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What can we do as permaculturalists to help with the fertilizer shortage concern?

 
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I was speaking with a good friend and she was all in a dither about the fertilizer shortage and wanted to buy some and get her adult sons growing food on their new properties. She was quite upset about food security - which is a good thing and I was glad to see it - but she seemed to totally believe that chemicals was the way to go. I started sending her key articles about why it was better to grow organically, with local inputs, and how to cope with issues pertinent to our ecosystem.

I've been doing a lot of reading this winter about soil, and watching video presentations. It was very easy to get overwhelmed by all the information, some of it seemingly contradictory, and some of it seeming to change every week. I'm not sure it's really "changing", but I do know that we are learning more as more people are treating soil as the keystone to healthy plants.

So how can we help our neighbors look at things from a new perspective?

1. Know your land - and your neighbor's land.
Some of the lectures I watched were about geology. I live on Glacier rubble with an extremely high clay content, and rocks that are jumbled and a mix of materials. My Island is known to be low in selenium which doesn't overly hurt plants, but can really hurt farm animals.
One of the lectures talked about a wide area around the Mississippi river and how it was sand - all sand - no rocks. Permaculture has principles which can be related to all sorts of land, but I really struggled when the examples I'd read about were about greening the desert or the Eastern United States. Finally, I read The Earth Care Manual out of England. It's an island with ocean moderating and influencing its climate. A bunch of stuff clicked into place. So if I want to convince local people how to get started in caring for their soil, I need local examples that worked, local plants that will help, and local inputs that will get them on steady ground. (Seaweed anyone?)

What can you do?
a) research your local geology - become a resource regarding how that affects which plants thrive with less assistance
b) experiment with different strategies for local farmers to reduce off-farm inputs. Build experimental plots for cover-crops, wildlife support etc.
c) search out examples of inexpensive strategies for transitioning from "Big Ag" to "Poly-culture Ag" - things like planting hedgerows with niche products which also support pollinators and predator insects/birds or simply a double combine width of cover-crops that act as a refuge
e) if you feel your research is valuable for your community, write some articles for the local paper. Post them here on permies if you want some help with feedback or editing - permies are really helpful that way! If the local farmers see that you're doing well and seem to know interesting things, they'll hopefully listen about taking a section of field and starting there, begin to build soil.

2. Know some history.
Humans have done a lot of farming in many different ways, some of which were more supportive of soil health than others. Too often, the focus has been on quantity, rather than quality of produce. Often different groups focused on different parts of the whole. My studies have convinced me that many of the different approaches can be combined in ways that the sum will be greater than the effect of any individual part.

Big Picture history, is about how people farmed thousands of years ago and what went right and what went wrong. Things that went right often involved observing things that worked well - like Terra preta in South America and the 7 Sisters in Indigenous North American gardens. Things that went wrong often resulted in complete collapse of a civilization and often long-standing damage to the soil (the Fertile Crescent and Easter Island are examples).

Smaller Picture history is about how the area we live in has been farmed (or not farmed) for 100, 200, 500 years. I live in an area which was rich in shoreline foods and farming was a minor aspect of the lifestyle 500 years ago. Or was it? What really happened has almost been lost and is now only just being acknowledged and respected. However, European settlers quickly discovered that what looked like lush land, didn't respond well to European farming tactics. In recent history has the land been disturbed, clear cut, burned, exhausted etc? Joel Salatin has been taking exhausted farms and rebuilding topsoil based on principles that work in his climate and geography. Greg Judy has found a way to get the same results using different techniques in a different ecosystem. Mark Shepard has found yet another approach that works in yet another ecosystem. All of these people have viable farms which are building the soil while providing financial security for the farmers. No magic bullet, no one solution.

