How to grow superb biological produce above & beyond ordinary chemical OR organic agriculture

OK, if you've read the Brix pages you're now aware of the true nature of quality in terms of fruits & vegetables.  Typically, the next question is "How can I grow produce to better standards?"

My research found many ways.  One of the most simple is to apply liberal amounts of top-quality compost to one's "patch." That, of course, implies one can produce "top-quality" compost.  As you'll soon see, almost all compost has to be doctored to improve its inherent quality.

Why would not just any old compost be top-quality?  A little thought reveals several answers.  One is that if you're using compost made from ordinary low-quality plants and garden waste, the end product will be low-quality.  Another thought is that if you're using low-quality manure then you can, at best, expect low-quality compost.

"Low-quality" manure?  Yes!  All manure is by its very nature low-quality.  How could it be otherwise?  If it came from an animal---any animal---then that animal's digestive system had to have mined out all, or most, of the elements needed to maintain the animal's health.  The manure, then, is nothing but unusable waste.  That is not to say that plants don't appear to thrive on ordinary manure.  They will grow lush and green on manure.  But the growth is low Brix and low Brix is low quality.  That is what excess nitrogen does to plants.  However, our goal is to grow higher quality plants, not just more of the low quality junk that so dominates modern agriculture.

Perhaps an old farmer saying can help here: "You can't put 10 Brix alfalfa in one end of a cow and expect to get 20 Brix milk out the other."

Over a hundred years ago, Julius Hensel, a German chemist, who also owned a grist mill, discovered that the dust from ground up stones had the ability to vastly improve the quality of plants.  His book, Bread From Stones, has been reprinted and is serving as a major inspiration for modern farmers who want to look beyond the simplistic nature of chemical agriculture, along with its attendant soil destruction.

Hensel's discovery was carried forward in the 1970s by John Hamaker, a retired engineer, who made healthy agriculture his second career.  Hamaker's prescription for worn out, dry, failing soil is simple in the extreme: gravel dust will do the job.  Hamaker's book, The Survival of Civilization carefully documents the astounding inprovements in quality AND quantity that are possible in fully remineralized agricultural soils.

Yes, although there are other methods, one answer for larger scale agricultural operations is to remineralize, i.e, to spread ground rock on the fields (or add it to their compost) so as to improve next year's crops.  Given time, this is also the ideal way to improve the quality of garden output.  However, time is not always available.  Most people who first start using a refractometer to measure Brix are astounded---exasperated---to realize that what they thought was truly good produce is not so good after all.  They want something done now!

The answer for many farmers and gardeners is to simply experiment by feeding the growing plant with various sprayed-on fertility elements.  For instance, the concerned gardener may try a dilute solution of fish or seaweed (or both).  If, indeed, the plant gains Brix they know they have hit on something.  If the Brix remains the same---or drops---they know they must keep searching.  And the search may not be as difficult as they think: manufacturers around the world are constantly developing soil & foliar applied products that can raise Brix---often dramatically.  

However, let nothing said here make you think that you can take, say, a tomato plant loaded with green tomatoes and magically move them from 6 Brix to 16 Brix immediately before ripening.  Your efforts will be most rewarded when you acknowledge the needs of that baby tomato seedling---and continue to do so at each of its stages.  This is exactly why "Doctor" Pike (as I now teasingly call him) devotes so much effort to perfecting the tissue test methods detailed on these pages.

Dr. Carey Reams, who is given full credit for developing the Brix=Quality concept, spoke on his deathbed of the help he had received from the mentioned Bob Pike, of Pike Agri-Lab in Strong, Maine.  Reams' widow even today speaks glowingly of how Reams said that his scientific testing mantle should be passed to Pike.

Several years back I decided to get to know Pike better and it proved a fruitful experience.  In the years since Reams passed (1985), embedded computers have allowed the development of test instruments that now equip the informed crop consultant to literally carry in his pocket what once required a rather good sized laboratory.

