Replacing expensive inputs with free inputs

Farming is about taking three free things – sunshine, water, carbon dioxide, running them through a catalyst called soil, and producing things to sell. ~ Ben Taylor-Davies

The magic of photosynthesis is that it takes abundant free resources we can’t otherwise easily capture, creates incredible ecosystems that sustain millions of organisms, which are used as food, clothing, and housing. Photosynthesis is the source engine that drives everything else.

Photosynthesis is the only way to bring new energy into the ecosystem. It makes sense to optimize the efficiency of this photosynthetic engine as much as possible, particularly when we consider that modern agriculture commonly realizes only 15-20% of an average crops photosynthetic potential. This means our use of these free resources is only 15%-20% of where it might be.

We choose to pass up these free inputs whenever we use products or management practices that limit photosynthesis and soil microbial activity, restricting carbon cycling.

Modern agronomy does not emphasize capitalizing on the things we are given for free, instead focusing on the supposed need to buy more things which are not free. Not free to the farmer, and expensive to the environment.

Contemplating additional inputs which may or may not be free –

Does nitrogen qualify? The air is 78% nitrogen, and vigorous healthy microbial populations have been measured supplying 300 units of N per acre with no legumes and no manure applications. Is biological nitrogen free? If not entirely free, it certainly costs only a fraction to grow as compared to buying it, both to the farmer, and to the environment.

What about soil minerals? Are they really free? What is the true value of soils that contain more phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and trace minerals than will be used by crops for centuries or millennia? Should we account for the additional value of soil’s mineral and humus fertility on our balance sheets when we improve it? Should we account for investments in regenerating soil fertility as an operating expense, or as a capital improvement? And most importantly, how expensive are purchased inputs that prevent us from accessing these resources in our soils?

What about the free consulting advice of sales agronomists who advocate the continued use growing practices and products which limit the potential of the ecosystem to tap in to these free inputs? How much does ‘free’ advice actually cost?

What do you think is perceived as free that actually isn’t?

What other things do you think are free that we are not considering or optimizing for?