Low-impact Living at the Elder Grove Homestead

Soil Fertility & Nutrition

Mineralization - An Often Neglected aspect of Soil Fertility

These are a few of the interactions found amongst various nutrient elements that exist in both soils and in your body, assuming that you have not recently ingested antibiotics that kill the microbes in your intestines. They are abbreviated and include manganese (Mn), sulfur (S), molybdenum (Mo), magnesium (Mg), potassium (K), chlorine (Cl), sodium (Na), iron (Fe), boron (B), phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N), zinc (Zn), calcium (Ca), and copper (Cu). There are also symbols for low organic matter levels (Lo O.M.) and high organic matter levels (Hi O.M.). The various arrows indicate which things depress the availability of others, which enhance availability, and which regulate the others' uptake into an organism. There are also symbols indicating the influence of high or low pH, and high or low water levels (H2O).

Living Soil Dynamics in a Nutshell  -  "Life Goes On Within You and Without You"

In other words, the same microbiological processes that occur in the soil also occur in your intestines. The routine use of antibiotics kills outright, or vastly alters the balance, of hundreds of species of intestinal bacteria. And the potassium chloride fertilizer and herbicide mixtures that conventional farmers apply to their fields have the same effect on soil life. We advocate for methods that mimic natural selection, not genocide.

But are you one of the many science-savvy people who think that genetic engineering (GMOs, "Round-Up Ready" everything, etc.) will solve all of our food problems? Take a look at the report and read carefully. You may want to reconsider your views if you want everyone to continue at least having a chance at being fed.

Living soil means a lot more than you might think. It doesn't just mean adding manure/compost/green manures and a bit of lime. It doesn't mean going to the store for some "Miracle Gro" or even the expensive "natural/organic" fertilizers or foliar nutrient blends sold as a shotgun approach to fertilization. It involves doing what fires and glaciers do best, mineralization!

At the Midwest Renewable and Sustainable Living Fair in Custer, Wisconsin (2006), I substituted for the regular instructor of a class on "Vegetable Seed Saving". During the class I mentioned the wide variability in seed germination found in seeds I obtained from folks in Seed Saver's Exchange. Even though many of these people listed their seeds as organically grown, we've found about the same problem germinating some of them that we'd expect from buying seeds from commercial sources. I told people that growing a plant all the way to robust reproduction is a step far beyond just nursing it along to edible stage using various pest-avoidance strategies, whether "organic" or "conventional".

So I mentioned the "theory of cation balance" developed by William Albrecht, touted so frequently in the monthly periodical Acres, USA. So after answering a number of questions informally after class, a number of participants suggested that I do a class next year on soils. I'm not sure that there would be sufficient demand and the subject takes a minimum of a couple of 2-hour sessions to cover adequately. But in lieu of such an in-depth discussion, I thought I'd at least begin to publish the contents of the 10 hand-outs that our company, Underfoot Soil Consulting Service, once sent out to clients.

They are now available as a PDF download at the bottom of this page. But as an introduction to what we used to do, check out our soil test forms below.

Reading a Soil Test  -  An Example from Underfoot Soil Consulting Service

Back in the 1980's when we operated a small, independent soil laboratory and consulting service, our top priorities were helping growers understand what was happening to their soils and crops, and helping them figure out what to do about it. A big part of this involved designing a test results form that was easy to read and educational. The face page looked like this:

It's pretty conventional for the test a biological grower would want in terms of reporting on the current nutrient levels, the desired levels, the difference, and the percents of mineral saturations.

Less conventional was the reporting of recommended soil amendments and the liming worksheet. These were tailored to utilize the most commonly available nutrient sources in our area that were suitable for biological growers. And the lime worksheet was designed to involve the grower to a greater extent in the process of better estimating lime needs.

The back page was more of an educational tool and the left half looked like the image below.


Each individual chart shows the balance of two soil minerals. The values were transferred from the front of the form and lines were drawn between them. This gave sloping lines that indicated a low or high ratio between the nutrients.

The right half of the page looked like this:

As you can see, we even dealt with a few of the micro-nutrient balances that can have such a profound effect on the quality of a crop.

These charts helped to explain the concept of soil balance in a more graphical fashion. They also explained what the grower could expect in terms of weeds, insects, and diseases in their current crop. All of these notions were explained in more depth in our other publications, but the test form offered a lot of information at just a glance. In order to give growers more detailed recommendations we first calculated bases saturations of all the common cations (calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, ammonium, and hydrogen). Using the measured pH, judging the balance, quantities, and types of clay and organic matter, and estimating the percent of hydrogen typical for this soil, we determined the C.E.C., or capacity for exchangeable cations. From this, and using William Albrecht's theory of cation balance, we calculated the desired nutrient levels and the quantities needed for each soil amendment based on pounds per acre, for fields, or pounds/ounces per 100 square feet for gardens.

Our Soil Management Publications

The summary in the previous paragraph sounds pretty easy when you are already a soil consultant, but if you would like the whole information packet that was available to any grower that tested their soil with us, you will need to download our PDF files. The first one is free. It is called "Soil Dynamics In A Nutshell", it is 18 pages long, and it was first presented at a packed workshop in 1987.

The other PDFs are listed here and are available as a 50-page group for $7.50 as a Payhip.com download, payable via PayPal. They include:
  • Energy Production in Plants, 4 pages
  • Micro-nutrients, 7 pages
  • Selecting Soil Amendments, 8 pages
  • Tillage and Residue Management, 4 pages
  • Phosphorus and Sulfur, 5 pages
  • Nitrogen and Carbon, 6 pages
  • Manure Management, 3 pages
  • Liming by Cation Exchange, 6 pages
  • Weeds, Insects, and Disease, 5 pages, and
  • The Ten Most Often Asked Questions About Soil Tests, 2 pages

They go into much greater depth and we considered them required reading for anyone serious about ecological food production. Our work is also the basis for the soil recommendations we have given Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables, a local million-dollar, USDA-certified Organic, 900-member CSA (Commuity Supported Agriculature) and wholesale produce farm.