What can you do?
a)  research your local archeology and any Indigenous People who know how the land was traditionally used - record their knowledge respectfully and ask their advice about healing the land
b) research how the land around you coped with stress in the last 200 years (or more if info's available). What happened - dirty 30's sandstorms? hurricanes? floods?
c) research strategies that would make local farms less susceptible to damage, more resilient, or a new word I learned, antifragile (is left better from the stress - annual flooding of the Nile actually fertilized the farm-land as an example)
d) remember Fukushima - the worst that ever happened is *not* the worst that could happen!

3. Know some underlying principles of chemistry and things that happen in cycles.
What do plants need to grow? Organic chemist, Justus von Liebig came up with an early version of the "mineral theory" which developed into NPK fertilizers which in combination with improved methods of plowing has been a large contributor to the loss of top-soil. This does *not* mean that "minerals" are bad, or that they are unnecessary for nutritious plants. Rodale pushed composting and application of organic matter to his soil, but he also started incorporating natural rock minerals to his soil. Did one help, the other help, or did his soil need both? Or was his soil still missing something important to its health that he hadn't thought to try? Years ago I read a book which stated that if a farmer raises vegetables or animals that he sells every year, whatever minerals those animals absorbed from his soil, are lost to that farmer forever. This was his understanding of how farmland could become "exhausted" and his solution was to plant trees on it for 30 to 50 years so the tree roots would bring up nutrients from deep down. Was he right or was it simply that planting trees allowed any microorganisms still remaining to rebalance and work in a symbiotic relationship with the young trees, and in the absence of soil disturbance from plowing? Or a bit of both? Certainly, I've seen charts which will tell a farmer how much potassium left their land in the form of a certain number of tons of cabbage. I've also read articles which claim that many commercial vegetables have much lower levels of micronutrients in them now than they did 100 years ago. I tend to accept that some of that is due to a lack of microorganisms working cooperatively with plants - if a plant is fed artificial food in the form of NPK fertilizer, why would it bother to produce sugar to trade with the microorganisms for micronutrients it can get along without? However, we do also have a system which rewards "bigger" strawberries, rather than "more nutritious strawberries". Consider the difference between "extractive farming" where farming is treated like an industry with no concerns for the garbage left behind. How do we shift to regenerative farming, where the farmer gets a profit, but the soil, by use of polycultures, cover crops, and minimal microbe-damaging tillage, actually becomes healthier and deeper.

What can you do?
a) most importantly, understand and respect that many people will be too scared to transition "cold turkey"
b) educate yourself about the chemicals local farmers are using and what they're using them to do, then research and source safer, healthier alternatives to use during the transition phase
c) collect examples of the savings farmers can make by building their soil and their natural pest controls compared to toxic gick
d) respect and teach just how complex the soil web is and how changing one thing can shift other things towards better or worse
e) encourage people to explore and appreciate *real* food grown in healthy soil for its flavor and nuances rather than "big and perfect"

4. Know that not everything we've been taught is correct or incorrect.
I read one of Sepp Holzer's books and after he attended some sort of agricultural college, he tried to apply what he'd been taught and had some spectacular disasters. The trouble is, how do we know when something we read will work or not - or will work in our ecosystem or not. Trust me, I am *not* going to be planting any banana circles any time soon! But that doesn't mean the concept is wrong or that I couldn't find a plant that might respond positively to the concept that would like to live in the Pacific North West. I've read some very interesting books about all the things like mycorrhiza, single-celled and multi-celled organisms that live in soil and how damaging the soil by farming extractively with NPK fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides and herbicides and excessive tillage, kills those organisms and is stealing the topsoil from our great grandchildren. Topsoil loss is measurable and accelerating around the world. Weather weirding is making it harder to be able to count on a good harvest of any particular crop. Many of our farmers are changing how they work their land and questioning some of the things they've been taught. We need to support those efforts.

