Farmer Bob Wilt: Soil biology, nutrition and taste
01 Sep, 2010
Bob Wilt has a lot of faith in the taste of his Sunset Valley Organics blueberries. He should, for over time he has discovered an amazing fact. “If I can get some of my berries into somebody’s mouth, 90 percent of the time I’ll have a new customer,” Bob told Organic Connections. “In addition to selling through stores and over the Internet, we have a stand from which we sell to the local people. The funny thing is, we are the most expensive berries in the area but we have people who will come in and buy two pounds three times a week. And it isn’t because of my bright smiley face; it’s because those berries taste good.”
Such taste is not at all commonplace today. Produce is grown from soil devoid of nutrition, forced to life with harsh chemical fertilizers and “protected” with toxic pesticides. The lack of taste in supermarket produce is a reflection of the lack of nutrients.
Bob didn’t always have such stellar produce. In fact, it took nine years for him to make the journey from conventional farming to a practice known as Biological Farm Management. Beyond the USDA requirements for organic certification, these methods begin deep in the soil and concentrate on producing plants rich in nutrients. The result is produce so tasty that top chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, Alice Waters, Rick Bayless, Suzanne Goin and a host of others value it highly for use in their restaurants.
From Dead to Alive
Bob didn’t start out to be anything other than what his family had been. Raised on the very land he is farming now, he graduated from Oregon State University and started farming on his own in 1970. In the nineties he decided he wanted to improve his farm, and he turned to the person he thought could help: the salesman who sold him the chemicals he used for fertilizer.
“Basically he’ll sell you everything off the shelf,” Bob said. “We started using more nitrates. We added more potassium in the form of potassium chloride, and we also began using more harsh herbicides, like one called gramoxone—where you sprayed today, everything was dead tomorrow.
“Our fields became very manicured and very clean. In fact they were too clean. But appearance wasn’t good enough—we wanted more yield. We began applying heavier quantities of fertilizers and were also putting on extra nitrates. The more we put on, the more it seemed we needed and the amounts got really high.”
The chemicals didn’t stop there. In 1998 Bob’s plants started suffering from fungal diseases and he lost 40 percent of his crop. To solve the problem, his salesman had him implement a fungicide program in which he had to rotate four or five different fungicides so that none would build up.
For a while it seemed to work. “We kept the fungal diseases away,” Bob remarked.
But after three years Bob realized that despite everything he was doing he wasn’t raising his yield at all—in fact it was quite the opposite. “In April 2001—I remember this just like it was yesterday—I went out and looked at my berries,” he said. “I saw that maybe the best fruit-bearing limbs I had were 6 inches long rather than 18 or 20 inches. And instead of the 10 to 15 buds to the limb that I should have had, I might have had 2, at best 3. Well, you can do the math pretty fast. You can figure out you’re going backwards.”
Bob now knew that his adopted methods weren’t being effective. He began asking around and found that there was a soil biologist named Elaine Ingham in nearby Corvallis, who had at one time been on staff at Oregon State University but now had her own laboratory. One day Bob walked into Ingham’s office—and that was the move that changed his farm, and his life.
“Because of the condition of my farm, I felt that I had to learn what I was doing wrong in a short period of time,” Bob recounted. “I made several visits to this biologist, and after nine hours of consultation we both agreed that I had graduated Soil Biology 101.
“I found out that I was killing off the soil biology. We were putting things on that were absolute poison. One basic principle a lot of growers don’t understand is that you’ve got to have biological organisms in the ground because they’re the stomach for the plant. They do the digesting. Biology will process minerals in a form that the plant can use. Without those minerals, you’ve got a plant but it’s not healthy. It’s empty. And that’s a lot of what’s wrong with our food today: it’s empty.”
That very year, Bob started adding a natural liquid solution called compost tea to his soil to supply it with nutrients. He also quit using herbicides and began using fish fertilizer in place of the chemical nitrates.
He saw results right away. “That year was kind of tough weatherwise,” Bob noted. “Growers around here had a 20 percent loss—but I held my own. That was enough to say let’s try this again.”
Bob continued with the practices he had learned and began adding to them. He realized he would need a very good compost, and spent the next four years developing it. Interestingly, he found that one of the best additives to his soil came about as a result of a compost he provided for a friend’s worm farm. “I would trade him my compost, which he wanted to use as a food stock for his worm farm, and in return I got his worm castings,” Bob said. “It is a way better product—like turning a Volkswagen into a Porsche. In the end, we had a very powerful compost tea. If you are going to play the game, you want the best tools you can get your hands on.”
