The Fun Never Ends Here At Garden Professors!

I have another post to toss up later today, but first I thought I’d direct your attention to the comments on a post from a few days ago — The post titled International Ag Labs – who are they and what do they do? It’s fascinating to see so many people discussing the benefits of IAL (and more fascinating to read their comments…some of which are thoughtful and some of which are….less thoughtful).  The reason that there are so many of them is that IAL apparently sent out a blanket e-mail to their customers to try and get them to respond to Linda’s post.  This is absolutely fantastic!  I never imagined we would receive so much free publicity!

Interestingly enough I’ve been informed through a semi-reliable source that they (and the truth is that I’m not exactly sure who “they” are) want to try to get Washington State to shut our website down!  Again, awesome!  This will result in even more publicity!  We might even get into the papers!

At this point it’s probably worth telling all of you what I think about IAL based on their tests and recommendations.  Their tests look fine — not the format that I’m used to, but no big deal.  Their recommendations, on the other hand, seem silly and ill advised to me (I’ve been working with soil tests to one extent or another for about 18 years now).  That doesn’t make them wrong, but the accepted science currently out there doesn’t support them.  Also, I can’t stand it when a supposedly independent lab seems to be promoting particular products — in my opinion that could, potentially, compromises their objectivity.  Look, if you want to believe in a particular method of growing plants then that is your right — far be it from me to dictate your belief system — but, as Linda once wrote to me in an e-mail, that is faith based growing.  On this blog we talk about and support science based growing.  Faith based growers are always welcome here, but be aware that you probably won’t be happy with everything we write.

28 thoughts on “The Fun Never Ends Here At Garden Professors!”

  1. As a former student at WSU, I can’t see them being so silly as to shut down an extremely informative, useful and entertaining blog because somebody’s sacred cow got gored. If IAL truly believed they had the science to back-up their claims, they’d happily present it (as scientists do) instead of sending their faithful off to attempt to silence debate. If they somehow do succeed, may I recommend moving to ScienceBlogs? If SB can survive the heat generated by P.Z. Myers, I assume they could handle whatever IAL could throw out.

  2. P Z Myers is a University of Minnesota guy — Though I’m not an atheist (see, I appreciate faith!), I do love to listen to him!

  3. As a comment: A really nice follow-up post here would be tips on picking a good science-based soil testing service. There is extension, of course, but what about all the private ones?

  4. This discussion brings to mind an excellent editorial I just read in the paper by Leonard Pitts, called ‘Facts ought to matter,’ in which he laments how facts used to help settle arguments, but now many people refuse to acknowledge any information that doesn’t agree with their preconceived notions. (ex. people who refuse to believe our president was born in Hawaii, or that global warming is an issue.) (
    In such a complex world, we need science and critical thinking more than ever. It’s great to have tools like this blog to help people make informed decisions.

  5. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Karen. I also read that excellent editorial. There is a strong anti-intellectual sentiment running through our country (and elsewhere? International readers, are you seeing this?). In fact, NPR reported that a US Senator (whose name and party affiliation I’m leaving out, since this isn’t a political blog) declared (and I’m paraphrasing here) we don’t need “a bunch of professors” sitting around a table making decisions about the economics of health care. Princeton professor Reinhart, one of the country’s leading health care economists, asked “What’s wrong with professors? They too can think, by the way.”

  6. Why do you suppose that so many in the public have no problem with science and research for biomedical fixes, they still send their children to college, but when it comes to environment type issues, scientific reasoning is ignored?…Have we failed in the past to make a connection they can relate to? Thoughts?

  7. I think it’s because people tie agricultural science to pesticide companies and GMO crops. So all of us associated with applied soil and plant sciences are tarred with the same brush. And as Jeff pointed out, there is a strong “faith-based” contingent of alternative growers. It also doesn’t help when people with PhDs in irrelevant areas proclaim themselves as “experts” who are ignored by conventional scientists. Finally, I think many people firmly believe that medical doctors should have MDs, veterinary doctors should have DVMs, but plant and soil health isn’t that complicated and anyone can be an expert (i.e. you don’t need a PhD).

  8. Forgive me….but I missed the part where you tell us how you became qualified to consult farmers, or critique their methods.