How do we do that?
a) write positive articles for newspapers or on the web that describe the "helpful" microbes and ways to support or encourage them, using local examples
b) remind people that our ancestors used simple techniques such as crop rotation to protect the soil - techniques that don't require farmers to wear hazmat suits
c) point out nature's balancing act - things like parasitic wasps laying their eggs in caterpillars - that can be killed by the same pesticide that one might think they should use to kill the caterpillar

5. Know that everything's connected if you look hard enough, far enough and long ago enough.
Why are the Hawai'ian Islands volcanic when they're not near the edge of a tectonic plate? (How's that for an obscure example of very long term cause and effect?)

Plants and animals evolved together - and that includes single-celled algae and protozoa and yeasts. I thought it was pretty cool when I learned that lichens are a symbiotic partnership of a fungus and an alga. If they can work together for 400 million years, maybe they can teach us something. Maybe more things in nature work together, and work better together, than a monoculture does. Dr. C Jones believes that plants from different species grown as polycultures cooperate and will give a better return and support the soil in healthier ways. Just as a year ago, I couldn't have answered the question about Hawai'i, the farmer next door, may still be accepting information he was taught years ago. Telling someone they're wrong is a good way to shut them down. It's why permies.com considers "leaving room for others' opinions" to be critical in any post. There are farmers out there that are changing how they farm. There are some I've heard complain that "such and such" just doesn't work. Too often people are handed a prescription, but how often does solving one problem just lead to another? Helping people open the door a crack to new approaches and celebrating the small successes. Helping them see the connection between healthier soil and a healthier bottom line, while understanding that they can't loose a year or 5 years of income to transition everything at once is important.

How do we help people listen to alternatives?
a) feed them small helpings at a time - "nifty thing I learned this week" in 100 words or less
b) give positive information - "I did this and it worked" rather than "don't do that, it's bad"
c) watch for small, positive changes friends and neighbors make and show them you noticed
d) get behind local issues that are related to healthy soil, like protecting a stream so the fish can spawn
e) practice what you preach!

Let's find ways to infect more minds with healthier ways to grow plants, starting with the soil!
 
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Jay,

I don't know anything about your friend so this is just some general recommended advice for someone who wants a quick fix for an alternative to fertilizer.

I also don't know what type of planting your friend does so it might be a pasture or just a kitchen garden.

This pasture shows what can be done without fertilizer, just using cows to poop and pee.

I know that chemical fertilizers are bad and if a fertilizer must be used it is best to use an organic fertilizer.

What can folks do to fertilize without buying organic fertilizers?

What kind of amendments can be used?

What about compost, manure, and fish emulsion?

What about some quick fixes?

Does anyone have some suggestions that I have not mentioned?
 
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I would love to somehow help farmers learn from farmers who are successfully and happily practicing Regenerative Agriculture--and Mr. Gabe Brown comes to mind first:

  (30 min. interview where he explains Regenerative Agriculture's benefits to ecology and economy)

 (1 hr. presentation--overview of a "how-to-do" Regenerative Agriculture)

He's one of the instructors here: https://soilhealthacademy.org/, which organization provides online training as well

His fantastic book Dirt to Soil opened my eyes to what American industrial farming is--and is doing to us, and what R.A. can do better in every possible way:


It's warm, funny, and accessible for non-farmers as well! Essential reading, in my opinion, for anyone who eats.

Since I'm not a farmer, I don't know if the farmers' market folks would take well a conversation initiated by me on things 1) I have no experience in and 2) is directly tied to their livelihoods and family traditions, but there has to be something I can do to help local farmers make the shift.  Mr. Brown's farm seems like a paradise for all living creatures, and I wish every farm were such a place!
 
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when you are so permie you didn't know there WAS a "fertilizer shortage"  ;)
 
pollinator
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Haven't read the thread yet and have not found the words "urine" and "pee" (except about cows), so here's my suggestion: help people overcome the stigma about urine and poop.

Urine is much easier to use than poop, a good source of minerals and nitrogen, and not a source of a lot of pathogens. Obviously, don't go around eating things dripped in it, but it's safer to use than poop.

