Healthy soil is a passion for North Dakota farmers Derek and Claire Lowstuter.
Stepping foot on Folly Hill Farm, the sound of ducks quacking and the smell of soil fills the cold air. It is November as Derek works on putting the finishing touches on his deep winter greenhouse. The main door to the structure goes into the wash/pack room. Adjacent is the grow room and materials are being prepared to store energy and insulate the room from North Dakota’s brutally cold winters. “We expect construction to be finished by February 2021 and to begin planting in March.” Folly Hill Farm is also home to Black Bison Organics, a homegrown, plant-based organic fertilizer company started by Derek and Claire Lowstuter in 2017. The natural fertilizers and amendments they’ve developed over years of testing are suitable for gardeners and growers of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants.
Growing up, Derek did not have much of a direct connection to the land but like many of us, it is in his family. His grandfather’s family has been farming on the east coast since the 1700s. As a kid, Derek remembers his mother planting and growing seeds in pots and flower beds. His interest in natural resources management as a career path led Derek to a passion for food. “The way we eat and grow our food has more of an impact on our environment than anything else.” It’s estimated that about ⅓ of global greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change, come from agriculture. This negative impact on the planet is growing as more countries are adopting systems of chemically intensive monoculture. There are economic and environmental costs to what we eat and how we produce our food but there are also opportunities for a better approach.
Derek, along with Claire, his wife and business partner, traveled internationally for several years before landing in North Dakota. “Throughout our travels from Colorado to Ireland, Ethiopia, and Thailand, Claire and I would garden and we found every place had the same principles involved. If we take care of the soil, the soil takes care of the plants.” But in addition to those principles, there was always some variation on what is available locally to help improve the productivity and health of the soil. Derek explains, “In Ireland, we used kelp, and in Ethiopia we used spent coffee grounds. There were many benefits to using what is locally available compared to synthetic fertilizers. This mindset of being place-based is part of what it means to be a good steward.” Appropriate materials found locally can be minerals and biological matter that greatly improve the soil.
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“When we came to North Dakota in 2013 we wanted to find what would work well.” North Dakota is the leading flax producer in the United States and when flax is harvested and processed, there is an enormous amount of byproduct, flaxmeal. Human consumption of flax is increasing because of its high nutritional value. Flaxmeal provides many of the macronutrients found in synthetic fertilizers. Adding organic sources of macronutrients, instead of inorganic or synthetic sources, increases rather than decreases soil microbial activity. Derek says, “I developed an ideal blend that I knew would work well on our soil. Over years of development, friends and neighbors would become interested.”
Since WWII, the dominant trend in U.S. industrial agriculture has been soil depletion and the “get big or get out” proposition. In fact, the United States is losing soil 10 times as fast as it is being replenished. Between 1966 and 2006, 30% of the world’s arable land became unproductive, including land in the U.S. This system of industrial agriculture was not created by accident. Decades of public policy driven by corporate profits and “efficiency” has been ingrained in our minds generation after generation. This depletion not only impacts the soil but the ability of the land to provide a livelihood and adequate nutrition.
Soil has been depleted to a point where in order to get a harvest every year, farmers must use more and more chemical fertilizers and pesticides just to produce the same amount of food per acre. It’s a feedback loop where farmers get stuck using synthetics and chemicals because that is the only way to maintain that productivity. To transition to a more regenerative and less chemically intensive system of agriculture is going to require a transition period where production would take a step back with less yield in the short term but will have valuable payoff in the long term. Growing food with a focus on regeneration and healthy soil is not new. It’s been practiced by peoples across the planet for generations. But in North Dakota where industrial agriculture is supreme, it hasn’t quite reached the tipping point.
Derek and his family live near Menoken, ND. They have a small market garden, produce some fruits and vegetables for themselves, and raise ducks for eggs. Right now, ducks are the only (above-ground) livestock Derek and Claire raise and their young daughter can be intimidated by the dozen of ducks when they get excited. They sell to the Bisman Community Food Co-op grocery store and directly to individuals. “We’ve sold at Bismarket (farmers market) in the past but we haven’t this year because of COVID-19.” Currently, they’re growing raspberries, currants, and gooseberries. Cherries, apples, and mulberries are hopefully on the way with recent plantings. A local brewery is using their currants in a brew. As of May, Derek works full time for the North Dakota Department of Trust Lands, but produces food for the joy and reinvests revenue from fertilizer sales back into the farm.
