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Fostering Sustainability and Innovation in Agriculture
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Part II: Larry Jacobs of Del Cabo Discusses Lessons Learned in Sustainable Farming

May 2, 2013 |

Larry Jacobs, founder of the Del Cabo Cooperative.

Larry Jacobs, founder of the Del Cabo Cooperative.

In Part II of a two-part interview with, Larry Jacobs, NRDC’s 2013 Growing Green Award winner, offers his insights in what can be gained by working in tandem with nature.

What larger lesson have you gleaned from your work?

The lesson is what’s out there in nature –  how does nature do it? What can we learn from that? How can we take those ideas and either manipulate them and use them in our farming systems to accomplish the same kind of things that we’ve done as we’ve short circuited [the process] with off-the-shelf chemicals? If we do it by using systems that nature has evolved, we bypass the danger zone of creating things that nature hasn’t learned how to deal with. And we’re using materials and ideas that already exist on the planet. There’s microbes that already exist and know how to metabolize the stuff. The planet knows how to deal with these things as part of the system.

When you look at a field, you see a complex system and that system provides answers for addressing pests. What have your discovered in this area?

When you look at a field that’s going to be cultivated, it is really a very complex biological system that needs to be looked at with that view, instead of ‘it’s just dirt.’ Anybody that’s farming organically is going to tell you that. Every organic farmer is going to say, ‘the essence of growing my crop is taking care of my soil, and it’s a pretty complex system.’ Nobody really understands it very well, but through trial and error [we discovered], ‘If I add organic matter to that soil, and feed that soil properly with green manures or compost and build my soil up, then I get healthy soil. I’m going to have healthy plants and I’ll have less problems. And that’s absolutely true. Still, you end up with problems every once in a while. The insect problems are typically the result of some critter coming from far away without a passport.

What is wrong with the current approach to crop cultivation?

[A pest] shows up in your field from 2,000 miles away, and it has none of the organisms that it evolved with and learn how to feed off of, so it’s kind of here with a green light to do whatever it wants. There’s no policeman stopping it from doing anything. It finds a field of tomatoes and just goes nuts. It finds a cherry orchard and multiplies like crazy and there’s nothing [parasitically feeding on its eggs] or feeding on it, because those insects that evolved to cue into the signals of that insect are 2,000 miles away. That’s what we call a pest.

You say you hate the word, ‘pest.’ Why?

I hate it because it’s a loaded word — because insects are organisms like anything else and it’s just trying to make a living. The fact that they showed up without the other organisms that keep them in check isn’t their fault. They came in on somebody’s luggage or they hitchhiked in a marine container. They got here somehow, but they become a problem, if you’re trying to grow a crop, because you have just gone to the bank, and you’ve borrowed everything you can on your property and you’ve got it all invested in growing crops. Then some insect shows up and is about to wipe it out and the implication is you’re going to lose everything you’re worked for over the last 10 years.

So that’s the impetus. That’s the moment when somebody’s growing a crop and says, ‘What do I do?’ In the 1950s it was get the DDT. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s and until now, it’s get the organic phosphate. But what do you do if your entire livelihood is going to be wiped out by some insect that finds your crop a great carbohydrate source?

You don’t agree with the idea of portraying farmers who don’t use organic methods as villains. What’s that all about?

My point is let’s not ‘villainize’ the farming community that relies on these chemicals. Instead, let’s understand nature has evolved all kinds of solutions to this stuff, and we really need to refocus our research and our public money. There’s not a profit [motive], and there’s no ‘product’ involved, when you find ways to introduce other organisms into the system and balance it.

You’ve spoken out about the idea of directing more public research dollars to farming innovations. Why?

I think this is a really good place for public money [to fund research]. I think this is the takeaway — this is what I am trying to call out. There are enormous opportunities in nature to find better solutions for growing food in a more sustainable way that build healthy more diverse systems. And that’s a place where our public research dollars need to go.