Pike has not been idle for those years---far from it.  As you will see in the pages that follow, he has refined and further developed Reams' concepts to the point that an equipped consultant can deliver real-time answers to vexing agricultural problems.  However, even though the procedures are rapidly spreading among in-the-know crop consultants, Pike's modesty prevents him from claiming this is the ultimate answer.  Instead, if you'll read carefully, you can almost hear him saying, "These procedures can help guide you to what you must do to create higher quality crops."  By the way, if any Australian readers are here, they may want to review the Nutri-Tech webpages to see how the Reams/Pike methods are being utilized "down under."  Nutri-Tech currently has over 7,000 farmers following their programs.

As you read, try to keep a thought in mind: these procedures are neither "organic" nor are they "chemical"---they are plant oriented.  In other words, if the plant indicates (via a Brix gain) that it has benefited from a substance (whether that substance be "organic" or "chemical"), then that substance is what the plant needs to thrive better.  There will be many times that one or more of the elements of ordinary N-P-K chemical fertilizer are exactly what the plant indicates it needs, but that in no way invalidates the need for COMPLETE fertilization.  

The former fact dooms many well-meaning "organic" growers (who may ignore the plant's true needs so as to follow philosophical rules) to hopelessly flounder with low-quality crops (along with the insects & disease that such quality engenders).  The latter thought, just as harmful, keeps many a mainline farmer from producing a high quality output.  They'll both flounder until they learn to listen to their crops.

Rex Harrill 7/22/00
 

Plant Tissue Test Instructions
From Pike Agri-Lab Supplies, Inc.

Introduction:

This method of plant sap analysis is relatively new. Sap is squeezed from the fresh plant tissue and analyzed for Brix, pH and EC. Data collected can be used as a tool in fertility management. Please note that the information contained here is preliminary.

Although research continues in the area of plant sap analysis, little interpretation data is available. Over a period of time, it is recommended that a grower establish his own data, based on analysis results, fertilizer applications and crop response.

Recommended tools:

OVERVIEW OF CROP MANAGEMENT
USING PLANT TISSUE TESTS

The following outline shows how you may be able to make improvements, based on the teachings of Carey Reams:

Brix (>12) E.C. (2,000 – 12,000S) pH 
(6.4)
Interpretation – 
Remember: If things are not as they should be, look at factors such as compaction and/or weed growth to help determine what your soil is lacking.
High NA NA Good balanced microbial activity. Consider selling crop at a premium.
Low Low Low Ions are missing. May be due to a lack of microbial activity in the soil. Elements that act as carriers in the soil, such as nitrogen and phosphorus may be lacking. May also be lacking potassium or sodium. Look for soil compaction indicating that calcium to magnesium ratio is out of balance. 
Low Low High Ions are missing. May be due to a lack of microbial activity in the soil. Elements that act as carriers in the soil, such as nitrogen or phosphorus may be lacking. May be lacking phosphates, sulfates, acetates, or humic acids. 
Low High Low Ions are not complexed. May be due to a lack of microbial activity in the soil. Acid producing elements or ions are at excessive levels and not being "complexed". May be lacking calcium, magnesium, potassium, or sodium. High salt fertilizers may have been applied.
Low High High Ions are not complexed. May be due to a lack of microbial activity in the soil. Elements or ions such as nitrate nitrogen are at excessive levels and not being "complexed". May be lacking phosphate or sulfates or magnesium.
General Information

Please read the instructions included with each of the meters prior to calibrating, using, or storing them. Familiarize yourself with the do’s & don’ts involved in the handling for long term service, calibration, battery replacement, & other notes. Frequent calibration will increase confidence in the accuracy of the instruments.

It is very important that the testing surfaces of the plant sap testers (refractometer, pH, & EC meters) be thoroughly rinsed after each use. A final rinse in distilled water is suggested. Before testing samples, be sure to check the calibration of the meters, using standard solution(s). Follow the calibration instructions included with the meters.