Poop on the other hand is harder to use, need to be "stored" (aka composted) properly, and so it's harder to properly use, and requires from 6 months if you poop alone (as in, no one else use your humanure bucket, because I don't think I'll ever poop around people anyway) to 2 years to be used. And that's after you've finished the pile. It also require a lot of dry material, some are using saw dust, but it's yet another dependency...

Urine need to be diluting, but as we tend to evacuate about 2 liter of it per day, it's a LOT of fertilizer. Obviously, adapt it to the plants, and don't fertilize everyday. However if anybody know about plants that can tolerate really frequent urine bath, it would be interesting to hear, as even if said plant can't be eaten, it sure can be composted and will probably produce a ton of biomass, thanks to the frequent fertilizing.

As long as you are not dripping in medication and chemical, your urine should be OK to be used in the garden. Salt is not a problem, it would even tend to be a reasonable source of it (source: the book "Lurine, de l'or liquide au jardin).

The fact that people are polluting cleaned water (it being good quality is another world entirely), and literally creating WASTE that could be used to feed the world is one of the biggest problem in out "modern" civilization. Of course not everybody can do it, but if you can do it, you will save money, water, and create fertilizer.

A good reference as far as I know (haven't finished it yet) is The Humanure Handbook, by Joseph Jenkins. If you excuse my words, shitting ourselves about food scarcity might be a solution for said scarcity.
 
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Maybe this is a good thing.
Big Ag grows 10's of thousands of acres of soybeans because that's what is being demanded of them.
They use higher fertilizer rates to grow the special needs, (fancy), modern and tasteless crops that produce very high yields on infertile dead soils.
They will jack up prices and buy fertilizers.
Every day folk will look at their food supply through a different lens after skyrocketing prices, grow more of their food and attempt to learn ways of enriching their soil.
When they see you next door eating fresh food day after day we can explain to them how they can do it too.
The more people eating locally sourced food, the better off our world will be.
 
Mike Lafay
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Another fast fertilizer is bokashi. Right now, I have two bins that I rotate (it need to ferment for one week before being used, and I can't have one week of food around the kitchen for obvious reasons). The good thing is that I no longer need to go through a hailstorm in the evening, half-naked because I have two potato peels to dispose off. Organic waste can accumulate and be taken care of at once.

The big deal is that you can use that bokashi medium to create some soil, by mixing the fermented stuff with compost and soil, so that it decompose fast. It can be dug into garden, but depending on the depths of the burial, the content of the bokashi and the local fauna, you might have animals digging it up (as well as the plants above it). Hence a recent thread of mine.

Another good thing is that this create a "juice" that can be either used to clean your water pipes in the house (forgot the name and it's late) or... as yet another fertilizer.

I am far from having all the space and plants that I want. But so far, my issue is too much fertilizer. I even need to... dispose of excess pee in the regular toilets. I know. Shameful. All jokes aside, as the dilution I saw recommended that seemed the most sound was 0.5L of pee diluted in 10L of water. 2L of pee a day, that's 40 liter of water. And most stuff, you space the fertilizing by two weeks. Some it's more, I think very few plants are less than that.

As far as I can tell, these are the most short term way to create fertilizer. Obviously, using real seeds, as in open pollinated seeds, from heirloom varieties, and that are adapted to your climate is required. No GMO, fertilizer and poison-dependent "seeds". Obviously the fun thing with permaculture is bending the rules, but as a started, trying to grow tomatoes will also be much easier than going from "never touched grass before" to "terraforming half of Austria into paradise". What I mean is that trying to grow citrus in a mountain might be very rewarding and might work, but a big part of being autonomous is also growing plants from your climate, country, region, state. They should really fit in your garden.
 
Jay Angler
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Mike Lafay wrote:As long as you are not dripping in medication and chemical, your urine should be OK to be used in the garden. Salt is not a problem, it would even tend to be a reasonable source of it (source: the book "Lurine, de l'or liquide au jardin).

