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Highlights from John Kempf at the Bionutrient Food Association’s Soil and Nutrition Conference

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 January Issue Newsletter

Julie Rawson, farmer at Many Hands Organic Farm

Farmer Joel Salatin speaks (Photo by Nicole Crouch Diaz)

For four years NOFA/Mass and BFA co-organized the Soil and Nutrition Conference and in the past two years BFA has organized the conference on their own. I thought that this most recent conference that took place at the Kripalu Institute was the best yet. It was packed with very strong speakers on a number of topics around the basic themes of soil nutrition and human nutrition. Joel Salatin was frosting on the cake with his humorous, upbeat and inspiring libertarianism. You can read more about the conference and eventually download the talks at

John Kempf has been a stable member of the teaching team at the S and N’s. I think this was his third appearance. I have been a student of his for at least 6 years and have learned from and put to use so much of his practical knowledge over those years. John is a young Amish man who grew up on a conventional farm in Ohio. Truly a savant, he is still only in his 20’s, yet has received international acclaim for his consulting around biological farming practices, which, conveniently for NOFA-types, are compatible with organic certification standards. When John speaks I am there with notebook in hand because every word is carefully placed to educate and provide context for improved farming practice.

I never tire of hearing about John’s plant health pyramid that discusses the stages of a plant’s development. Short on nutrition it can be stymied anywhere along the way. Check this link for the AEA Systems Guide -

  1. The first stage for a healthy plant is Successful Photosynthesis. This involves the formation of complete carbohydrates such as pectins and other polysaccharides which build resistance to soil borne fungal pathogens such as fusarium, alternaria and verticilium.
  2. The second stage is Production of Complete Proteins. There is transfer of sugars through roots to soil microbes which release nutrients in a plant available form. There is increased resistance to insects with simple digestive systems such as aphids, whiteflies and larval insects such as cabbage earworms, tomato hornworms and many others.
  3. In the third stage there is Storage of Surplus Energy. Energy is stored in the form of lipids, fats and oils. Lipids build strong cell membranes for increased resistance to all airborne pathogens, parasites, disease and UV radiation. There is resistance to downy and powdery mildew, late blight, as well as bacterial invaders such as fireblight, scab, rust, bacterial speck and bacterial spot.
  4. In the fourth stage there is Production of Plant Secondary Metabolites. PSMs act as protectants to guard against UV, disease, and insect attack. There is resistance to cucumber beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and Japanese beetles. There is production of advanced anti-fungal compounds and digestion inhibitors. The production of phytoalexins in stage 4 is based on the lipids production in stage 3. These aromatic essential oil compounds (terpenes, phenolics, bioflavonoids) are natural plant protection compounds that contain pesticidal properties of their own.

At the conference John put forth that it is possible for a plant that is grown hydroponically to gain the first two levels of health with the proper mineral amendments to the water solution, but it takes interaction with soil microbes for plants to move to the next 2 levels of health – an interesting consideration in the raging debate over “hydroponic organic”.

Another assertion that John made was that from a farmer’s standpoint, the most efficient way to improve photosynthesis – with improved photosynthesis being the goal for maximum plant health – is through foliar feeding of mineral nutrition. This travels with the caveat that the major minerals need to be in balance in the soil for this to be maximized. The 5 nutrients that he deems necessary for foliar application blends to be

  • Magnesium, which is the center element in the chlorophyll molecule
  • Manganese, which is essential for water hydrolysis (splitting apart the H and the O2)
  • Phosphorous for energy transfer
  • Iron to build the chlorophyll molecule
  • Sulfur to promote protein synthesis

Further, John emphasized that you can sequester carbon long term in your soil growing vegetables by particularly providing the proper nutrition to plants at their critical points of influence, these being

  • planting and transplanting
  • building  plant frame and initiating reproduction
  • filling fruit
  • finishing fruit

He went on to explain that the period when a plant is building its frame is the most critical time to sequester carbon. A plant that is photosynthesizing at at least 60% capacity or more can pump up to 75% of the photosynthates into the root zone for use by the microbial communities so that they can in turn return their metabolites to the plant for this rapid growth period. The good news is there is a lot of carbon left into the soil, which the fungi digest over and over again until you have humification with 38-42% fat concentration.

We have been working on balancing our macro minerals on our farm since 2007 and have them in a pretty good place. With that base in place, I particularly noted the value of weekly foliar applications this year. The result was a marked deepening of the greening on the plants and a boost in production and quality, despite a pretty severe drought. Where we were utilizing no till practices (not yet in place all over the farm) frame construction and subsequent harvest quantity and quality was markedly improved over the shallowly tilled areas.

We are in a time of a lot of exciting and evolving science and practice on crop health, soil health and consequent farm viability capability. I am grateful to John Kempf and others who inspire me to hurry back to the farm and make plans to improve our systems for next year.

I had one short term important takeaway after this conference. Our fruit trees froze out last April and did not produce all season. I admit to neglecting their foliar nutrition in 2016 with the crush of all of the other work – particularly dealing with the drought. When the temperature rises above freezing this winter we plan to foliar feed our fruit trees and berries to help them get a jump start for next season.  My other takeaway was around that framing period of the vegetable plants. I am inspired to maximize attention to the plants while they are in that important structural period of their lives, with undersowing of cover crops as appropriate, weekly foliar feeding and drenching and proper (not too close) spacing so that they can grow to their full size potential, and sequester some carbon while they are at it.


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