Important Precautions

These instruments should not be dropped or handled roughly. Take extra care with the non-waterproof meters, but even the waterproof testers should not be completely immersed. Please check the information provided with each meter to determine whether it is waterproof, & also to familiarize yourself with any special care requirements. For example:

PLANT SAP EXTRACTION

Sampling:

Select young leaves that are exposed to sunlight. Try to find leaves that represent the field area to be evaluated. Try to minimize the amount of stems and veins in the sample material.

Samples may be taken from several different plants, making sure that sufficient material is collected for chemical analysis. Leaves or parts of plants selected should be of the same age and relative position on the plants. You should establish sampling procedures for every plant type and then strictly adhere to those procedures.

Do not sample plants that show obvious signs of nutrient deficiency or damage from disease, insects, or chemicals unless this is the subject of the study. Plants that have been under stress for a period of time may not give a true picture of the nutrient status of the field.

Extraction & Testing Procedure:

  1. Use a plant sap press (modified vise grips or hydraulic press system) to squeeze sap from the leaves. Place a portion of plant material in the press. For vise grips, leave a portion of a leaf extending beyond the jaws. (Allow the sap to follow the leaf so that it can be easily transferred.)
  2. Transfer several drops onto each of the three sap testers: refractometer, pH tester, & EC meter.
  3. Close the lid of the refractometer and take the reading. Record.
  4. Switch on the pH meter and wait for reading to stabilize. Record.
  5. Switch on the EC meter and wait for reading to stabilize. Record.
  6. Carefully clean the instruments with distilled water.
  7. Repeat the procedure for other samples if desired.
REFRACTOMETER

Refractometers are simple optical instruments for measuring the dissolved solids content of fruits, grasses, & vegetables during all stages of growth. The solids (sugars, proteins, amino acids, etc.) that are dissolved in the juice of plant tissues will bend light rays in proportion to: the quantity of all the atoms, the atomic weight of the elements, & the number of covalent bonds in the combinations of atoms such as sugars. Refractometers measure in weight % sucrose in water (Brix) and can be calibrated with distilled water and/or sugar standard solution. Note: the ATC-1e automatically removes errors (up to 2 Brix) due to changes in temperature (50-86F).

The Brix indicates the level of balance of nutrient uptake and complexing into sugars or proteins in the photosynthesis factory – the leaf. If Brix is low, some element(s) are missing. Ions, if present, have not been "complexed" into sugars or proteins. If soil nutrients are in the best balance and are made available (by microbes) upon demand by plants, Brix will be higher.

Taking the Brix reading

Place 2 to 3 drops of liquid sample on the prism surface, close the cover & point toward any light source. Focus the eyepiece by turning the ring to the right or left. Locate the point on the graduated scale where the light & dark fields meet. Read the % sucrose (solids content) on the scale.

For reference, pure (distilled) water reads 0 Brix.

Other Useful Brix Tests

Test the juice of fruits, vegetables, or grasses and compare them to the enclosed chart of Refractive Indexes (Brix readings). Within a given species of plant, the crop with the higher refractive index will have a higher sugar content, higher mineral content, higher protein content and a greater specific gravity or density. This adds up to a sweeter tasting, more minerally nutritious food (maximum nutritional value) with lower nitrate and water content and better storage attributes.

Crops with higher Brix will produce more alcohol from fermented sugars and be more resistant to insects, thus resulting in decreased insecticide usage. For insect resistance, maintain a Brix of 12 or higher in the juice of the leaves of most plants. Crops with a higher solids content will have a lower freezing point & therefore be less prone to frost damage.

E.C. METER

The Cardy Twin Cond meter measures electrical conductivity of plant sap, water, soil, compost, foliar sprays, etc. It has Auto Temperature Compensation (removes errors caused by temperature variance) and Auto-ranging (displays reading automatically in mS or S, according to sample’s concentration).

