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How Farms Can Become Medicine Cabinets and Nutrition Centers

June 16, 2020

In our last blog post, we discussed the tremendous array of phytonutrients available from plants and pasture-raised proteins.

Diversity, particularly plant species diversity, is crucial in building a wide range of health-boosting and healing phytochemicals.

Farm landscapes that encourage and build diverse arrays of plants become plant, animal, and human nutrition centers and pharmacies. And, unlike a typical pharmacy, you don’t have to worry about drug interactions, side effects, or overdosing. The medicines we obtain through our foods are in perfect balance and readily available for health and healing.

As farmers, we focus on fostering landscapes that provide a variety of foods for the herbivores, omnivores, and carnivores beneath and above the soil surface.

These landscapes are in sharp contrast to farm landscapes where monoculture crops and livestock production are the norm.

Animal health greatly improves when they can forage from a diverse array of plants. They stay healthy, require no antibiotics, and grow more efficiently with less carbon, nitrous oxide and methane emissions.

Livestock grazing in diverse environments actually are healthy for the climate rather than harmful.

It is only when they are grazed poorly, in monoculture pastures, or in feedlots on grain rations, that we have problems with harmful greenhouse gas emissions from our livestock.

This makes complete sense from a historical ecological perspective, as there were once hundreds of millions of wild ruminants roaming the grasslands, prairies, savannas, and woodlands of the world. If grazing animals were harmful, then nature was conspiring against herself for tens of thousands of years!

At Joyce Farms, we strive to provide as diverse a plant environment to our livestock as possible. As a matter of fact, this diversity is increasing each year.

Herbivores will often eat from 50 to 70 plants a day, if provided a phytochemically rich mix of grasses, forbs, shrubs, and trees.

These animals eat a variety of foods for several reasons:

  1. Satiety – meaning to satisfy to the full or satiate,
  2. to derive primary nutrients (proteins, energy, vitamins, minerals),
  3. to derive secondary nutrients (medicinal compounds, phenolics, fatty acids, antioxidants), and
  4. flavor feedback.

These are the same reasons we should eat a variety of foods daily.

It is the secondary nutritive compounds that are our personal pharmacy and nutrition center. Plants grown in diverse communities have enhanced above ground (shoot) and below ground (root) phytochemicals. This gives a phytochemical richness to the plants we eat, the meat we eat, eggs and dairy we eat. If grown in a diverse plant environment.

Amazingly, this phytochemical richness provides a host of benefits to the plants themselves, including:

  • antioxidants,
  • adaptive coloration,
  • attraction of pollinators,
  • sunscreen,
  • drought and freeze resistance,
  • persistence,
  • fast recovery from injury,
  • and even defense against overgrazing.

Yes, plants can protect themselves against animals overgrazing any individual plant in a plant diverse environment. However, monoculture and low diversity environments encourage animals, including wild ruminants, to overgraze. These types of environments make plants and animals more susceptible to environmental hardships.

In most of modern agriculture, the production and array of these vital plant phytochemicals (secondary compounds) has been reduced. Monoculture systems have replaced natural phytochemical defenses with synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. Livestock operations have replaced nature’s pharmacy with antibiotics and anthelmintics (anti-parasitic drugs)  to treat disease and parasites. There are even attempts to genetically engineer back into plants the resistance to disease and pests they once had.

We must remember that plants and herbivores have been playing these games for a very long time. They had established a balance that worked well. Modern agriculture interrupted that balance.

We need to understand that plants are sentient beings, receiving and responding to sensations. They are not organisms that feel nothing or understand nothing. Plants can “see” different wavelengths of light, “breathe” through the stomata on the surface area of their leaves and stems, smell, taste, talk and listen in biochemical languages, detect through their smell and taste chemical compounds in the air and on their tissues.

Plants “hear” the sounds of pest insects, such as caterpillars eating on a neighboring plant and respond in self-defense by producing volatile compounds that alert other plants in the community to the predator. These volatile compounds can be sensed by beneficial insects and birds that prey on the pest insect. The volatile compounds also attract pollinators, birds and animals to perform pollination services and seed dispersal.

Underneath the soil surface, the biological world is busy performing vital functions as well. Plant roots interact with soil fungi and bacteria as these microbes search for water and nutrients. The plants transfer food to the soil microbes through sugars spewed out from their roots (exudates). The bacteria and fungi capture nutrients in the soil and feed the plant host. The secondary compounds from the plant root exudates can attract, deter, or even kill insect herbivores, nematodes, and microbes. These same exudates can also prevent competing plants from establishing themselves.

Nature plays a complex offense and defense that has been honed by the interaction between soil microbes, plants, insects, and animals for eons.

This game plan works and works very well. It provides the pharmacy and nutrition center for all these organisms, and for us.

If we attempt to work against nature, we interrupt this delicate balance, and we disrupt the vast array of medicinal and nutritive compounds needed for optimum health.

Modern agricultural devices are foolish compared to nature’s devices. That is why we must always strive to work with nature, and never against. Nature always wins!

 Written By Dr. Allen Williams, Ph.D.
Allen is a founding partner of Understanding Ag, LLC and the Soil Health Academy, as well as being a regenerative farmer and rancher.  Allen and his partners work with farmers and ranchers in North America across more than 22 million acres.”