I have a friend who grew up in the open ranch lands of the desert southwest of the United States. He once told me how an elderly Native American man (I do not know what tribal group) would chuckle and shake his head at the ranch hands at lunchtime. “Only a white man would look at a watch to see if he was hungry,” he would tell them.

As a physician who sees newborns to geriatric patients every day, I think of this story often. I see the sick or injured children, and they do what their body is telling them to do. They rest. They don’t move. They wait until they feel better. When they do not feel sick, they are back to bouncing off the walls. This is confusing, and sometimes frustrating, to new parents. Viral illnesses can cause waxing and waning symptoms throughout the day. The sick child will be either running around laughing or curled up and lethargic as the virus and immune system fight it out within their body.

In contrast, I see adults routinely try and “push through” when they are sick or injured. This often results in a prolonged and more significant illness or injury. If they would have just rested and waited, this exacerbation likely would not have happened. But, for many reasons, adults stop listening to their bodies.

I do think we adults can learn to listen to our bodies a lot more, and I believe it is something we should be working toward, but this will fall sadly short of an animal’s ability to listen to its needs.

The difference is more marked when it comes to nutrition. Anyone who raises livestock understands the importance of placing salt and/or mineral blocks out for their animals. The animal will take what it needs and leave the rest. Wild animals are no different. They will seek out certain plants at certain times based on their specific needs at that time. I have heard of pigs finding a layer of clay containing some mineral (unknown to the farmer) and rooting out, and eating, the entire seam. I have seen similar examples on nature documentaries of animals traveling for miles to a certain clearing in a forest. The exposed soils contain specific minerals that the animal needs. They eat their fill and leave.

We humans certainly lost the ability to identify the minerals we are deficient in, if we ever had that ability in the first place. Modern medical testing can identify mineral deficiencies, but really, this is only when they are significant. Significant deficiencies can lead to severe illness or death. Minor deficiencies are either never looked for or never noticed, but optimal health is lost.

So, what does this mean to us as Permaculturists?

Modern agriculture has been depleting our soils of nutrients for generations. Few farmers or ranchers have been replacing what was lost. Many do try and replace some nutrients. They often target specific minerals, but this is more about trying to optimize plant growth, not necesarily full plant health. Mineral replacement in modern agriculture is all about maximizing yields. It is rarely about nutrition.

As Permaculturists, we focus a lot on ecosystemic health as we design and build intentional biologic systems. In plain English, we want healthy soil to produce healthy plants, animals, and people. With soils that are deficient in nutrients, we have less healthy or even sick plants, animals, and people.

So how do we restore nutrients to the soil? There are a few ways to do this…

Soil testing requires soil samples and interpreting results.

Soil testing requires soil samples and interpreting results.

Soil Testing and Replacement.
Let’s start with the most common method. We first want to determine which nutrients are missing from our soil. We submit a soil test to one of many universities and laboratories across the country or the world. We get a report stating the current mineral levels and what it would take to increase them to optimal levels. These reports can be simple and focus on pH (acidity or alkalinity), organic matter percentage, and the major nutrients. These tests can be more involved and test for secondary nutrients as well. Or they can be very involved and test for minor/micro nutrients.

The Major Minerals (a.k.a. Primary Macronutrients)

  • Nitrogen (N) – (although few labs test nitrogen, unless asked, because this can change rapidly and drastically)
  • Phosphorus (P)
  • Potassium (K)

The Secondary Minerals (a.k.a. Secondary Macronutrients)

  • Calcium (Ca)
  • Magnesium (Mg)
  • Sulphur (S)

The Trace Minerals (a.k.a. Minor or Micronutrients)

  • Boron (B)
  • Chlorine (Cl)
  • Copper (Cu)
  • Iron (Fe)
  • Manganese (Mn)
  • Molybdenum (Mo)
  • Zinc (Zn)

Some soil reports will include additional information on other nutrients and contaminants as well. This all depends on the lab and what we order.