EC indicates the level of simple ion uptake into the plant sap. With low Brix crop, if sap EC is too low, elements are not being made available to the plant. Look at the EC of soil/water extract (or ERGS) and take appropriate steps to correct the condition. If sap EC is too high, elements or ions are not being "complexed" and ions such as nitrate nitrogen may be at excessive levels.

Conductivity Cross Reference

1 milliSiemen (mS) is equal to 1000 microSiemen (S). A mho is another name for a Siemen, so that a micro mho (mho) is equal to a micro Siemen (S). Conductivity is the reciprocal of resistivity (ohm).

Other Useful Conductivity Tests

Testing the conductivity (mobile ion concentration) of water or spray solutions:

Place several drops of the water or spray solution to be tested onto sensor of the calibrated EC meter (alternately, immerse the sensor end of the meter into the liquid, being careful not to immerse beyond the level indicated). Turn on the meter and wait for the reading to stabilize. Good quality spring or tap water should be < 100 S; distilled water should be < 10 S.

Testing soil "ERGS" or conductivity of soil/water mixture:

ERGS (as defined by Reams, is Energy Released per Gram of Soil). A desired level would be 100-200 S.

  1. Use a small beaker or cup to measure out a fixed volume of soil. Do not pack soil into cup, but fill any voids of > 1/4" diameter. Fill cup to brim & remove excess with a clean straight edge.
  2. Pour into a larger jar or cup with a lid.
  3. Measure an equal volume of low conductivity (i.e., less than 5S) distilled water. Pour into jar or cup.
  4. Cover the jar. Gently shake contents back and forth 5 - 7 times to partially put into solution the ions that are loosely bonded to soil particles or humus molecules. Allow soil to settle to bottom of cup. The goal is to extract those ions that would be most readily available to the plant rootlets.
  5. Place a few drops of the filtrate onto the sensor of the calibrated EC meter (alternately, immerse the sensor end of the meter into the liquid, being careful not to immerse beyond the level indicated). Turn on the meter and wait for the reading to stabilize.
  6. Rinse the sensor with flowing stream of tap water. Spray rinse with distilled water. Several rinses may be required in order to obtain reading of < 1 S with good distilled water.
Plants grow from the interaction of simple ions. During the major growth phase of the plant, ERGS should not be <100 S. Values of 200 – 400 S are very good when ions derived are from good balanced plant nutrients. The ERGS should not be allowed to go to a level of < 100 S during the growth phase of a plant, if a reasonable yield is expected. If soil ERGS is > 1200 S, most plants won’t survive. Corn will do well at higher ERGS levels during plant production phase.

Low ERGS, (50 S or less), indicate that soil nutrients have become insoluble or complexed. This means they are not readily available to the plant and results in poor growth potential.

Establish baseline conductivity levels in early spring before rising temperatures activate soil life. Salt residues and latent plant nutrients in soil should form a baseline of 25-600 S.

High conductivity in soils is an indication of possible nematode susceptibility.

Testing electrical conductivity (E.C.) of compost:

  1. Gather a fresh compost sample in a plastic bag, taking care not to touch sample with hands.
  2. For compost, a 50% by weight moisture level is desired for the sample prior to testing.
  3. Follow steps outlined for soil ERGS testing (above).
Compost in early stages may have an EC of <10,000 S. At the peak of the breakdown stage, it may have an EC of >100,000 S. Highest quality, water-stable, nutrient-rich (unleached) finished compost should be approximately 1,500 S.

PH METER

The Cardy Twin pH meter tests hydrogen ion activity. This meter has Automatic Temperature Compensation (ATC) which removes errors caused by temperature variance. The acid/alkalinity reading determines balance of soil microbes and can be used to make decisions on balancing soil additives. Foliage (plant tissue) pH is indicative of nutrient uptake and potential of pressure from insects and disease.

pH indicates elements, which may be out of balance. For pH<6.4, consider if there is a need for Ca, Mg, K, or Na. For pH>6.4, consider possible need for phosphates or sulfates. If the proper elements are selected and applied, the Brix will increase and pH will go to the desired area of ~ 6.4.

