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John Kempf Lectures on Plant-Soil Physiology for Hours, with No Slides, and it’s Absolutely Riveting: Do Not Miss Intensive at the 2019 Winter Conference

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 January Issue Newsletter

By Caro Roszell, NOFA/Mass Education Director

I have been privileged to have seen John Kempf speak for the better part of a day several times over the eight years I’ve worked with NOFA/Mass. The first time was at the 2011 Soil & Nutrition Conference in Northampton Mass, when NOFA/Mass was still co-running that event with the Bionutrient Food Association. I remember sitting in pews in the church, hanging on every word. I remember most clearly from that lecture the idea that crops have the genetic capacity to yield so much more than contemporary farmers imagine or have seen (and have dramatically higher nutrient profiles) because almost all farming systems are essentially degraded ecosystems. The current standards for yield, crop quality, and growth rate are far from optimal and can be dramatically increased if the soil is remineralized, repopulated with diverse, beneficial microorganisms, and if crops have access to certain necessary minerals (in the right form) at critical stages like root development and fruit set.

This idea profoundly impacted me and became the primary lens through which I think about farming and food production.

The last time I saw John speak was just a few weeks ago at the Bionutrient Food Association’s Soil & Nutrition Conference. Unlike the first time I saw him speak, this time there were no slides. At his disposal were a microphone, a few different colors of whiteboard marker and two whiteboards.

He started out by asking the room (100+ people) what concerns or issues they were having on their farms. He took notes on one white board. For the rest of the day, he talked, taking notes on the second white board and occasionally erasing an issue on the first board as it was resolved.

It sounds simple, but it was absolutely and utterly engrossing. Over one hundred people sat riveted, furiously taking notes around me. Occasionally someone made an ‘ah-hah’ sound, laughed in amazement, or raised a hand to ask a question. The day flew by. I can’t imagine that the workshop could have been improved by videos, slides or other media—John’s way of describing plant and soil microbiome physiology are clear, illustrative, and very content-dense. If he needs to describe something complex, he draws diagrams and molecules on the board. Those intervals give the audience time to catch up to him—the content is dense, so rapt attention is necessary to stay on track.

My favorite part of this year’s lecture was this idea, which was new to me: the efficiency and effectiveness of plant photosynthesis not only determines plant health but also drives soil health. According to Kempf—just using corn as an example scenario for this concept—most of the corn grown in the United States is only operating at about 20% photosynthetic efficiency. A corn plant operating at 20% capacity directs approximately 35% of its carbohydrates to plant biomass, 35% to grain, and then 15% each to root biomass and exudates. In total, a stressed plant in a degraded agroecological system directs 70% of its carbohydrates above the ground and 30% belowground. In this scenario, Kempf estimated that about 1,500 lbs. of carbohydrates are exuded to feed microbes per acre.

If we restore the soil ecosystem and support plant health through regenerative farming practices which include proper water and carbon dioxide management, macro and trace mineral remineralization, foliar feeding with biologicals, bio stimulants and photosynthesis supporting minerals, along with cover cropping, we can move the plant to a higher state of health, in which the percentages of distribution of photosynthetic compounds shift. At 60% photosynthetic efficiency, there is a shift to a 25% each sugar distribution between grain, biomass, root mass and exudates. In a 60% efficiency scenario, Kempf estimates that the sugar pumped into the soil is closer to 15,000 pounds per acre.

In this way, John Kempf explains how important supporting plant health is to building healthy soil. And—Kempf further proposes that farmers can, with the right methods, push toward 80% photosynthetic efficiency.

To learn the various methods involved in achieving high photosynthetic capacity, you can register for John Kempf’s intensive at the NOFA/Mass Winter Conference.

If you saw him at the Soil & Nutrition Conference in December, go deeper by coming to see him again. I’ve seen him many times and his lecture is different every time because he doesn’t follow a script. There are new insights and new ways to understand the material with every opportunity to see John lecture.

If advanced farming is not your bailiwick, don’t worry—we have two other intensives (Growing Culinary and Medicinal Fungi, and Planning a Traditional, Four-Square Kitchen Garden) and 60+ workshops on everything from the gut microbiome to chestnut farming.

Walk-in rates go into effect on 1/11, so register now to save $10!

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