Soil test recommendations - We can help

While we no longer operate our own testing laboratory, we can help you do the math it takes to turn raw soil test data into recommendations for both Organic and Transitional growers. Simply send us the e-mailed results from the lab by Clicking Here and attaching the file, hopefully including at least the pH, % organic matter, and the levels of P (phosphorus), Ca (calcium), Mg (magnesium), K (potassium), and C.E.C. (capacity for exchangeable cations).

We can give you better recommendations if you also include the sampling depth, soil type, slope and direction of slope, previous crop, intended crop, yield goal, typical seasonal rainfall, and whether or not you will be using irrigation. It also helps if your lab tested for S (sulfur), Na (sodium), Fe (iron), Mn (manganese), Cu (copper), and B (boron).

In terms of laboratories to use, we have always relied on A&L labs in Memphis, TN. We have used both test S1M ($8.00) and test S3M ($16.50), but they offer a wide array of testing services. After we receive your results, we do the calculations to give you recommendations for the application of mineral and organic fertilizers that will balance your soil within the normal range of parameters specified by the late Dr. William Albrecht. And we recommend appropriate tillage and other practices that complement the soil type and materials applied.

The cost for this is $20.00, payable using PayPal. We contact you when the results are ready and e-mail you a PayPal invoice. When we receive notification of payment the results are e-mailed to you. 

Organic Matter - The Other Half of Fertility

When most people think, "Organic" they envision a growing system where Nature handles everything. All we have to do is let Nature take its course, right? We just avoid using synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides and all is well, right? Not quite. But neither does it involve blithely adding loads of manure, compost, green manure, or mulch to your soil. Every soil and climate is unique, and you will find that soils in your area tend to stabilize at a certain percentage of organic matter (seen in a soil test) when the soil is not being actively tilled or cropped. But when tillage leaves a soil bare, and the soil becomes fluffed with air, some soils can quickly lose organic matter as its stable form, humus, gets oxidized. The humus goes on to feed both soil bacteria (carbonates) and your crop's roots (nitrates, sulfates, phosphates, etc.), but continual loss of humus can lead to depletion of the more water-soluble minerals and a breakdown of the structure that makes soils that are both easy to till and easy for plants to grow.in.

  We are not big believers in shipping in large quantities of organic matter, preferring instead to either grow organic matter in place, where possible, or efficiently recycle the "wastes" we produce. This means letting some easily managed weeds grow in place, or seeding green manure crops, in areas which will be dug up for planting later. It also means composting our kitchen scraps, our sheep (seen above) bedding, and even our own human excrement. This would be no surprise to the Chinese farmer with five or more centuries of tradition to back the process, but it seems to be a forbidden topic in the U.S. If you would like to see how we collect and compost our human excretions, just click here to get a free PDF (requires a free Adobe Reader download) about our indoor bucket system, which gets emptied as needed into what you see above. These recycled plastic bins were available from our county's environmental services office for a mere $18, so we bought four.

The bin shown here is one of four that we use to separately compost all of our kitchen scraps (at least the ones that are not suitable as treats for the sheep!), all of the chicken manure from their coop, and all of the solids (layered with the coarse hay that our sheep discard) from our 2-bucket, sealed, power-ventilated "toilet" built from an Igloo brand beverage cooler. The bin's cover is shown propped up on top. The manure and urine-soaked bedding produced by our sheep is composted separately in a huge compost heap. And we empty the second bucket from our indoor bucket-toilet, the urine, onto the sheep compost to add nitrogen and speed decomposition.

This is probably one of the smallest lawn mowers ever made. It is a 15-inch, 12-volt mower with a metal deck, made by Toro. It charges directly from a 12-volt solar panel on the roof of our shed, running through a 12-volt charge controller to prevent overcharge. We mow nearly no lawn, but this little gem is great for mowing garden paths that have been seeded to grow something other than mud clods on your gardening shoes. This allows us to maintain a short, soil-saving ground cover throughout the growing season, which, besides slowing water run-off, helps delineate the edges of the garden beds.

This is the replacement for our garden's previous rotary tilling machines. On our clay-based soils, the soil seems pretty dense and compacted from a winter of 4+ feet of wet, heavy snow sitting on it. And the farmer who tilled the soil before us apparently did his plowing when it was a bit too wet. leaving a "plow pan" about 8 inches from the surface. This compacted layer, coupled with the previous land owner's repeated application of dolomitic (high magnesium) limestone at 5 year intervals, on an already high-magnesium soil, left us with little "tilth", the lovely coffee-grounds sort of texture that plant roots like so much. And when we applied elemental sulfur granules to grab excessive magnesium, attempting to leach it into the subsoil in heavy rains, the compacted plow pan layer stymied the process. Rotary tillage did not reach down far enough, and a narrow but long-tined garden fork, while nearly adequate, was tediously slow.

Pictured is a "broad-fork" constructed from the fiberglass handles on our rarely-used post hole digger, some 1.5" galvanized pipe, and some hardened, Grade-5, threaded steel rod. We sharpened the rod tips, ground the unused threads from the lower portion of the rods using an angle-grinder, bolted the rods through holes drilled in the pipe, and added a wooden step over the upper nuts that lock the rods in place. The new tool more than doubles the speed of the garden fork, digs easily to 14 inches, and is much sturdier than the fork. We use it by placing it at the edge of a garden bed, stepping up onto the fork and rocking it lightly to ease it down into the soil, then stepping back and pulling with both arms until the soil lifts slightly. It will not replace a shovel, a flock of chickens, or rotary tiller for working weeds and green manure crops into the surface, but it does a fabulous job of sub-soiling and "fluffing" a garden bed.