The recommendations for improving the soil will be based on what you intend to grow, as each type of plant has potentially different needs and nutrient requirements. The report would say something like “add 60 lbs per acre of phosphate” or “Lime: 2000 pounds of effective neutralizing power per acre”. The recommendations given are based on the individual lab’s preference. Some people get confused with these recommendations. The lab itself will often offer more detailed explanations on their website or over the phone (sometimes at additional cost). Also, we could talk to our local Agricultural Extension Agent for assistance in interpreting the results.

There are a number of very intelligent and successful farmers who use this method of managing their soil fertility. One must be very mindful about how this is done, or the soil can be destroyed. If you are interested in learning more about how to do this in a much more sustainable manner than most modern farmers, I would highly recommend Gary Zimmer’s book, The Biological Farmer.

But there are other ways.

One example of a free choice mineral feeder.

One example of a free choice mineral feeder.

Free Choice Mineralization
I was first drawn to Permaculture because of the idea of letting nature do the work for us. Free Choice Mineralization is a perfect example of this. We can use our animals’ exquisite sensitivity to their bodies’ mineral needs to tell us what minerals we need to replace. But we let them do all the work for us. Here is how it works…

We put livestock (cattle, sheep, pigs, etc.) out in our pastures. If a certain mineral is deficient in our soil, then the plants growing in that soil will also be deficient. This is the mineral our animals will crave. Instead of using mineral blocks containing mixtures of minerals, we can put out our minerals in individual containers, cafeteria style. The animals walk up to the mineral trough and decide what they want. Sometimes an animal will take mouthfuls of a certain mineral. Other times, an animal will just touch its nose to the mineral, lick it off, and walk away. We check back often and replace what is being eaten.

The animals are unable to absorb everything that they eat. Much of it passes through their gastrointestinal tract and is deposited in their manure. This process actually makes many minerals more readily absorbed by soil life and plants. But even if it is not immediately taken up by the plants, the soil now has been given a dose of exactly the minerals it was missing or was deficient.

I have spoken with a number of people who use this method, and they are strong proponents. They relate how when they start rotating their animals on new pastures, they spend quite a bit of money on the free choice minerals. However, this cost does not continue. Over time, sometimes within only two to three years, their mineral requirements become almost negligible. The same thing occurs when they introduce new animals to their farm. The animals often dive into certain minerals like it was candy. These minerals (and the specific mineral change from year to year and can change based on where the animal was previously) need to be replaced on a daily basis sometimes. After a few months, the rate of consumption slows down. The animal has restocked its required/desired mineral stores.

So without doing a single soil test, we can remineralize our soils by using animals. The animals and the soil become remineralized to right where they need to be.

Of course, things are not always as simple as we may initially think. This method only works with animal systems. Some plants, trees for instance, may desire different minerals than the animals need, and so animal systems may not provide the required minerals.

Elaine Ingham's Soil Food Web!

Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web!

Soil Life
There is a lot of research being done on remineralizing our soils by increasing the soil life. The concept is very simple. Proponents of this method state, correctly, that most soils have plenty of almost every nutrient in the soil and subsoil. But all these nutrients are tied up in unusable forms. Due to mismanagement with modern synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, we have destroyed the soil life. But if we can build soil life again, they will change multiple factors in the soil and subsoil which will then allow these vast stores of nutrients to be released. I personally believe there is a lot of truth in this method. If you are interested in learning more about this, please check out the work being done by Dr. Elaine Ingham.

There are actually a number of other schools of thought when it comes to soil remineralization, but these are the three that most appeal to me. I will probably be using a combination of these methods when I start on this process, which I hope will be very soon!


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Photo References:

  • http://www.yukonenvirothon.com/uploads/1/0/5/2/10529729/6025288_orig.jpg
  • http://totalsoil.com/images/E0317501/NutrientRelationship.jpg
  • http://practicalfarmers.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Mineral-feeder.jpg
  • http://sdsustainable.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Soil_Food_Web.jpg
  • http://www.beautifulwildlifegarden.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/15-compost-hands.jpg