    When did you learn these skills? How long have you been consulting? How many acres do you manage? Any record of your yields or nutritional density?

    Without practical experience, your PhD is even more irrelevant than you claim Arden Andersen’s to be.

  9. I grew up on a small orchard and worked on it until I was about 20. For the last 12 years I have run the TRE nursery at the University of Minnesota where I grow and provide trees for the campus as well as for the cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis (the nursery fluctuates in size between 8-10 acres). I don’t get my hands as dirty as I’d like to anymore, but I do get them dirty.

  10. Let’s use an analogy here. You have a pet dog whose health you care about and you’ve heard about a new product (or practice or whatever). You have a choice: you can talk to someone with a DVM, or someone with a PhD in horticulture. Who would you choose? Now let’s say that the DVM (assuming you would choose this person) specializes in dairy cattle rather than dogs. The DVM would not be well versed in the medical care of dogs, but certainly would be conversant with basic animal medicine and would be able to interpret journal articles about canine medicine. So yes, someone with a PhD in horticulture can read and understand articles in the any of the applied plant and soil sciences, and can interpret that information for the public. Now on to your assumption that I have no practical experience – which seems to be a common thread among the IAL disciples. I have overseen many sustainable landscape projects (you can find these on my web page if you cared to visit it). Furthermore, I personally manage a 3 acre wetland enhancement that I restored from blackberries and Scotch broom. It’s not crop production, but the same basic soil and plant sciences guide me.

  11. Jeff’s answer reminded me that I too grew up on a farm – not a huge one (25 acres), but a working one. I raised chickens, rode horses, picked fruit, drove the hay truck, etc. until I went to college (Oregon State, an ag school). I’m also a certified arborist, which I assume you would consider “practical experience.”

  12. Why am I not seeing any methods for quantifying ‘your’ results? The end justifies the means. Not sure why that concept is escaping you. All you have proved is that you spent time reading books, and not much time producing food.

    The people defending IAL are making a living growing high quality food. They are getting quantifiable results. Few bugs, little or no mold, high brix, high yields, rapid start to finish times etc.

    You may have information at your disposal, but you lack knowledge. If you believe otherwise, then put your money where your mouth is. Grow some crops. Do a side by side comparison. Then run plant sap, nutritional, and pollution analyses.

    There is a HUGE difference between knowledge and information. Knowledge is the ability to apply the information. You started this. Prove to the world that your intellect is superior to Arden Andersen’s. Prove to the world that you are right. Prove to everyone that you are not merely a bookworm.

    If you’re going to talk the talk, then walk the walk.

  13. Hi Chis, OK, here’s the thing — the guidelines that we (and by we I mean most University Professors and Extension Specialists) follow are the guidelines which most of the growers in the United States follow — If IAL, or you, want to prove that Arden Anderson’s methods are superior then you need to do the testing — not Dr. Chalker-Scott, and not me — we’re not going to do your work for you. If you or IAL don’t do this testing then you’re not going to influence people who appreciate science.

  14. I don’t know why we need to keep saying this: it is incumbent on people who promote products and practices to supply verifiable information if you want to convince scientists. (For instance, I have promoted the use of arborist wood chip mulch on landscapes, especially restoration sites. You can read our publication on the science behind that practice here: Cahill, A., L. Chalker-Scott, and K. Ewing. 2005. Wood-chip mulch improves plant survival and establishment at no-maintenance restoration site (Washington). Ecol. Restor. 23:212-213.)

  15. “the guidelines that we (and by we I mean most University Professors and Extension Specialists) follow are the guidelines which most of the growers in the United States follow”

    Could you help me understand the metrics you use to define success? I’m curious to know more about how you measure the results obtained from following these ‘guidelines’. In your world, has someone defined what the perfect tomato is….and then defined the process to create it?

    I’m extremely interested in seeing this tested. Any ideas on what data you’d like to see?

  16. Unless you guys have metrics for success… are much like the scientists who believed the world was flat. Just because there is consensus, doesn’t mean you are right 🙂

  17. Chris, you need to read a scientific paper so you can see what these metrics are. They might include yield, height, fresh weight, dry weight, color, etc. etc. etc. Research is conducted – statistics are run – research is replicated by other scientists under different conditions with different crops. If the hypothesis continues to be supported by objective research, it becomes the model for success. Often, these models are tweaked as more information becomes available, and sometimes the model is rejected entirely. That’s what’s called a paradigm shift, and it’s fascinating to read about the paradigm shifts in the history of science. If you are really interested in the history and philosophy of science, I can recommend some good books for you. But if you refuse to some reading on your own, then all you’re doing is ranting. That doesn’t further our discussion, and it’s becoming tiresome.