Other Useful pH Tests

Testing the pH (Hydrogen ion activity) of water or spray solutions:

Place several drops of the water or spray solution to be tested onto sensor of the calibrated pH meter (alternately, immerse the sensor end of the meter into the liquid, being careful not to immerse beyond the level indicated). Turn on the meter and wait for the reading to stabilize.

Testing pH of soil/water mixture:

  1. Use a small beaker or cup to measure out a fixed volume of soil. Do not pack soil into cup, but fill any voids of > 1/4" diameter. Fill cup to brim & remove excess with a clean straight edge.
  2. Pour into a larger jar or cup with a lid.
  3. Measure an equal volume of distilled water. Pour into jar or cup.
  4. Cover the jar. Gently shake contents back and forth 5 - 7 times to partially put into solution the ions that are loosely bonded to soil particles or humus molecules. Allow soil to settle to bottom of cup. The goal is to extract those ions that would be most readily available to the plant rootlets.
  5. Place a few drops of the filtrate onto the sensor of the calibrated pH meter (alternately, immerse the sensor end of the meter into the liquid, being careful not to immerse beyond the level indicated). Turn on the meter and wait for the pH reading to stabilize.
  6. Rinse sensor with flowing stream of tap water. Rinse with distilled water. Several rinses may be needed.
Soil pH of 6.5 is generally ideal. Plant nutrient availability is dependent on soil pH.

Testing pH of compost:

  1. Gather a fresh compost sample in a plastic bag, taking care not to touch sample with hands.
  2. For compost, a 50% by weight moisture level is desired for the sample prior to testing.
  3. Follow steps outlined for testing pH of soil/water mixture (above).
The pH should be between 7.0 & 8.0.

Measure the microbial activity level of Soil or Compost:

  1. Add 1/4 ml of Soil Stripper Solution (available from Pike Agri-Lab Supplies) for every 10ml of original water volume to the sample mixture (for example, use 1.5 ml of Soil Stripper Solution for 60ml of water), replace the cap and mix for 30 seconds. Let settle for 1 minute.
  2. Use the pH meter and read the new pH value. Record this value as "KCL pH". Note the magnitude of decrease (or increase, under some conditions) in pH from initial reading and this number is referred to as "pH differential" or "? pH".
The "pH differential" decrease from the "actual pH" (with water) should be no more than 0.5 for soil and 0.3 pH units for compost. This change is caused by the KCL in the Soil Stripper Solution knocking hydrogen ions off the clay colloids. A small drop in pH indicates a good buffering capacity, which is a sign of biological life.

Observations about pH

  1. Certain nitrogen-fixing microbes won't live if pH is < 5.8
  2. Pesticide usage may be reduced if water mixture pH is < 6.8
  3. Herbicide usage can be reduced by correcting spray pH
  4. Soil pH profiles can be indicative of soil compaction
  5. Early growth plants will respond to alkaline sprays, i.e. pH 7. - 7.4. Later in the season, fruit, root, or seed producing foliars require acid pH (6.4 or lower).
  6. Rainwater in equilibrium with carbon dioxide will have a pH of 5.6. Acid rain has been recorded as low as pH of 3.0
  7. Drying a soil at a temperature above field conditions will increase soil acidity. During later part of season, organic acids produced by microbes will be at a higher concentration.
To raise soil pH: Use the following alkaline substances diluted in water: KOH, Ca(OH)2, Baking soda, NH4OH, CaCO3.To lower soil pH: Use the following acidifying substances diluted in water: vinegar (acetic acid), citric acid, ascorbic acid, phosphoric acid, sulfuric acid.