Mike, would you mind checking who the author of the book is? I think it's the book I read years ago, "Liquid Gold: The Lore And Logic Of Using Urine To Grow Plants" by Carol Steinfeld   https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1080214.Liquid_Gold (simply the English version!)

Having a copy or two around to encourage one's friends to read would be a help for small scale growers. I admit I make Hubby "pee in a bottle", but my anatomy and our current house set up, didn't work well for me. I specifically want to set up an area to grow biomass with this resource, and I'm trying to find better uses for it during winter. I'm thinking that  this is easier used when you've got plants that are actively growing, and I need a winter solution for my ecosystem.

Returning to historical uses of both urine and excrement would be a game-changer. The "night soil" man in Europe and the system used in the 1700's in Japan where home owners "sold" the rights to the material in their outhouses to farmers in the countryside, make much more sense than our current system which adds undesirable nutrients to our local waters in most of North America.

With research and development, if nothing else, city effluent could be used to grow cattail biomass which could then be turned into ethanol to provide an energy source. As it is, most people are very much against adding the left-overs from the sewage system to farm land due to both residual drugs and heavy metal contamination found in sewage sludge. There are ways to deal with that, and places that in fact *are* dealing with these issues (household education being a biggie - don't put toxins down the toilet - duh!).  
 
Mike Lafay
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It's not the same author, "mine" is Renaud de Looze:

https://livre.fnac.com/a12377407/Renaud-de-Looze-L-Urine-de-l-or-liquide-au-jardin-Guide-pratique-pour-produire-ses-fruits-et-legumes-en-utilisant-les-urines-et-composts-locaux

He even talks about a system he or someone else worked on to remove medication residues from urine.

There's a thread on permies to pee while standing for women, there's a "tool" or something that can be used. But I understand that it might not be as convenient as it is for men.

It might be in this book (or in The Humanure Handbook) that I read about how they used to spread poop across fields in India. Obviously a bad idea to don't compost it first, both for odor and health issue...
 
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Interestingly, my own city (and I’m sure others) produce and distribute “humanure” on a massive scale:

Cook County Metropolitan Water Reclamation EQ Compost

So the waste we flush away does not really go to “waste.”
 
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Unfortunately, this is going to get ugly pretty fast. Many vegetables and most grains require high fertilizer inputs for high production, and there are few ways to quickly remedy the situation.
 
Anne Miller
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Ralph Sluder wrote:Maybe this is a good thing.

Every day folk will look at their food supply through a different lens after skyrocketing prices, grow more of their food and attempt to learn ways of enriching their soil.
When they see you next door eating fresh food day after day we can explain to them how they can do it too.
The more people eating locally sourced food, the better off our world will be.



This! This! This!

Yes, encourage your neighbors to grow the fresh veggies like you are doing. Maybe even help them set up their garden and get the seeds growing.

Encourage your neighbors to mulch their new gardens.

Tell your neighbors about the benefits they will get from using wood chips.

Help your neighbors with composting and making compost tea.

Encourage them to shop at the Farmer's Market until they can harvest their own veggies.

You can also start selling your excess at the Farmer's Market.

Start making your own biochar, bonemeal,  and fish emulsion.

Start growing mushrooms.
 
pollinator
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All manner of invasives can be harvested for nutrient reclamation.  Bonus points for feeding them directly to food producing livestock and then harvesting the manure.

Roadkill can be composted, used for maggot production, etc.

I have invested heavily in producing biochar for the purposes of retaining fertility and reducing my need for future inputs.