The compost tea also assists in keeping away fungal diseases. In the spring he applies it to the soil, and for the remainder of the season he applies it directly to the leaves every 10 to 14 days.
Shortly after Bob started down his natural farming path, he attended a seminar put on by a medical doctor and one of the pioneers of Biological Farm Management, Dr. Arden Andersen (see Organic Connections, July–August 2008). Dr. Andersen convinced Bob that if you grow nutrient-dense crops, people will come. Bob ended up attending a number of Dr. Andersen’s seminars and had him out to his farm several times.
According to Dr. Andersen, “Nutrient density means the quantity of nutrient per quantity of food. Typically, the USDA analyzes how many milligrams or how many micrograms of nutrient there are per 100 grams of food. With nutrient density, we want to increase the amount of nutrients—calcium, magnesium, selenium, chromium, iodine, whatever there might be—per 100 grams of that food. If you eat an apple and it is highly nutritious, highly nutrient dense, you get a lot more nutrients out of that single apple than if you pick up another apple which has half that nutrient density.”
This gave Bob a bright idea for competing with other blueberry growers. “Knowing that blueberries were going to be overplanted, we had to have some sort of a plan that made our berries unique,” he said. “Why would somebody want to buy my blueberries instead of everybody else’s? Well, when we started going down the road of plant nutrition we discovered that nutrition is all about vitamins and minerals. So we decided we wanted to be noted for good nutritional blueberries. And if you have good nutritious blueberries, you have flavor too.”
Through listening to Dr. Andersen and from his own research, Bob discovered the use on his fruit of a measurement called “brix.” Brix is a scale that relates to the nutrients the fruit has absorbed. “We have found out that the higher the brix in the berries, the more nutrition, flavor and sugar they have. Those are all extremely positive things if you’re trying to sell your berries to a consumer. That’s good stuff, a win-win for everybody; it’s a win for the consumer and it’s a win for the guy growing the berries.”
“You’re aiming for a higher percent of dissolved solids in the plant—a higher percentage of complex carbohydrates, sugars and proteins,” says Dan Kittredge, executive director of the Real Food Campaign and an experienced organic farmer himself. “These are the elements that correlate directly with increased flavor, increased nutrition, increased shelf life, and increased pest and disease resistance.”
Bob also found that the more efficiently he was able to get minerals into his berries, the higher the brix measurement went. Hence, he concentrated on doing that and still does to this day. And as the brix has gone up, so has the flavor.
“The average brix measurement for fresh berries is generally between 10 and 12,” Bob explained. “Ours tend to begin around 15, but this last year we had one variety that was averaging around 16 and another variety called Jersey that had numbers between 19 and 21. It gave us an average of a 20 brix.”
The correlation between nutrition and great taste is no longer just theory. Third-party independent testing was conducted on regular supermarket fare as well as organic berries from other growers. The results can be found on Sunset Valley Organics’ website, which show that nutrients in Bob’s berries generally range higher—sometimes significantly—than other blueberries grown with different farming methods.
The steps that Bob employs have actually taken him “beyond organic.” “If I talk to anybody, I’ll tell them I’m a biological farmer,” he said. “I just get paid to call myself an organic farmer. If you’re a good true biological farmer, you’re going one to two levels above what most organic farmers do because you’re so involved in what’s good for the soil, in what the nutrition of the soil is or the life of the soil.”
The nutrient-dense plants and Bob’s new farming methods have also meant being able to do away with insecticides and herbicides. The wrong sorts of insects generally don’t bother his plants, and so far funguses have been a thing of the past.
Testament to the Taste
One story demonstrates the flavor difference in Bob’s blueberries almost better than any other. Several years ago, Bob went into partnership with a packer who obtained business from a large grocery store chain for their southwest district. Consumers were so amazed that they began e-mailing the stores to say what an incredible taste the berries had, which led to a second year of sales.
A change came in the third year, however. “This last year, 2009, the berry price really plummeted,” Bob related. “There were a lot of berries available, so conventional berries took a huge dive. Well, this store chain decided that since conventional berries were so cheap they were just going to go with conventional and wouldn’t be interested in organic.
“About six weeks went by and they had gotten so many e-mails from their customers demanding a return of the flavorful berries that the company came back and we negotiated a price. It was a lower price than what we had been getting, but as it worked out we sold our whole grade A crop to them at 50 cents over the market. If you have good, sweet fruit, people will come.”
For Bob, the journey is far from over. “It’s a story that’s going to go on as long as I can run my farm,” Bob concluded. “And that’s a good thing. There’s a lot more I’d like to do.”
To find out more about Sunset Valley Organics and their amazingly tasty blueberries, visit their website at www.sunsetvalleyorganics.com.