INFRA-RED SENSOR GUN

Note: The USDA has researched the stress level in plants as a function of temperature rise above ambient air temperature. The IR gun provides a simple, fast and accurate means of testing the differential temperature (D T).

Conditions required for testing:

  1. Plant leaf surface must be dry.
  2. Use only when wind is blowing at less than 10 mph.
  3. Keep the sunlight at your back.
  4. Use a sheet of plain white paper for determining ambient air temperature.
  5. Take I.R. readings from foliage only during the peak sunlit hours of the day, when stress is most likely to occur. Therefore, take readings from 11 AM to 4 PM during the summer and from 1 PM to 3 PM during the winter.
  6. If air temperature is much cooler than normal, then I.R. plant stress will not be measurable with this instrument.
  7. You must have at least 2 minutes of sunlight immediately following an interruption by clouds.
Directions for taking differential temperature readings between ambient air and plant leaf surfaces:

Note: The sensor has 8 to 1 optics. This means that the beam diameter is 1/8th of the distance from the sensor to the object at the center of the beam. The beam will be oval, (similar to a flashlight beam) when you shine the gun at an angle to the foliage.

  1. Determine ambient air temperature. Point gun at center of 8.5" wide sheet of white paper. If you hold the sheet 24" from the IR gun, then the 3" diameter region will be providing the ambient temperature reading.
  2. Hold the sensor so that the beam will not see the sky or dirt.
  3. Take readings while in the field, not while in a pickup truck.
  4. View only the vegetation.

  5. Notes on Corn: After the 5th leaf stage, aim at individual plants or down the rows. Once there is a full canopy, readings may be made from an elevated platform.
  6. For readout of foliage temperature, take multiple samples, average the readings. Generally, the larger the area, the more samples you should take.
  7. Record the differential temperature between ambient air and average foliage temperature. The magnitude of this temperature difference is a measure of the stress level of the plants.
Factors affecting readings:
  1. Tree crops will transpire water slowly.
  2. Row crops transpire a greater amount.
  3. Overcast skies, clouds, and cold fronts cause I.R. plant stress to decrease.
  4. Early in the season, with small leaf area and shallow roots, stress will rise rapidly. Later in the season, large leaves and deeper roots will stabilize the stress factor.
  5. Stress may increase immediately after irrigation or soaking rain, especially in heavy soils. The lack of oxygen to the roots inhibits the ability of the plant to absorb water from the soil.
I.R. Stress Reading related to crops:
  1. In general, a differential temperature of +1or 2 degrees Celsius is very good. If the foliage is 10 C warmer than ambient air, the plant is seriously stressed and cause of problem needs to be determined.
  2. Overall, the cooler a particular crop stays, the higher the yield and the better the quality of the crop.
  3. In order to produce maximum yield on seeds, the plant stress should follow a sawtooth pattern over the course of the growing season. Start the season with low stress to promote plant growth. Then create stress in order to stimulate seed production. Thereafter, maintain the vigor of the crop in order to complete the production of seeds.
General notes:

Leaf Temperature varies directly with:

Ambient air temperature

Sunlight level

Relative humidity

Leaf Temperature varies indirectly with:

Water

Oxygen

Plant stomata will open if potassium is high.

Plants evaporate water if stomata are open.

As drying power increases, plant temperature goes down (evaporative cooling).

If air is saturated with moisture, i.e., relative humidity is high, leaves will evaporate less.

Late in season, as leaves dry, stress index will gradually increase to moderate levels.

A leaf with closed stomata will be hotter.

Stomata will close if:

Water levels are low

Disease or insects are present

Response may be slow due to:

Slow water penetration into soil

Delay of re-growth of new roots

Call us to see how we can help you grow better:

Pike Agri-Lab Supplies, Inc.

RR 2 Box 710

Strong, Maine 04983

Phone (207) 684-5131 Fax -5133

e-mail: info@pikeagri.com

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