The Two Sides of An Organic vs. Chemical Story

From Gene Logsdon

The photo of stunted corn (above) tells why grain farmers don’t like trees in their fence rows. Don’t like fence rows at all, in fact. The trees suck the moisture away from crops, as you can see.

But what’s going on here? The corn in the other photo, just across the fence, growing the same distance from the same trees, is tall and healthy. Why aren’t the trees robbing moisture from this corn?

I can’t recall any time when two pictures tell a better story of what’s happening in farming. I took both photos on July 15, as I write this. I wish I could have gotten into a helicopter above the tree line and shot the picture to get both corn fields in the same photo so readers would know for sure this is a true story.

The field with stunted corn next to the trees has been farmed with chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and modern tillage equipment for many years. It has been cash-cropped to corn and soybeans following each other most of that time, with an occasional crop of wheat in the rotation.

The field with vigorous, healthy corn next to the trees is mine. The rotation here has been five years of pasture and one year of corn for the past eighteen years I have owned the land. I put no fertilizer on the corn at all, except for the green manure from plowing under the sod, and the manure droppings put on it by the sheep. I weeded it mechanically three times.

Both fields were planted about the same time. The row of trees runs north and south, so both fields get the same amount of sunlight. My corn is an open-pollinated variety; the cash crop corn is a modern hybrid. The soil type is the same. My plant population is about 20,000 per acre; the hybrid corn somewhat thicker— I’d judge about 28,000 plants per acre.  My corn rows are 38 inches wide; the hybrid corn rows 30.  Several rows away from the trees, the chemical corn matches mine in height and vigor, so it seems a logical deduction to say that the trees are robbing the corn of moisture,  especially since rainfall has been only moderate so far this year.

But that is not the whole story. At one point in the chemical corn field, beyond where I took the photo, a sod waterway formerly ran from the tree line down a slight slope out into the field to prevent a gully from forming there. The waterway had been in place for years but this time around, the farmer cultivated and planted right through it. The corn in what had been the grass waterway is tall and healthy right up to the trees.

Obviously, moisture, or lack thereof, is only a contributing factor. The real reason for the stunted corn is reduced levels of organic matter in the soil following years of annual cultivation with subsequent compaction and erosion. In the other field, in pasture four years out of five at least, nature could keep organic matter stable or actually increase it over time. An adequate amount of organic matter evidently acts as a reservoir of moisture sufficient for both the fence row trees and the corn next to them. Anybody got any other explanations?

It is logical, it seems to me, to conclude that adequate organic matter in the soil can produce a good crop even if rainfall is below the requirements of modern cash grain farming. Or to put that another way,  how much of the blame for lower yields because of  “less than optimum conditions” as the experts say, should really be placed on low organic matter content, not adverse weather?

Then there is the other question. If my organic corn grows as well as the chemical corn right beside it when both get sufficient moisture, is not that free organic matter worth at least as much as the $150 or more of fertilizer per acre that is applied to the chemical corn every year?


Once again, a simple proof that not only is chemical farming totally unscientific and unsustainable, but that a national diet based on corn only makes sense for vertically-integrated grain cartels.

Going off DennisP’s comment about “idle” land, it does seem the sticking point of your system for most farmers is that in a given area, only ~17% of acreage could be devoted to a “cash crop” in a given year. I know cornstalks can be grazed or used as ensilage after harvest – I wonder whether you’ve thought about whether there would be a more ideal dual-purpose crop than corn for both grain and pasture. Is there something that is a light feeder, possibly perennial, produces abundant storable seeds, and leaves behind a useful grazing material so that a greater percentage of a given acreage could be devoted to storable grains? I even think of something like lamb’s quarter that produces a lot of seed per square foot by the end of July and leaves plenty of leaves behind in the bargain. Is there a way to harvest it other than a scythe?

This might be an issue the Land Institute is working on, but I wonder if you’ve watched your sheep grazing something in the fall and thought – “I could make pancakes out of that…”?

Gene – In saying the land lay “idle” I was trying to state the other farmer’s perspective, that the land could have been generating much greater current cash income from cash crops. I understand your point of view; I should after reading a half-dozen of your books.

Thanks to all of the above for such interesting comments. DennisP: this land does not lay “idle” most of the time, as you put it. It is in grazed pasture. That is the whole point to me. It would be better, I think, to have most of the land in grazed pasture most of the time and only a little in cultivated grains. As for shade factor a couple of you mention, the trees run north and south and so the two sides get equal amounts of sunlight, right?

I noticed shadows from your corn point to the right and shade the sod strip somewhat. I would have to assume the taller trees are also shading to the right which would put the first row in shade some of the time thus reducing the lumen intensity and reducing photosynthesis and plant size. Corn is a C4 photosynthesizer (as are most grasses) so it is sensitive to light intensity. Maybe the shadows are not a variable but from the pic I had to comment on it. I am a firm believer in organic methods and believe black carbon residue from pyrolytic processes could be a panacea for both depeleted soil and increasing CO2 levels.

Would shade have any effect? In the first picture it looks like the first couple of rows are shaded, in the second picture it looks like a nice sunny spot.

We’re with you, Gene. Organic matter all the way.

You are very likely right about the importance of organic matter: it matters in so many ways, something that many gardeners understand. And tree roots do grow a long distance, I found out from experience as I hacked out a new garden area where several trees had been felled; in fact I have a whole new respect for the pioneers of a couple hundred years ago who hacked out their farms from the woodlands. What a God-awful amount of work that had to be! And those roots will soak up water and nutrients.

But a high level of organic matter and an active microbiology means you have a very healthy soil. And you will have far fewer problems with pests and diseases because your corn is grown in healthy soil, as Albert Howard pointed out many years ago.

On the other hand, Gene, you don’t depend strictly on farming for your income. I would imagine your neighbor has high debt and can’t afford to let land sit “idle” for several years. He needs to earn income from it every year. Of course there are other farming systems to which he could transition which would involve less insults to the land and better treatment of it to increase its organic and microbiota content.

But the odds of him doing that are about similar to my students when I was teaching: I would start out talking about learning skills, but very few (if any) of them would change their study behaviors. They were comfortable and familiar with their customary behaviors and they knew what grades they could probably expect. Change is scary, moving from the familiar known into the great unknown.

Very interesting, as always.

The other obvious difference is the bare dirt vs. the grass between the treeline and the corn. I bet the turf slows down the rain, letting more of it soak into the ground, as opposed to just running off or evaporating. I wonder if even morning dew on the grass could contribute some tiny bit. If nothing else it might provide for the grass itself, which could then leave more moisture to go the the trees when it does rain.

The organic matter and/or micro-organisms in the soil seems like the bigger factor though, based on the growth on the former waterway.

Just some amateur guesswork…

I am by no means an expert, but could the difference have something to do with genetics? Could the older open polinated strain be better at competing for nutrients/water than the modern hybrid. It is generally agreed that hybrids will outyield open pollinated varities under ideal conditions, but I would suggest the open pollinated ones have more adaptability.

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