Black Bison Organics sells three products, two sized for home gardeners, and then one for small to medium-sized farms. The products include macronutrients that any crop will need, in addition to plant biostimulants and soil pre-biotics. The products have the potential to improve the soil structure and biological activity even in clay or sandy soils.
When it comes to COVID-19, Derek has observed more people interested in growing their own food. One issue in gardening culture is that the gardening retailers are saturated with synthetic fertilizer and that is what customers are familiar with. This can be problematic because the nutrients bypass soil ecology and are immediately available to plants, creating a literal sugar high. These plants can draw insects or other pests like magnets, in turn requiring toxic pesticides to kill or repel them. There is however, an increasing portion of the market growing with organic fertilizer. There is a shift taking place where people are realizing they don’t just need to dump synthetic iron and urea in their garden. People are beginning to learn not just how to grow but how to grow better.
Derek explains, “everyone knows Miracle Grow. We need to get past this stigma of using non-synthetic fertilizers. There is an entire array of options for growing organically. Let’s say I ask a new garden center to try carrying our products. They think it’s awesome and understand what I’m doing, but the garden center can’t have that 5-10 min conversation with every customer about the importance of soil health. Many customers only look at the price and for the amount for the NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) immediately available and have a reductionist mentality that goes with it. There is a wide range of nutrients and compounds that plants rely on to be vigorous, healthy, and resistant to disease and pests – not to mention tasty! A lot of those compounds are things humans need as well. If you only focus on providing NPK, you are missing a lot of nutrients that should be available in the food we eat.”
The biochar and the humates in the products are designed to increase the resilience of the soil. If there is a drought, this supplemented soil can store more water. Plants can use that stored water instead of the water being lost from running off or draining through the soil completely. Likewise, these amendments improve plant growth in wet years by increasing pore space (for gas and liquid) and preventing soil from being water-logged, which kills roots and soil microbes. Derek says his fertilizers can also help plants cope with the environmental stresses of climate change by supplying and promoting the beneficial soil fungi that plants rely on.
Biochar is a special form of charcoal that is specifically made to be used as a soil amendment. Quality biochar differs from most cooking charcoal in that it is almost entirely stable carbon. How stable? One application of Biochar increases the amount of carbon in soils for years to centuries depending on the char and how the soil is managed. Amending soil with biochar pulls carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequesters it in the soil. As awesome as compost is, it decomposes over time and only a small fraction remains as stable carbon in the soil. The rest is consumed by soil biology and respirated back into the air as CO2. The carbon does not stay in the soil and it does not directly help draw down atmospheric CO2 levels. In order to maintain organic carbon in the soil, compost needs to be continuously incorporated over time. The best way to improve almost any soil on earth is to add organic matter. However, growers who overly rely on compost for organic matter can have too much of a good thing. Too much compost can lead to potentially-toxic (for plants) nutrient accumulation, and root rot. Stable carbon sequesters carbon long-term, increasing soil porosity while still promoting microbial life.
Derek thinks it is important to educate consumers and have them push for better soil management practices from the companies they purchase food from. Some companies are changing the way they source and where they source their commodities. They are paying more attention to the agricultural practices being used. People voting with their dollars can make things happen faster. As for policy, the rubber has hit the road. Government entities have been developing regenerative agriculture programs over the last five years. In 2019, the state of New Mexico passed the Healthy Soil Act and Nebraska created a Healthy Soils Task Force to name a few examples. But nationally, there has been downplay of nutrient-rich food and addressing the risks associated with climate change have kind of stalled over the course of the Trump Administration. As people are coming back around, the risks associated with not acting on climate change are becoming more clear. As we’ve seen over the last year, a lot of candidates for President included a reevaluation of the USDA and the agriculture practices they were promoting. The trend at USDA has been to promote policies that perpetuate the soil depletion system and haven’t actually improved the most important part of growing food, the health of the soil.
When it comes to regenerative agriculture and soil health, Gabe Brown is a leader. It just so happens that Gabe and his son Paul are Derek’s neighbors. The Brown’s are well known soil health experts. Derek will often be in soil health meeting spaces and people will talk about Gabe Brown and ask Derek if he has heard of him. Derek responds, “actually they are my neighbors!” Derek says, “The Browns are great to work with. They are grazing some on our property and it is part of this movement to restore the condition of the prairie. Over the next few years, we would like to incorporate more livestock into our operation by getting some sheep.”
The results are what drive Derek. “I don’t see myself as a businessman, my interest is in growing plants and helping other people grow plants. That is my passion. It may take years to see the fruits of your labor, but you are still seeing tangible results and that’s what excites me and keeps me going.”
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