Know Your Rights. Water as the 5th Right in Agriculture

clip_image002MANILA: The International Plant Nutrition Institute (IPNI) makes much of what is called "4R Nutrient Stewardship Concept" in nutrient management (Tom Bruulsema, "Presentation on Know Your Fertilizer Rights Nutrient Stewardship Concept," 03 October 2012, ipni.net). Tom is the North America Northeast Region Director of IPNI; the presentation was made before the American Society of Agronomy on 10 June 2009 and is downloadable as a pdf. Since that time, the presentation has become the first article in a 5-part series from the IPNI titled "Know Your Fertilizer Rights" sponsored by The Fertilizer Institute and the Canadian Fertilizer Institute, "based on fertilizer best management practices structured around the '4R' nutrient stewardship concept." It's time we knew more about these Other 4 Rights of Man.

Under the Nutrient Stewardship Concept of Nutrient Management, the so-called 4 Rights are: the Right Source in the Right Form at the Right Place at the Right Time. Being a wide reader since 57 years ago in high school, a BS Agriculture graduate from the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA), 49 years ago, and a World Wide Web reader, since 8 years ago, it's obvious to me that the 4 Rs of Nutrient Stewardship all refer to commercial inorganic fertilizers. If nutrient management is all about managing your chemical fertilizers, then it's micromanaging in favor of synthetic fertilizers, which are derived from dwindling petroleum sources whose very manufacture is pollutive of the environment. This indeed is stewardship of the nutrients, not stewardship of the environment.

What about organic fertilizers? They are also rightful sources of essential plant nutrients and can be applied at the right form at the right place at the right time, right? And they naturally belong to the environment.

Which is where I'm coming from. I have a history, we might say, of organic agriculture, and it's almost half a century old.

In 1967, I was a new graduate of agriculture and working as Substitute Teacher (Horticulture) at the Horticulture Department of UPCA. As since high school I had always been an insatiable reader, from reading on my own at the main library of UPCA (now UP Los Baños) at the foot of Mt Makiling in College, Laguna, as a faculty member, I had the liberty and I used it to ransack literally the open shelves of that library. And with an open mind, that's how I learned about trash farming from American gentleman farmer Edward H Faulkner in his book Soil Development published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1952. I was probably reading it 15 years after it was published, but the concept was still new to me – and to most of the world, including the universe called the United States of America. (I read next Edward Faulkner's The Plowman's Folly.) Totally convinced that trash agriculture was cash agriculture on the side of conservation, I then began writing about bad plowing and organic farming, and the Cow College PhDs laughed at me. I forgave them all long ago. (If you have 1967 or 1968 copies of the Philippines Free Press, you can find me there writing about a soil that is alive, and the foresters couldn't disagree more. There, I also published a poem about Vietnam, and it wasn't about agriculture.)

Edward Faulkner preached and practiced trash farming in his own farm. I preached the same but couldn't practice at the Manresa Farms of Xavier University College of Agriculture in Cagayan de Oro City; XUCA was where I landed when I was kicked out of UPCA in 1968 for having destroyed the sanctity of UPCA's celebration of Loyalty Day each year on the 10th of October; I had written an open letter, "What Did You Do In The War, Daddy?" pointing out the absurdity of the celebration because what was expressed by all those faculty and students who volunteered to fight in Europe during World War 1 on 10 October 1914 was loyalty to the masters of democracy (Americans) and not loyalty to the University – the Philippines was not directly involved in that war. Truth hurts, and it hurt me – they kicked my butt.

Only half-discouraged, from the University of the Philippines, I brought my young wife and baby daughter, my German Lettera 32 portable typewriter and American books to Xavier University, and under CA Dean Fr William Masterson SJ, I taught horticulture on the basis of organic agriculture, making much of the ideas of Edward Faulkner and Ruth Stout, the patron saint of Gardening Without Work. I typed my own lecture and lab notes. A great many years later, my teaching was crowned, we might say, with success when Nicky Perlas, one of my A students, won the Right Livelihood Award, widely referred to in the world as the Alternative Nobel Prize. He had adopted biodynamic agriculture, even better than organic agriculture. I knew the student had eclipsed the teacher, but I was happy for him and organic agriculture. A good idea deserves another.

The 4 Rs of Nutrient Stewardship is a good idea – but not as intended by its advocates. No, I cannot reconcile inorganic farming with organic farming, but I can use the 4 Rs of the inorganic to argue against the inorganic, and I'm going to do that now.

The Right Source in the Right Form at the Right Place at the Right Time – what else is better than the organic as the right source of plant nutrients that already is in the right form and in the right place at the right time? If you practice trash farming, your organic matter is all over your field, your top soil enriched by the decomposition into humus. The humus increases the available nutrients and increases the ability of that soil to hold water in place for use by the roots of plants anytime anywhere in that field. Trash farming is the best 4 Rs of Nutrient Stewardship in action.

Water is the great supplier. No, your crop cannot absorb any nutrient from any inorganic fertilizer without water in your soil. Yes, your crop can absorb all the nutrients from any organic matter that decomposes in your soil because, literally, it holds water. That is why I argue that Water is the 5th Right of Agriculture. In fact, it is the 1st Right, because upon this Right all other Rights proceed – for fertilizers, you cannot have the Right Source, Right Form, Right Place and Right Time without the Right Water. And the Right Water is Organic.

Give me organic water all the time!

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