It’s important that our universities should [tackle the problem], because many of these things don’t [provide an impetus to] create products that can generate a profit. But they do generate an enormous profit for society and for farmers, because it reduces their dependence and their need for some of these more toxic materials. That has huge benefits for our health and the health of every other organism on this planet, as well as benefiting those individuals who choose to grow crops.

That’s the takeaway: Nature has had millions of years to solve these things. We should keep pushing our public institutions — our research institutions — to tease out these findings and bring them into our commercial farming systems. And maybe it’s a place for private enterprise. That’s where I’ve taken it.

We’ve started a company to do just that and we’re focusing on finding solutions to growing food, to growing crops that use some of these very powerful tools that nature evolved.

So you’re developing a line of products so to speak that are methods?

Yes. We are looking to researchers, and looking forward to what’s happening in laboratories, then gleaning from there to where the opportunities are to use some of this new knowledge and apply it on our farms.

We are currently working in these three areas: The chemistry of mustards — how mustard plants can be used to mitigate problems in the soil. We’re also working with a group at the University of California in Santa Cruz. They’ve developed a procedure called Anaerobic Soil-borne Disinfestation (ASD).

We figured out how to take that to a larger scale, where you can treat thousands of acres, and effectively do the same thing you were doing with ethyl bromide, but we’re doing without the bromide, by loading the soil up with a short-chain carbon source — a carbohydrate.

And we’re using a rice byproduct, but you can use other things like molasses. We are creating soils that are anaerobic for three weeks and then allowing them go aerobic and we find that knocks down the pathogen load.

There was always a push back from individuals in the agricultural world that felt we were missing the boat. And it is a mistake, as we need to be looking more at soil microbiology and more at biological control systems.

What has proven to be the biggest challenge for you in farming?

It’s the fact that nature is complicated. It’s not easy to tease apart. It’s not easy to understand. And, what makes me feel very optimistic is the incredibly rapid change in technology. With the new tools we have today — whether it’s a microscope or the tools to understand what species are in the soil — using all these biotech tools or doing genetic analysis. Now we’re able to see that stuff.

There’s a researcher up in Washington State who ran a mass DNA array on some soil samples before and after applying some mustard seed meals and found that the microbial populations were completely rearranged before and after. There was an increase in fungi and bacteria that tend to be beneficial to plant growth and which suppress and predate on those organizations that feed on plants – and this work is just beginning.

So, you believe the answer lies in a different approach to soil amendments?

Maybe we can add something to a soil and coach that soil to become suppressive to those things that are detrimental to plant growth. That’s a big deal. So when you fumigate a soil with a soil fumigate, you knock down all these organisms or disease for a year or maybe two. But all it takes is for one of those cells – one spore or one fungi that attack your strawberry plants  — to survive and then it’s just the power of two, then to four to eight to 16 to 36 and in a year or two it’s back.

On the flip side you can figure out how nature would balance this organism in the soil. Can I add something to the soil to get some other things to grow that will occupy that same space, or will feed on that organism or in some unknown way compete with it? And if we can figure that kind of stuff out, then we don’t need the soil fumigants.

What are your thoughts on the future of sustainable agriculture?

I think we’re really close in terms of a replacement for ethyol bromide. Maybe it’s a little premature to say it unequivocally, but my gut says we’ve got a replacement product that works as well. It’s comparable at less cost than ethyol bromide and you don’t have to have the setbacks. This is a breakthrough for people who’ve become dependent, relying on the industry that’s relied on these powerful chemicals, which everyone understands are risky. That’s why there are all these rules and regulations… there’s such pushback from the industry to keep them, because it’s economics. You spent all this money growing this crop and you can’t afford to lose it.

So I think part of the solution to getting the toxics out of our agricultural system is providing better products and better strategies for managing these problems. That way farmers who grow these crops can continue growing these crops and getting [equivalent] yields as they’re getting today [with] better ways of managing these problems, which don’t include materials that are toxic and dangerous for all of us.

Click here for Part I of the interview with Larry Jacobs, a visionary farmer and founder of Del Cabo, in Pescadero, Calif.

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