Nutrition from the Soil Up

We are both long-time homesteaders (defined by some as, "those who would rather stay home instead") and long-time vegetarians. Vegetarian homesteading involves not just giving up animal stuff or eating only what you yourself can grow. Our version of the concept includes:
  • a vegetarian or vegan diet, for a number of reasons
  • raising animals (sheep, sometimes chickens, and a cat) as "pets" to live out their full lives grazing around our garden, eating crop damaging bugs, or hunting rodents
  • composting nearly all of the animal and human "wastes" to improve our soil's organic matter
  • extending our growing season with cold frames, a greenhouse, and plant covers
  • choosing crops that work well with our climate, soil, and dietary needs
  • using low-energy or entirely fossil-energy-free food processing, cooking, and storage methods to preserve food for winter and cook our meals
  • selecting and saving our own seed stock for next year's crops and working to select and breed improved varieties
  • purchasing organically grown grains and incidentals in bulk through a "buying club" if we have a crop failure, or if we have trouble growing that crop locally due to our climate, soil, or lack of expensive harvesting/processing equipment
Our diet is best described as what we call "Midwestern Macrobiotics". This includes seasonal eating of local foods, and a balance of polarized forces (as in traditional Macrobiotics), but it is based more on our actual climate, weather fluctuations, and daily activity levels. It also relies on a rather poorly disseminated principle called the "biological transmutation" of mineral elements. Instead of, for instance, taking a calcium supplement to get more calcium (direct substitution), you might take in more potassium, silicon, or magnesium. This depends upon a healthy bacterial culture in your intestines working to regulate the availability of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium, among others. You read more about it here, from an English translation of Dr. Loius Kervran's original work.

So why did we become vegetarians/vegans?

For myself (Bob), I was a bicycle racer, and the rat research studies I read at the time showed that rats on a vegetarian diet had much greater stamina in "swim until you sink" testing. There is more detail on this below in a section called "What we eat and why". I could say that the change in my diet initially happened due to some altruistic spurt in my youth, but I would be lying. In fact, I think that vegetarians/vegans may be more similar to subsistence hunters and homesteading animal eaters than they think. Do not laugh me off just yet.

Consider how conscious the typical urban meat-eater is regarding where their food comes from. Cows are called beef, pigs are called pork, chickens are poultry, etc., etc. Nobody sees the live animals and they certainly do not see how they are killed (oops, I mean processed, dressed out, dispatched, etc.). Just think of the typical fast-food burger commercial showing jocks or construction workers ravenously "wolfing down" huge greasy burgers. The highly paid advertisers show us that kids love meat, women love meat, heck, EVERYBODY does (as long as they are not looking "it" in the eye)!

Compare this to the homesteader raising a few animals for eventual slaughter. Chances are good that the animal will have a name and a relationship to someone in the family. When the animal is killed it's done as quickly and "humanely" as possible, those closest to the animal will no doubt be saddened, and perhaps a word of thanks is said at the dinner table. Think of Joel Salatin's example in Michael Pollan's book, "The Carnivore's Dilemma", excerpted in the previous PDF link, in Part III.

Or compare it to the subsistence hunters who, for a brief time, attempt to enter the mindset of his/her prey's predator. They pay dearly for a permit to hunt the animal and often buy expensive equipment to help them kill certainly and quickly. They consume the meat and often utilize some other parts of the body, such as the skin (hide). This is a fairly pale imitation of the Native American model of reverence, thanks, some regret, and complete use of the entire animal, but at least it's an attempt. In case you're wondering, yes I was a hunter, but many, many years ago. So if you think we are just anemic, starry-eyed idealists, guess again! I have "been in your shoes", but can you say the same?

Finally, think of the vegetarian/vegan who has ethical qualms about unnecessary death, or just thinks about consuming less from the top of the food chain. This leaves more grains/beans available for the starving multitudes and puts them at lower risk for pesticide and heavy-metal consumption. The amount of consciousness or concern generated over what they are eating is similar to the hunter or the homesteader, but is quite dissimilar to the clueless urbanite. Let's face it, everybody kills to eat, whether it is cows or lentil sprouts. But I can look a carrot "in the eye" without feeling squeamish when I bite into it. It's funny how cows do not seem to like this as much!
T. Colin C

And if you just think vegans are quaint, masochistic, or just plain stupid, try reading T. Colin C
ampbell's book "The China Study", published in 2005. As a leading nutrition researcher with top-level credentials and tons of studies in tow, when he tells you that eating ANY amount of animal protein greatly increases your risk of cancer (all types), heart disease, diabetes, and all of the autoimmune diseases, it's hard not to listen. To find out more about this book, just Click Here to get to the China Study website. And here is an informational graphic showing the climate effects of current dietary patterns, based on consumption in the U.K.

Another "Inconvenient Truth" about Beef

Beef and dairy products contain substances that promote inflammation, and inflammation is one of the steps that leads to both heart disease and cancer. Check out some interesting articles about prostaglandins and inflammation on Dr. Ronald Hoffman's website, part of which is reproduced here:

Quoting Dr. Hoffman, "Since the prostate is a rich source of prostaglandins, some of which play a part in the inflammatory process, inflammation is a special problem for this organ. The different types of prostaglandins mediate in a sort of yin-and-yang way in the body. The "bad prostaglandins" constrict blood vessels and bronchial tubes, produce inflammation, and may exacerbate symptoms of PMS in women. The "good prostaglandins" reduce inflammation, and cause blood vessels and bronchial tubes to dilate. Accordingly, an imbalance in prostaglandin metabolism could easily set the stage for chronic inflammation of the prostate. I don't think anti-inflammatory medication is a good long-term solution, since in order to reduce inflammation it inhibits all prostaglandins -- the good ones as well as the bad ones. If we could find a way to selectively inhibit the bad prostaglandins without inhibiting the good ones, we'd have a good therapy for prostatitis. ("Good" and "bad" are relative terms, of course, since inflammation and constriction of blood vessels are to some extent a useful response to a wound or an infection.)