  18. …please point me in the right direction. I’d love to learn more about your perspective, as well as that of Carey Reams and Dr. Arden Andersen. Food security is of the utmost importance to me, and I’d be glad to read whatever suggestions you may have. Please include something that would help me understand your ‘complete’ definition of success. Curious to see any information about specific growing processes, and the actual nutritional value of the resulting product (I notice you didn’t mention those values in the dataset you provided). Like I asked before…..if you have the definition of a perfect tomato (and plant), I’d love to know about it.

  19. Chris, I don’t know where you live, and I’m sure you know conditions differ for growing tomatoes (or other crops) from place to place. So if you lived in Connecticut, for instance, I’d point you towards this information for starters:, from extension specialist Dr. Grubinger (and you’ll note this is for organic production). The trick is to use your state college’s extension information. In theory, the information you find from extension specialists is based on hard data from research, but it’s been translated for practical use. Your extension specialist would be able to provide the specific articles – and their data – that support the recommendations. So Chris, if you or anyone else supplies us with information on where you live, we would be able to point you to local/regional information from your state’s extension service. We are only too happy to help you get the information you need from the university experts most able to answer your questions. (Beyond this, I just did a quick literature search for organic tomatoes in the agriculture database. There are 490 articles. If you really want this list of references, I can email them to you.)

  20. Thanks for the link, but I could use more specific information if you have access to it. I guess I’m looking for a recipe, not a shopping list. That page was the equivalent of telling someone that water, chicken, and salt can be used in chicken soup. >> I live in Sonoma County, CA. I’d be happy to have you point me in the right direction. I’m anxious to evaluate soil recommendations side by side >>>

  21. Chris, you’ve hit the nail on the head: living systems don’t fit into recipes. (This is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to make aerated compost tea for scientific testing. Every batch is different, even when the same “ingredients” are used. But that’s a different discussion.) California Extension has a number of free or low-cost publications relevant to growing tomatos and many other crops. Here’s a start: That one’s free. Or you could look at this CD: It has an entire section on organic soil amendments and fertilizers. Even better, these are all written by experts in the field that live in your area and can address local climate and soil conditions. They would also be the ones to talk to about side-by-side testing. I hope this helps.

  22. Your comment that “living systems don’t fit into recipes” is very interesting, and completely conflicts with what I’ve read about Carey Reams. It was said that Reams was able to predict quality and yield before the produce was grown…just by looking at a soil analysis. This is starting to look like the topic for a documentary.

  23. Carey Reams was not trained in the life sciences. Living systems are continually influenced by their environment, and the environment is changed by the living community. This is the foundation for the study of ecology – one of the most complicated and least predictable of the life sciences. My own area of expertise is in plant ecophysiology – how plants interact with their environment. It’s a fascinating science and not one that can be reduced to a recipe.

  24. Absolutely. In ecology, an organism’s niche (all the living and nonliving factors that govern its existence) is sometimes called an “nth dimensional hypervolume.” It’s a way of saying we don’t know all of the factors – there are always more to be discovered. For instance, on Bert’s posting today, he mentioned that nickel wasn’t known until relatively recently to be an essential micronutrient for plant growth (it’s an enzyme cofactor). And our understanding of the various symbiotic relationships among organisms is relatively limited as well. So rather than trying to absolutely define an organism’s niche, we recognize the complexity and settle for testing those factors we can easily quantify. (This is one of the reasons that lab testing of products and practices does not always translate well to the field – the variability of factors, quantifiable or otherwise, make field testing very difficult indeed.

  25. I was warned by a former prof that if you do research and find results contrary to what a company promotes, be prepared for backlash. She showed through her research (at WSU) that peat is not the vest potting ingredient and was blasted by the peat industry. I like to think that you know you are on to something when someone out there making a profit on something gets mad at you for finding fault in a product or practice. Anger seems to come from those with something to hide.

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