 
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Jay Angler wrote:the fertilizer shortage



In some towns such as mine there are industrial refrigeration systems that use ammonia refrigerant. When the systems are maintained ammonia is let out into containers of water where it becomes ammonium hydroxide (it contains some oil which floats on top). Ammonia is not good fertilizer, plants like a mix of ammonium nitrate. I pour a gallon per day into my compost and denitrifying bacteria convert half or more into nitrate. I use the smell test to know when it's ready. If it stinks a lot it's still too high in ammonia. I put the leachate on my garden. Ammonia will kill you or cause severe chemical burns so keep it away from children and don't get it in your eyes nose mouth.
 
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I live in the middle of thousands of acres of row crops, vineyards and even more apples.  On those row crops, I worked a couple hundred acres under irrigation circles for a friend, while he couldn't.  

While there, I learned universities and other government agencies are very helpful, when it comes to producing nice looking crops. They've gotten pretty good at it on farms that never let the soil rest, and that are never refreshed by glacial water or other flooding, and so on.  In the end, the food is beautiful, even if, for lack of a better terms, it is hollow.

Meanwhile (and before), my interest in supplements (C, selenium, etc. ) made me aware ascorbic acid would not cure scurvy, because it lacked other things so called experts (advertisers?) seemed to know very little about (how things had to work in combination, just like those health food quacks, who promoted D3 before it was accepted, said). On the other hand, I'd learned a few potatoes would cure scurvy, because they had other things that worked with the C.

In the end, just a little reading on things chemistry makes clear the fact many things completely change, when paired with other things, or they are more available to the systems of people and plants, and so on.  In short, and as previously indicated, it's not as simple as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium fertilizers being dumped on the soil.

We dumped hundreds of tons of compost on a hundred acre field, but I always wondered about the things feed lots were feeding cattle AND administering to to them to produce it.

MEANWHILE, something caught my eye, YEARS BACK - plants that grew where it seemed like they shouldn't be able to.  Places like rock cliffs with very little dirt in which to root.  A bit of digging and I learned about fulvic and humic acid, which plants use to dissolve rock, allowing them to get purchase, AND to acquire needed minerals.

I PRESUMED fulvic and humic acid were what made broccoli able to supply us with calcium we, otherwise, couldn't assimilate.
 
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I just read this interesting history of human use of humanure: https://aeon.co/essays/a-short-biography-of-human-excrement-and-its-value

No real answers there for quick-fix fertilisers, of course.
 
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Weirdly enough, I have a couple hundred pounds of fertilizer that was left on my property and I get no takers when trying to sell it. I'm going to try again as I don't want it.
 
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I've been trying for about a year to introduce the concept of nitrogen fixers, dynamic accumulators, & wood ash to some people. We're currently converting deer & turkey food plots into no till low inputs plots. We were discussing it again this past weekend. Particularly the high cost & low availability of fertilizer this year. Suddenly their internal light bulb clicked on. "What? Legumes gather nitrogen out of the air & put it into the soil?" I think they've recognized the value of goat manure by now but they're not quite ready for the humanure discussion.
 
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Mk Neal is on the right path I think if you are near a metropolitan area which does this in any manner.  The Davenport, IA facility (I used to live across the river in IL) claims something like 400,000 cubic yards of waste diverted per year and sells bulk compost as cheap as $6 per cubic yard if you buy in bulk (500 cubic yards to get that price).  I was discussing with a farmer friend and assuming a 1-1-1 composition and 1000# per cubic yard that price was 1/4 of the cost of synthetic nitrogen right now and the P,K, and micronutrients all come free.

Also, as long as you are not extremely far out in the boondocks (like I am now) wood chips from tree trimming can generally be had free or very nearly so.  I'm in cow county in the MO Ozarks now so I use a lot of "fencerow" round hay bales, which are typically stored outside and after a few years are generally considered useless as hay, but are great as a source of mulch that also decays to fertilizer in the "Ruth Stout" method.  Here these can be had free for the hauling, I use about 10 on my 1/4 acre garden per year.  The rotten hay also comes pre-innoculated with all kinds of great fungi.  My soil has gone from brownish with lots of clay to lush black in just 1-2 years.
 
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