One way to restore prostaglandin imbalance is to provide the precursors of the "good" prostaglandins, which are the essential fatty acids (EFAs), i.e., alpha-linolenic acid and linoleic acid. These are present in good ratios in flaxseed and camelina oils, which may therefore support the prostate in making the "good prostaglandins," the ones that reduce inflammation. The "bad prostaglandins" are derived from arachidonic acid, which is present in meat, so a diet high in meat and dairy products may contribute to prostate disease. Gamma-linoleic acid (GLA), found in primrose, black currant, and borage oil, may also help soothe the inflamed prostate."

This is hard to reconcile with the opinions voiced by Sally Fallon in "Nourishing Traditions", and the Weston A. Price Foundation. In my opinion, Price's original 1930's research into dental health has been twisted into a marketing scheme for small-scale meat and dairy producers. While the foundation and I have many things to agree upon, their "requirement" of animal fat, meat, and dairy is unsupported both by Price's work and by the scientific community, especially if you consider the full health and environmental impact of this extremism! This link will take you to the Price Pottenger Nutrition Foundation website, where you can read some of the actual research conclusions of Drs. Price and Pottenger. While I also agree with some of Dr. Pottenger's work, it was based on feeding cats, which are strictly carnivorous, not on omnivorous humans who can thrive nicely on a non-animal diet!

And from the November 2013 issue of Popular Science Magazine, page 58, we have the following:
"A single pound of cooked beef, a family meal's worth of hamburger, requires 298 square feet of land, 27 pounds of feed, and 211 gallons of water." "That same pound of hamburger requires more than 4000 BTUs of fossil-fuel energy to get to the dinner table; something has to power the tractors, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and trucks. That process, along with the methane the cows belch throughout their lives, contributes as much as 51 percent of all greenhouse gas produced in the world."

Fifty-one percent is a BIG impact on the planet just to satisfy what amounts to no more than a craving for a particular form of protein by a single species. For this and other reasons I don't criticize others for what they choose to eat, as long as they:
  • are at least minimally conscious of what it is they are actually eating, and what the effects are
  • experiment to find what works best for their body's particular genetic background, not just their cravings/addictions
  • consider the health and environmental consequences of others following the same dietary plan
  • do not get either apologetic to me, or angry at me, when I do not consume what they do!

Elitist? Don't get me started!

While conversing recently with a friend about being a vegetarian, she mentioned an acquaintance who told her she was being ELITIST by trying to only eat only ORGANICALLY GROWN foods. As she saw it she was trying to support ecological growers, reducing her consumption of poisons, eating more nutritious and nutrient-dense, fresher, more local food, and doing some good for the planet. As he saw it she was setting herself apart from others by choosing not to eat what they ate, paying too much for her food and showing off her means by doing so, and stacking Organic on top of Vegetarian to boot!

All I could think of was how this conversation would have looked to my grandparents. Growing their own food on the farm and trading or selling the excess for incidental items or foods they couldn't grow was the norm, as was Organic Farming! The ELITIST would have been a child who grew up to despise things grown in the dirt and manure, preferring processed, refined, modified, hybridized, synthetic-fertilizer-grown, modern foods instead. Their hope would be for a rebellious child, such as Larisa or me (Bob), to grow up questioning the status quo that grew out of cheap oil, abundant petro-chemical fertilizers and biocides, factory "farming" (CAFO's, animal concentration camps), genetic modification, cheap foreign slave-labor imports, and the resulting loss of soil, quality of life, small-scale local farms, and parity-priced foods.

And yes, the cost at the cash register is higher if you want truly nutritious food grown in a decentralized, sustainable way, conserving soils and paying a living wage to the growers. And since we all pay the taxes that support "commodity-food" growers by funding their subsidies, buyers of Organic foods actually pay WAY more than those who buy non-Organic! You do not like the higher cost? Then learn to grow things yourself. Any dwelling with a window can grow plants. Any unused outdoor space can grow lots of food given the right climate, weather, soil amendments, and a "green thumb".

The elitist is a product of the post World War II rush to synthetic modernity, not the other way around. Cheap food prices do not monetize the true social and ecological costs of this government subsidized, "welfare" system of agribusiness. Eating what your body is "designed", or evolved for is not elitist, it is simply smart. And for us, if it is not fresh it is as good as dead, and we try not to eat dead stuff. You can be a modern elitist if you like, importing the cheaper "foreign crude", but I just like a little more control over my personal fuel supply.

Predators and Prey

After reading the recently published book, "Gardeners of Eden" by Dan Dagget, where he makes a strong case for grass-fed meat consumption based on the ecology of the American West, I felt like he missed the point in his own argument. He was pointing out that both grazing animals and fire (and other types of soil disturbance) improve western soils in terms of organic matter, water retention, water inflow, and species complexity. He says that grazing animals are safer than fire now that human habitation is more common, and that grazing animals, pressured by predators to move frequently, put grasses through a pulsed cycle of growth that improves the environment.

The point he seems to have missed is that humans have replaced the predators which normally pressure the grazing animals; we have killed them off and replaced them with us! Instead of polarizing the discussion into "leave it alone completely" (desertification and species loss), "burn it" (unsafe for human dwellings), or "managed grazing" (all good!), why not add back the predators we have nearly destroyed? Why do the ranchers and cowboys all complain to the government when a few cows get killed by wolves? Isn't that what they are supposed to be doing? Top-level carnivores have lots of poorly understood effects on the ecosystem besides killing the weak, slow, and poorly adapted. So why is it always about human profit before ecology? If you are writing about environmental solutions, maybe ranching is just the carnivorous human's choice, not necessarily what is best! Things look different when you have not eaten meat for over 30 years.

