Ag 101 Week 17

The Power of Biology

When I first started college, I went with the intent of becoming a dog trainer. Not just any kind of dog trainer, but a Seeing Eye Instructor. I was also determined not to get into agriculture. I had milked enough, bailed enough, and seen enough corn, alfalfa, and chickens to last me a lifetime.

Fast forward to my second year at Delaware Valley University. I’m majoring in biology and love it. I’m gearing up to start psychology classes so I can get my minor. When all of a sudden I’m asked by my advisor to pick a track in the biology program to specialize. I went with environmental biology, because why not.

I started taking agronomy classes to satisfy the requirements for my specialization and wanted to change my major to agronomy. Unfortunately, my advisor passed away, and no one knew what to with me. The biology department did understand why and the agronomy department did seem to want a biology major lurking around.

That was until the head of the agronomy department meant with me and changed the course of my future. He laid out a plan for the rest of my senior year that landed me a job with an environmental remediation company that was looking to hire someone with my background. Win-Win I was in!

To make a long story short, I ended up graduating with a degree in biology minoring in agronomy and working on Superfund sites.  I got to use both biology and agronomy and save the earth at the same time.  Well, sort of save the earth. As long as the client was happy and I could bill my hours to them, so my employer was happy. So not my plan, but I enjoyed it and was making a decent living. I even had a secretary. Everyone needs a secretary, trust me.

Jump ahead even further in time, and I find myself working for an organic fertilizer company. Totally out of my wheelhouse, I grew up in conventional agricultural, and it was all I knew. I had never heard of anything remotely associated with the industry I was working in now. I remember calling my dad and asking him if he had ever heard of the company I had just gotten a job with, he said no. We concluded that they must not have been that big of a company if he or the rest of the family had never heard of them. Little did I know what I was about to get myself into.

All this to say, I am a total outsider to the world of organic agriculture. I understand farming, but this was unlike anything I had ever had experienced. I found myself in the same situation I was in college. No one knew what to do with me. Only this time I was coming from conventional agriculture and now working with organic farming. As I started working with more and more natural growers, I began to see similarities between the two types of mindsets and I could also see the differences.

This post is not an editorial to pursued one to see the light and change to one side or the other. I don’t get why there has to be such a dichotomy between the two. Both have positives and negatives associated with them. I have always said that it is up to the grower to be willing to assume the level of management that is required for the way in which they want to grow a crop. But there is one hang up I’ve had with conventional growers, especially traditional no-till.

Why do they underestimate the power of biology?

As I started going to conferences and meetings held by the organic counterparts to conventional, I became more aware that organic growers harness the power of soil biology and employ management strategies to use it in their favor. While some conventional growers know its there, however they often use inputs or management practices that are counterproductive to encouraging the microbial populations in soil.  

Why don’t some farmers see all that biology can do for them? It seems as if it has been taken out the equation. Remember the triangles?


Lately, I’ve taken the time to go to more conventional conferences and meetings. I sat in on a meeting with a highly respected traditional agronomist and after listening to him talk it cleared all my confusion as to why in my opinion there is such an under-appreciation for biology in conventional farming.

Biology can’t be quantified; chemistry can


Inputs whether organic or conventional are chemistries. However, the affect a chemistry has on a crop can be measured. For every action, there is a reaction, A+B=C, and so on. You can calculate how much you will need to achieve a specific yield. You can forecast an outcome based on inputs and have actual numbers to back everything up. As long as you get your timing within a particular window and your placement relatively precise, you can rest assured barring any catastrophic weather event or unforeseen circumstance the input you use will do its job. It will do its job because it was chosen based on criteria already established and proven to work.

Soil microbe’s -aka biology- don’t work like that. Biology is a variable dependent on weather, pH, temperature, moisture, soil type, organic matter, compost type, amendment type, crop selection, previous crop, the sun, the moon, the stars -I think you get the point. Harnessing its power is being entirely dependent on things we cannot always physically control. We can not talk to the microbes and ask them to break the phosphorus in our soil down and make it plant available at the specific growth stage we need it. We can not go out to the field and ask the microbes to show up at the right time the right location and do everything we know it is capable of doing when it is most critical for the plant. We can use biologically enhanced inputs. However, there is still the question as to how viable they are due to all the for mentioned variables.  You can count them under a microscope but, do we still have a scientifically proven measurable way to explain, or quantify, all that microbes do, and how that translates into a profit? In most cases, all we can do is hope the microbes are there and show up at the right time and place.

Farming is part hope and expectation. You hope the weather will be in your favor; you expect the seed will germinate, you expect your yields will make a profit. And if a farmer can stack the deck in one’s favor they should, right?

Conventional growers rely on inputs, organic rely on biology.  That’s the great divide. That’s it. Right or wrong it is just using a different corner of the triangle to achieve the same results. However, both use management. 

So how does a farmer stack the deck in their favor harnessing the power of such a variable like biology?

You create conditions and an environment the natural biology of your soil wants to live. You create one that it wants to thrive and flourish in by using chemistries and management practices that encourage biological activity. You use management strategies such as cover cropping and minimal tillage to promote plush living conditions for the very microbes you want to do the work while hopefully starting to minimize inputs.

Harnessing the power of biology-

Simple on paper, not always simple in practice. If it were, everyone would be doing it.