faced virtually no cultural or institutional barriers during my life. And as I think about my job options (fresh out of college) I realize that I am connected to so many opportunities I don’t know what to do with myself. Growing up in a multicultural neighborhood, with rich friends and poor friends, I know mine wasn’t a universal experience. Now that I’m in the comfort of my childhood home with the luxury of a few weeks off I can afford to take some time to draw out lessons from the set of experiences with the Iowa Freedom Choir that culminated in a 7-day journey through the deep south March 21-28, 2013. All the information about the trip is linked above, including our trip blog so I’m gonna just get straight into personal stuff.

Patti Miller and Marvin Gatch (a Drake graduate) reading to the children in the Community Center in Meridian, Ms. - Freedom Summer '64

Patti Miller and Marvin Gatch (a Drake graduate) reading to the children in the Community Center in Meridian, Ms. – Freedom Summer ’64

First of all, my hat, pants, and shirt all go off to Patti Miller and everyone else who made this trip possible – it couldn’t be anything but pure love that would compel someone like Patti Miller to organize a trip like this to pass the torch and keep this profound history alive. My hat also goes off to all those dead and alive who stood up and risked their lives to make history before I was born, not to mention countless others still standing up together and speaking out in America and around the world.

This leads me to Lesson #1 from the trip: Civil rights is an ONGOING struggle, as is the state of the republic in the U.S. With the current influence of corporate “people” today, we have essentially lost the republic. And in many ways, our civil rights and voting rights are under attack. And I won’t even begin to get into the injustices against Native Americans that have yet to be resolved.

Before getting involved with this project I was mostly naive to the fact that the institutional freedoms and civil liberties granted to me by my forefathers (of civil rights legislation) are subject to reform, removal, and revision. Only after meeting people in the flesh during this trip, who stood on the front lines for civil rights and voting rights in our lifetime, do I really understand what it means to participate in self-government. I am part of a generation grossly disenchanted with the political landscape in this country. Yet how many of my generation accept the responsibility of participating? Not all are called to run for office or lead a rally, but this trip opened my eyes to the power of participation and the power of community organization.

Lesson #2: Participation takes many forms. As our group met people in Alabama and Mississippi who had lived through that historic period, we learned that their struggle for civil rights was a struggle for the right to participate in self-governance. I learned about how communities of people worked together to support each other during that time. Some cooked, others led rallies, some attended meetings, others looked after the children. Applying the lessons from that time to present day, everyone has an important role to play. The roles are as diverse as the given community. How does democracy work? Start by being involved in the community. Could you imagine a state filled with vibrant communities? A nation filled with states like that? During that time, the black community was like a big family. They were stronger and safer together. People were informed by the nature of being so connected. And since they cared so much about their communities they accepted the responsibility to participate in whatever way they could to support the whole.

Iowa Freedom Choir in concert at the Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center, Fairfield Iowa

Iowa Freedom Choir in concert at the Stephen Sondheim Performing Arts Center, Fairfield Iowa to raise funds for the trip.

Throughout the time spent with the choir in Fairfield and on the road trip, I was moved to tears more than once by a feeling of deep solidarity and community that extended waaayyyyy beyond our little project. The small community we created by forming the choir and rallying around the documentary project/trip was a small representation of how people moved together in the fight for freedom, equality and justice. Those of us who joined the choir and went on the trip were inspired by a deep love of humanity and hunger for equality and social justice; singing together strengthened our bonds and the words in the songs taught us stories of our ancestors (as one human race). Diving into the history as we did revealed that it was the spirit of the music that gave people the strength and courage to face brutality and hatred. And you know when you hear a good song you just have to sing along! People could march on because they were singing songs together, which transcended the fear of the violence that they knew they would receive.

Thus, Lesson #3: Preach to the choir and sing songs of freedom and love! Some say that in order to make a change you can’t just be preachin’ to the choir all the time. Well, others say that preachin’ to the choir is the best way to make a change. After a good sermon comes a good song, and when the choir is loud enough it reaches new ears who can’t help but love the harmony and join in the song! And so a movement grows.

So what songs are you singing? How often do you sing together in harmony with others? This experience has shown me the power of song and story in shaping culture and community. Songs and stories take many forms. It seems as if people often overlook the way they are shaped by the songs they sing and the stories they tell and hear. Not all songs open the heart to love and compassion; and some stories divide people and spread fear. All I can say is that I am forever grateful for the songs of freedom and love that we sang on the road to Mississippi. And my life is forever change by the stories of justice and compassion that I learned along the way!

The Journey to Meridian, Mississippi

Since leaving Memphis, we’ve traveled through Alabama, visiting Birmingham and Selma before driving into Meridian Sunday night. We’ll be in Meridian now until we leave at the end of the week. Yesterday we took a day trip up to Jackson, MS to visit two civil rights veterans at Tougaloo College.

Today is Tuesday, but it feels like its been more than 4 days since we left Fairfield. Each day has been full and we’ve been covering a lot of ground (literal&metaphor). Being in the deep south is surreal at times, like attending church service at the 16th street baptist church in Birmingham where 4 little girls were killed by bombs that were set off by the Klan in 1963. Being at palm Sunday service there 50 years later was special, especially being my first time at a black baptist church. The service had mixed races, and many visitors Sunday when we were there. The church was right across the street from the park where thousands of children were jailed and fire hosed for marching together in defiance of segregation laws. Walking the park and attending church brought me in touch with the spirituality of the people there and how it gave them faith and strength to rise up again and again.

After church service that day we went down to Selma and met some more civil rights vets and got a tour of the city. Once thriving and bustling, Selma felt like a ghost town, with empty store fronts down town and on side streets. We’ve heard so many stories and traced steps where history was made. We marched across the Edmond-Pettits bridge, tracing the footsteps where people once set out to march from Selma to Montgomery to challenge voting rights laws. We were led by a man who was just a teenager at the time when he participated in that march, and he explained his vantage point watching the front line of the marchers get attacked and beaten by the police. In what is now infamously known as “Bloody Sunday” the people were met on the other side of the bridge by state troopers and local police, who incited a police riot by throwing tear gas and beating the non-violent marchers. That was a turning point in the movement, and served as a testament to how brutally unjust the south was at that time.

It feels good to be in Meridian now, where we’ll meet more local folks who Patti Miller met when she came here as a student, to register voters in the early ’60’s during that time of struggle. This is clearly more than a spring break trip. Visiting these places and talking to people who were there during those times is really bringing the history alive. This transmission is important. The torch is being passed. But what is really being passed on to us?

More on that later…