Our Homestead Economy

If you're a regular purchaser of lottery tickets you're probably after MegaBucks. But at our little homestead we've achieved financial success by seeking "NegaBucks". Like Amory Lovins' NegaWatts, NegaBucks is a term referring to conservation. In this case it's money you didn't need to earn because you found a way to not spend it. The result is fewer hours spent doing what you don't want to do for somebody else, and more hours spent following your own agenda. Working toward your own ends is like using electrical power directly from a solar panel. It's more efficient because you've eliminated the "middleman" (in electrical use that's the power company or your battery storage). You lose the job, all of the transportation costs to get to it, the time spent commuting and working away from home, and the chunk taken in taxes by the Feds and the State.

The core of NegaBucks is record keeping. As a long-time bookkeeper, this is Larisa's game. Thanks to her well-designed Excel spread sheets and Quicken, we always know where we're at and what can happen next. When you see all of the details of what you're spending you're less likely to just toss money around. We do not typically spend small quantities. We plan ahead, assess what we really need, focus on what the spent money will do for us, and we do not skimp on quality. We use only one credit card, at 0% interest and no fees, keep a running tab of our spending on it, and make sure that we can pay off the entire total each month. Paying interest is fine for those investing in their own business, otherwise it is for losers, money losers! It's far better to earn interest on money you've saved because time is money. Money saved is like extra free time to do what you want. As you get more of it you get clearer on how to best use it. When you figure out how to spend it on things that make your life more sustainable you've come full circle. It can be a slow process, but small, careful decisions and some rather minor sacrifices to the god of instant gratification can all eventually add up to huge savings.

Note that, "People vote with their dollars", in terms of buying your way into a greener economy, doesn't work for those at the bottom of the economy who are just trying to squeak by. They have no vote! Economics is NOT natural selection. It doesn't favor the individuals who do best in a particular natural environment. In fact it most often selects for those who can only handle a highly synthetic, refined, unnatural environment. So it tends to favor the pampered individual over the species' best interest. This violates planetary law!

Some changes we have made

One recent change in our lifestyle involved a horse-riding accident. Larisa was thrown from a neighbor's horse back in 2000. The next year we put "memory foam" pillows and a bed topper on our existing bed to improve Larisa's sleep comfort. Within the year we noticed more sinus problems, headaches, and clogged-up feelings in our ears. We also noticed changes in our cat's behavior (she often slept on the foam pillows). After Larisa typed "negative health effects memory foam" into a search engine, she found loads of scathing testimonials that matched our symptoms. So after ditching all of the memory foam, other synthetic foams, and any other sources of formaldehyde, such as plywood furniture, we were much improved. But it was too late for our cat. She had developed a slow-growing, inoperable tumor behind her esophagus that eventually made it impossible for her to swallow. Obviously we should have known better than to blindly accept an unproven technological solution to such a minor problem. We now have an $800 mattress made from a 4-inch core of natural latex foam, covered in wool and organic cotton. It's just as comfortable as the memory foam but without the cancer initiators!

A more recent change in our diets began with reading the book "Dangerous Grains". The book makes a compelling case about undiagnosed gluten sensitivity, leading us to try a multi-month experiment. We both cut wheat and other gluten sources from our diets in mid-December of 2005. After a couple of months, besides the decreased sinus congestion, we both noticed positive changes in our eyesite. Larisa had to get glasses with a lower correction and Bob couldn't figure out why his fairly new prescription seemed wrong. By switching back to 4-year-old glasses the problem was solved (except for the scratched up lenses and bent frames!).

And that riding accident in 2000 led to the installation of a stainless steel pin in Larisa's ankle. After 9 years of nearly constant pain, lots of diagnostic tests, and plenty of poor advice from several doctors ("here, take this Celebrex"; whoops, you're allergic to NSAIDS?) we finally convinced a surgeon to look at the logic alone. Two sprained ankles, one with a tiny broken bone set with a pin. One ankle healed up with no pain. The other healed but caused constant pain. What is the difference? He removed the pin and the pain went away entirely once the post-surgical swelling passed. Maybe some human bodies are not designed to tolerate metal implants?

Another odd thing we have noticed over the nearly 30 years Larisa and I have been together is the number of Lyme Disease cases amongst our friends and neighbors while, for some reason, we have been spared the pain. A "Lyme literate" MD in our area who is familiar with our diet thinks that we may either be immune to the Borrelia spirochete, or we may simply have adapted to it, because clearly, living in two of the major "hot spots" for Lyme in our area, we have been exposed via tick bites MANY times. One possibility is the fact that these organisms prefer an acidic cellular environment. Our no meat, no sugar, no refined grain diet creates an alkaline environment.

Last year, though, Larisa was bitten by a tick carrying Ehrlichiosis, which the infected ticks can pass on within minutes of biting, not the usual 24 hours that Lyme can take, and within a week exhibited variable fevers and extreme fatigue. A routine physical's blood test done just after the bite showed the characteristic drastic decline in white blood cells. Weeks of daily antibiotics cycled with intestinal probiotics immediately stopped the infection without any side effects. Ehrlichiosis can kill you, shutting down organ after organ, so sometimes it is better to err on the side of caution!

More about what we eat, and why

Larisa and I both became vegetarians in our early 20's. In Larisa's case, she came to it directly after exposure to some vegetarian meals and a fair bit of disgust with her then-current dietary "choices". She threw out nearly everything and started shopping at natural food stores, food co-ops, and farmer's markets. Eventually she became the bookkeeper and general manager of a natural foods cooperative in LaCrosse, Wisconsin and the owner of a natural foods store north of LaCrosse. She progressed to growing her own veggies, often in tubs of soil where gardening space was either unavailable, discouraged, or forbidden.

