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On Being a Size-ist

Posted 2/28/2017 9:52am by Stephanie Bartel.

This past weekend several of the Old Plank Farmers attended the MOSES organic farming conference, a 3-day gathering of over 3,000 Midwest organic farmers. I spent the majority of my time there sitting in on workshops related to soil fertility, cover cropping and no-till practices. Soil health--and the organic practices which foster sustaining soil health (not all "organic" methods do!)--continues to be the focus of my work at Old Plank.

One of the more entertaining and fact-packed classes I went to was led by Allen Philo, a farmer and consultant for various organic fertility organizations in the Midwest. His talk revolved around managing microbiology for soil health. One of the many unseen forces at work in our soils is microbiology like bacteria and fungi. Philo is nothing less than an expert on this subject.

While I can't recreate the eloquence or humor that Philo shared with us in his slides on elephant and e-coli weddings, I can try to summarize a couple of interesting facts about these living organisms. According to Philo, someone has calculated--based on life and reproductive cycles--how long it would take elephants to multiply until there were enough elephants to cover the entire surface of the earth "one elephant deep." This thankfully hypothetical scenario of a planet earth entirely covered with elephants would take something like 500 years. Meanwhile, the same calculation has been done for a strain of bacteria, E. Coli in the example that Philo gave. For the bacteria, it would take a mere 24 hours in optimal conditions for it to multiply until it covered the surface of the earth "one bacteria deep."

This in itself was not entirely new information for me, although the picture of elephants getting married was. I was already aware that bacteria have a fairly quick life cycle, but I found that Philo's comparison between elephants and E. Coli illustrated the relative power that micro organisms can have in the world around us. If we manage our soils in a way that encourages beneficial microbiology to flourish, they can quickly get to work at healing the land and--in our farm's case--help to grow more and better vegetables. Creating an optimum environment for those beneficial microbes to flourish is what is so difficult on a produce operation and what is ultimately the focus of my work as a farmer.

Micro organisms are among the hardest working living things in a sustainable farming system, despite how small and insignificant they may appear to be. Philo coined the term "Size-ist" to refer to a person's prejudicial thinking that larger things are able to do more work than smaller things. He urged us not to be size-ists when considering how to manage the living organisms that contribute to the farm and soil life. I liked this idea because I don't want people to be size-ists when judging me, either! Even though I am built smaller than an average farmer I can certainly be just as productive and hardworking. If I am ever unsure of my work abilities I can just think of my buddies, the soil microbials, for a little inspiration.

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