I (Bob) took a different route. Starting college meant that I had to fend for myself for the first time, figuring out what to eat, how to cook it, and how to afford it. Due to its expense, meat was the first to go. "Diet for a Small Planet", by Frances Moore Lappe was quite helpful in figuring out protein replacement. And the local health food store had lots of soy and gluten-based fake meats to try. But the many books offered in that store led me into Macrobiotics, an Eastern philosophy of life and eating that balanced the Western philosophy degree I was pursuing. I also became a bicycle racer, and the studies I read in "Prevention" magazine at the time showed that endurance sports were best fueled with a meat-free diet. With ample imports from my parent's garden and the local natural foods cooperative, I got enough fruits and vegetables until I landed a rental situation with some backyard space to plant a garden.

Larisa and I both grew up with big gardens, so the motivation to obtain really fresh produce kicked into high gear. Fresh seasonal produce is also the basis of Macrobiotics. But since it started in Japan and we live in often-frigid Minnesota, we use various forms of food "stabilization" to get a year-round diet we call "Midwestern Macrobiotics". While our little greenhouse and our indoor window boxes supply a constant source of living, enzyme-rich foods that a raw-foodist would prefer, we also solar-dry, steam-can, steam-juice, and root-cellar many out-of-season fruits, roots and vegetables.


What about getting enough of..........

As vegans, we get lots of questions about how we manage to get enough Calcium, Protein, Iron, B-12, Essential Fatty Acids (EFA's), and Vitamin D. Obviously we're still alive and thriving, so that's the short answer. For more detail you could try checking out this website, which is loaded with nutritional information for vegans along with many related resources. Another source with great graphics is found here. Weekly vegan menus can be found here if that helps you in the kitchen.

Protein is an easy one. It's found in almost everything humans eat, so if you eat enough calories of real food you will obtain sufficient quantities. And if you believe Dr. Campbell's well-researched reasoning, ("The China Study") it may do more harm than good, even at levels considered barely adequate in Western diets. Still, if you are concerned with getting enough, the early works of Francis Moore Lappe ("Diet for a Small Planet" & "Recipes for a Small Planet") point out combinations of common vegetarian foods that can easily provide for you needs (even though you do not need to eat them together at the same meal, as she originally suggested). Our primary sources of protein are beans, nuts, seeds, grain combinations, and home-grown eggs from our three, orchard-patrolling, insect and weed devouring, pet chickens.

Calcium is also pretty easy. Where do you suppose a half-ton cow gets enough calcium to build strong bones and supply high-calcium milk? Dr. Louis Kervran, in a 1960's book called, "Biological Transmutations", laid the groundwork for a scientific explanation of mineral balances that's echoed in Macrobiotics. Where western nutritionists depend on the "replacement theory", where what you excrete must be obtained, Kervran's work is based on the activity of a healthy bacterial population in the intestines. For calcium, we do what the cows do; eat greens. The magnesium at the core of the chlorophyll molecule gets transmuted into calcium by bacteria. It can also be transmuted from high silica plants (grains) and from potassium (fruits), so a shortage is rare as long as you aren't taking bacteria-killing antibiotics. When greenery is scarce we supplement our diet with calcium citrate and magnesium citrate powders, purchased in one-pound bags, and sprinkled on our morning oatmeal.

Iron seems to be another no-brainer. Larisa routinely tests very high in blood iron when she has a physical exam. She has iron-rich raisins for breakfast with her oatmeal, but the main source is probably the grain itself. High manganese grains transmute into iron. Supposedly, eating well-chewed grains in the morning gives you a high iron level by afternoon, though we've never experimented with timing on this.

Vitamins D and B-12 are the supposed "Achilles Heels" of a vegan diet. Vitamin D is so easy, just get some unfiltered sun on your skin. And the human body needs so little B-12, it's stored so well, and healthy intestinal bacteria continually produce it. Still, even though we get outdoors quite a bit and consume nutritional yeast and rice miso (fermented soybean paste), we often take a food-based one-a-day vitamin in the winter. 

Iodine and other Trace Minerals are easy to obtain if you live near the sea. We don't. So we apply granular kelp to our garden at a rate of about 400 pounds/acre, once every 3 or 4 years. And when we aren't consuming as many vegetables from the garden, we supplement our diet by sprinkling a bit of powdered kelp on our meals. One source I've checked (Frontier Herbs) states that their kelp contains 490 milligrams of iodine per 100 grams. That's a lot of iodine, not to mention all of the other micro-nutrients on board!

Fatty Acids - The Latest "Big Deal" in Nutrition

EFA (Essential Fatty Acids) and Omega-3 Fatty Acids have been controversial in much of what we have read. Since flax seed, along with some greens such as borage and purslane, is high in ALA/LNA (alpha-linolenic acic), I've always presumed that we're getting enough Omega-3 from non-fish sources. Others, such as Nordic Naturals, a company selling fish oil, say that it must come from fish oil. So where do the fish get it? Since many plants are high in Omega-3, I'm guessing that we get it the same way cows get calcium. Prove me wrong and I will start to eat fish, but after 30 years without it I do not think that is likely! To see an excellent article by Udo Erasmus, PhD. on this subject, just Click Here.

50 years ago, when I was quite the young fisherman, I could still find clean rivers to fish in. Now, thanks to all of the agricultural run-off, hormones and other pharmaceuticals flowing out of sewage treatment plants, and raw sewage "flushes" flowing downstream from big cities after a hard rain, fishing has become more like sewer dredging. Not too far north of us on the Mississippi River, but well downstream of Minneapolis/St. Paul, there is a wide spot officially called Lake Pepin. But because of sewage discharges some locals just call it "Lake Poopin'."

To be more specific, ALA/LNA is converted to EPA and DHA (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), both of which are diet-essential Omega-3 fatty acids. These enzyme conversions are inhibited by high levels of linoleic acid (Omega-6, but also essential) found in safflower (77%), sunflower (65%), corn (53%), soy (51%), cotton (45%), and peanut (26%) oils, among others. The enzymes are also inhibited if you consume so-called "trans-fats" (hydrogen-saturated, or "partially-hydrogenated" oils) or too much saturated fat (mainly from animal products).  

The enzymes can also be greatly inhibited by the consumption of fluoridated water or antibiotics, whether prescribed or consumed inadvertently in non-Organic food (for instance, as traces of glyphosate herbicide such as "Round-Up"). Also, certain co-factors are required, including vitamins B3, B6, C, and the minerals zinc and magnesium. The bottom line: If you're already going vegan, eat well, don't over-do the veggie oil or use fancy "spreads", drink pure water, and don't forget to add enough ALA-containing stuff to your diet! 

Our personal choices for ground oil-seeds include lightly roasted organic sesame seed (mainly for the flavor and calcium content), camelina oil for cooking that requires high heat (for its very high "smoke point", extreme shelf life due to high vitamin E content, and its very high Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio), organic olive oil for salad dressing, organic coconut oil (a saturated fat for oiling baking pans), organic chia seed (to thicken fresh-fruit blender drinks and for the high Omega-3 level), and freshly ground organic flax seed (as a super-high Omega-3 source). For cooking oil and salad we mainly use camelina and olive oils. Olive is mainly Omega-9 fatty acids, which are supposed to improve mood, increase HDL cholesterol levels, and improve heart health, but your body can manufacture Omega-9 fats, making them not really so essential. Camelina oil is popular in Europe (for thousands of years) but is harder to find in the U.S. We had been getting organic camelina oil from a farm operation in central Minnesota, but with their business ending we now get it from a non-certified organic grower in eastern Washington. It doesn't quite match the flavor of top-grade olive oil but its Omega-3/6 ratio is far better, its erucic acid (EA) content (a slightly heart-harmful Omega-9 fatty acid when consumed in enormous quantities) is under 3.75% (less than the 5% EA limit for Canola oil in Europe), and it has been tested for pesticide residue (none detected). 

Saturated fats and trans-fats are those which have any available oxidation sites filled, or saturated, either naturally or artificially, with hydrogen. This improves shelf-life since it makes them more stable. It also makes them solid at room temperatures. Poly-unsaturated oils normally have the worst shelf-life since they can oxidize easily, through auto-oxidation, and become rancid. Mono-unsaturates are in-between. So the best oil for conversion of ALA into EPA and DHA would be an oil with both a naturally high Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio AND loads of anti-oxidant compounds. That oil does exist, and it has been used in Europe for a very long time: camelina oil. The best oil for seasoning a cast-iron pan would be one that oxidizes readily and begins to cross-link into polymerized sheets. That would be flax, otherwise known as linseed oil, since it has both a high Omega-3/6 ratio and far less vitamin E (the anti-oxidant) than camelina. But if you heat either one highly enough, the vitamin E breaks down and the iron in the cast-iron acts as a catalyst, helping the oil form a clear, tough finish on the pan.

For those who need even more detail on how to more easily balance your Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio (which should be in the neighborhood between 1 to 1 and 1 to 10), here are a few of the more common sources in order of Omega 3-to-6 ratios, calculated as if all listed undifferentiated 18:3 fatty acids are actually type "n-3" (Omega-3), the "best-case" scenario:

Flax seed

3.865 to 1

Highest vegetable source I know of, and we can grow it.

Chia seed

3.033 to 1

Also very good but much more expensive.

Sage seed

2.27 to 1

Good ratio but not much oil in them.

Camelina oil (C. sativa)

1.36 to 1

Very high in Vitamin E, and will not cross with GMO Canola.

Canola oil

1 to 2.08

Is there really ANY that is not GMO contaminated?

Hemp seeds

1 to 2.64

Either illegal or very expensive, but good stuff.


1 to 3.05

But its 30 to 1 saturated fat to Omega-3 ratio is terrible.


1 to 3.86

Grown here for nuts but the trees are often diseased.

English Walnuts

1 to 4.2

Easy to find but hard to grow here.

Soy oil, refined

1 to 7.42

Getting harder to find organic soy.

Wheat germ oil

1 to 7.94

Great shelf life due to high Vitamin E content.

Evening Primrose oil

1 to 9

But its fatty acid is mostly GLA, more akin to Omega-6.


1 to 10.2

But its 38.9 to 1 saturated fat to Omega-3 ratio is terrible.

Whole Egg (average for pastured chickens)

1 to 11.59

With some breeds and flocks this ratio can be even better.

Olive oil

1 to 12.8

Our salad oil staple, often with ground flax or camelina.

Avocado oil

1 to 13.09

Not grown here.

Black Walnuts

1 to 16.5

These grow locally and are plentiful but strongly flavored.

Hickory Nuts

1 to 19.7

Ditto for these, but they taste just like pecans.


1 to 20.92

Not grown here.

Whole Egg (caged chickens)

1 to 34.78

This is a USDA average for non-organic, store-bought eggs.

Corn oil

1 to 46.09

Easy to grow but only fair Omega-3/6 ratio.

Sesame seed

1 to 56.9

Loved for their flavor and high calcium, but not used alone.


1 to 91

Not the greatest 3 to 6 ratio, but we can easily grow them.

Poppy Seeds

1 to 92.39

High calcium and their flavor when roasted is very good.

Pumpkin & Squash Seeds

1 to 114

We mainly use seeds from the winter squashes we grow.


1 to 125.5

Related to poison ivy, so some people are allergic to them.

Safflower oil

1 to 132.5

Easy to grow but only fair Omega-3/6 ratio.

Sunflower Seeds

1 to 262

We could grow these but bird predation is a big problem.

Brazil Nuts

1 to 587

Not grown here.


1 to 1776

We love peanut butter but the ratio is hard to overcome.


1 to 2010

Require loads of water and shipped-in bees to grow.

Oak acorns, Safflower/Coconut oils

1 to infinity

No Omega 3 was listed at all.

The above ratios were derived from the USDA Nutrient Database, except for hemp, camelina, and eggs from pastured chickens. And from Wikipedia, for further information:

List of omega-3 fatty acids

This table lists several different names for the most common omega-3 fatty acids found in nature.

Common name

Lipid name

Chemical name

Hexadecatrienoic acid (HTA)

16:3 (n-3)

all-cis-7,10,13-hexadecatrienoic acid

α-Linolenic acid (ALA)

18:3 (n-3)

all-cis-9,12,15-octadecatrienoic acid

Stearidonic acid (SDA)

18:4 (n-3)

all-cis-6,9,12,15-octadecatetraenoic acid

Eicosatrienoic acid (ETE)

20:3 (n-3)

all-cis-11,14,17-eicosatrienoic acid

Eicosatetraenoic acid (ETA)

20:4 (n-3)

all-cis-8,11,14,17-eicosatetraenoic acid

Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)

20:5 (n-3)

all-cis-5,8,11,14,17-eicosapentaenoic acid

Heneicosapentaenoic acid (HPA)

21:5 (n-3)

all-cis-6,9,12,15,18-heneicosapentaenoic acid

Docosapentaenoic acid (DPA),
Clupanodonic acid

22:5 (n-3)

all-cis-7,10,13,16,19-docosapentaenoic acid

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)

22:6 (n-3)

all-cis-4,7,10,13,16,19-docosahexaenoic acid

Tetracosapentaenoic acid

24:5 (n-3)

all-cis-9,12,15,18,21-tetracosapentaenoic acid

Tetracosahexaenoic acid (Nisinic acid)

24:6 (n-3)

all-cis-6,9,12,15,18,21-tetracosahexaenoic acid

List of omega-6 fatty acids

Common name

Lipid name

Chemical name

Linoleic acid (LA)

18:2 (n−6)

all-cis-9,12-octadecadienoic acid

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA)

18:3 (n−6)

all-cis-6,9,12-octadecatrienoic acid

Calendic acid

18:3 (n−6)

8E,10E,12Z-octadecatrienoic acid

Eicosadienoic acid

20:2 (n−6)

all-cis-11,14-eicosadienoic acid

Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA)

20:3 (n−6)

all-cis-8,11,14-eicosatrienoic acid

Arachidonic acid (AA)

20:4 (n−6)

all-cis-5,8,11,14-eicosatetraenoic acid

Docosadienoic acid

22:2 (n−6)

all-cis-13,16-docosadienoic acid

Adrenic acid

22:4 (n−6)

all-cis-7,10,13,16-docosatetraenoic acid

Docosapentaenoic acid

22:5 (n−6)

all-cis-4,7,10,13,16-docosapentaenoic acid

Tetracosatetraenoic acid

24:4 (n−6)

all-cis-9,12,15,18-tetracosatetraenoic acid

Tetracosapentaenoic acid

24:5 (n−6)

all-cis-6,9,12,15,18-tetracosapentaenoic acid

You can download a free PDF of this discussion, along with the Omega-3 to Omega-6 comparison table here.


The Grains We Eat and Grow

In the early 1900's, farmers in the U.S. who grew grains and needed them threshed for human consumption worked together to help each other get it done. A group of neighboring farmers either worked with an independent, traveling, steam-powered thresher operator, or they formed a collective grain milling co-op. But with the decrease in farms across the U.S. this is no longer as feasible without large costs for transport. Big corporate farms can pass on milling and transport costs to consumers. But small farms spread over a large area can't easily invest a huge sum on the specialized equipment necessary to prepare a subsistence-sized crop.

Although we try to grow most of our own food, grains are troublesome. We need to grow what fits into our dietary choices, and what thrives and ripens in our climate without excessive predation by birds, rodents, etc. And it has to be something we can process with minimal, inexpensive technology. We've settled for the moment on buying our organic rice, rolled oats, millet, and buckwheat in bulk from our local natural foods "buying club". But we grow our own sweet corn, grain sorghum, and grain amaranth.

The sweet corn varieties we use for fresh eating (Tru Gold, Rev. Morrow's, and lately, Midnight Snack) also work well ripened on the plant, air-dried, and shelled. We usually either grind it into flour or "parch" it in hot oil to make salted "corn nuts". The purple-colored varieties germinate best in our cool, wet spring soils.

The grain sorghum we grow (Dwarf Grain) is quite attractive to birds when it nears ripeness. We cut all of the seed heads when we notice the birds doing a lot of feeding, leaving an extra foot or so of stalk on the heads. It finishes ripening on racks inside the porch. We used to thresh it in a small, electric-powered hammer-mill but if you look at the link to our YouTube video, or click on the photo above for a free, highly detailed, 4.5 MB PDF with photos, you can see our latest method, refined from 30 years of experience. Depending on the screen used it works for both sorghum and amaranth. Afterward we use a fan to remove any chaff. You can see the YouTube video about how we winnow grain, and to see the full explanation of this we have a free PDF available for download.

Grain amaranth also grows very well here, putting out huge seed heads. We harvest the heads when seed can easily be knocked off the heads, using the same threshing and winnowing processes that we use for sorghum. And we grind both of them into flours to mix with other grains, complementing the proteins that may be lacking in one alone, and mixing them into various combinations that work best for cookies, breads, pancakes, etc.

And when all else fails....

When we are simply too tired to prepare a more complex meal, there is always pasta, right? Well, if you are gluten sensitive, gluten intolerant, or even a full-blown Celiac patient, there are not a lot of great-tasting, firm-textured, whole-food pasta options. Luckily we stumbled upon Rizopia pasta at a store specializing in gluten-free foods. Besides being one of the best-tasting, best textured, whole-food pastas in the world (not just OUR opinion!), it is also made from Organically-grown ingredients. Shipped by the case from Toronto, Canada, this pasta is manufactured by friendly folks who are happy to answer your questions and provide a really fine product. We highly recommend it for special occasions (especially the Organic wild rice & rice blend) or for when you simply lack the energy and imagination to cook your own grains.

For further information on: