Explore Change for Plant Resiliency and Profit: Member Bart Eller Advocates for Organic Methods

By Barton Eller, Executive Director, Paonia Soil Co.

Bart Eller

Become a student of change. It is the only thing that will remain constant.

I’m a big fan of this quote by Anthony D’Angelo and it has served me well over the years. In this article, I propose – what I believe to be – a needed change in the way CNGA members grow landscape plants and turf.

Paonia Soil Co. joined CNGA about six years ago. CNGA is a great organization that does a lot of good for its members and for the state. It supports members by engaging with legislators and provides great marketing opportunities through shows. We love the educational opportunities available through classes and retreats. Also, my team and I have met and learned a lot from other members and also made several friends. I could go on about other benefits of CNGA, but – as I mentioned in my talk at ProGreen last year – I have an issue with the way most of us operate our businesses.

Major opportunity before us

I feel CNGA members are missing significant potential growth by primarily focusing on synthetic salt and pesticide-based growing methods. I realize this statement may seem inappropriate since these practices are the standard existing methodology. I also appreciate all the science that has gone into making synthetic agriculture possible, but to me, it seems that the interests of the chemical manufacturers are no longer aligned with our members.

There is a better way. For me, the consequences of failing to change are dire, and the opportunity for financial gain seems so significant as to make it well worth the effort. Different agriculture sectors describe the combined methods of this improved style of growing with terms like “regenerative agriculture,” “permaculture,” or “integrated pest management,” but I think the best way to describe the methodology for our purposes should be “organic.” And, as we improve our growing and plant health using organic practices, we simultaneously safeguard the health of both the consumer and our workers.

Why change if current practices work?

It’s easy to see why organic growing hasn’t caught on in this segment of agriculture as fast as in others. This is because our consumers typically aren’t eating our specialty landscape crops nor are they eating turf. If the plants we’re growing look good and don’t cost too much, there isn’t as much pressure from consumers to grow them organically as there is for fruits and vegetables.

Most nurseries have been running for twenty years or more and have developed systems and methods that work well for their business, and there is plenty of demand for the products. I understand this well. As a kid growing up in Colorado Springs, my mom started a geranium sale as a fundraiser for our church. It became one of the most successful church fundraisers, and at its peak, my dad was hauling tens of thousands of geraniums on the weekend in his old dump truck from several wholesale nurseries to Colorado Springs. In the greenhouse attached to our house, my mother grew tropical flowers of all kinds. By the age of three or four, I had learned that plants – just like people – need to be fed, and I had learned that plants liked to eat something called Miracle-Gro®. All of this made sense to me, and I grew plants this way until I was in my 20s.

As I got more interested in my personal health, a friend gave me the book Empty Harvest: Understanding the Link Between Our Food, Our Immunity, and Our Planet. I became aware that plants grown with these soluble salt fertilizers had significantly less vitamin nutrition in them – on average, 60% less – than those grown with more traditional methods. Also, around this time a friend loaned me the book Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual, by Bill Mollison. It completely opened my mind about what plants needed to thrive, and I realized that forests didn’t need Miracle-Gro® or pesticides or herbicides. Forest biomes grow the most biomass in the world, feed millions of mammals, with no input at all.

What I learned after transitioning to organic

After moving to Paonia 28 years ago I had the opportunity to immerse myself in organic and permaculture farming and culture. The North Fork valley has both the highest number of organic farmers and the greatest density of organic farms, in the state. The Valley Organic Growers Association is the state’s oldest and still one of the only organic trade associations in Colorado. There are people in this valley who have grown every bite of food they have eaten for over 40 years on their land. It’s no small accomplishment, let me assure you.

One of the most fascinating things that I learned from these farmers was that plants grown with organic methods had significantly better immune function and subsequently, a greater ability to resist pests, pathogens and stressful environmental conditions like drought and high temperatures. I learned that the use of nitrate fertilizer causes cell stretching and boron stripping. Like a bodybuilder who looks amazing from using steroids but keels over from a heart attack, the nitrate fed plant might produce bigger fruit or flowers but the thinner, stretched cell walls make it easier for a pest or pathogen to penetrate. In my studies, I found my views to be supported by the work of soil science pioneers like William A. Albrechect. Ph.D., University of Missouri, and modern soil scientists like Kristine Nichols, Ph.D., soil health consultant, formerly at Rodale Institute.

One of the most astounding real-world cases that I personally witnessed that demonstrated the weakness of nitrate-treated plants, occurred about six years ago when industrial hemp production was at its peak in Colorado. Ninety percent of the hemp grown in western Colorado was nitrate fertilized and plastic mulched. Beet Curly Top virus ran rampant through the crop that year. The farms using salt fertilizers and plastic mulch lost 90% or more of their crop. Many had complete crop failure. The virus, combined with plummeting prices due to surplus production, put most of these farms out of business. The farms that used organic methods and worked to preserve soil biology had an infection rate of only 20% or less and plant mortality was 10% or less. Furthermore, half the infected plants on organic farms were able to adapt and recover, even in a hot and dry year.

Not long after, the City of Lakewood did their own experiment. We met their people at the CNGA Buyers Expo two years ago and again at ProGreen. They purchased a truckload of our Cut Flower mix – a “living” soil – and dug out and replaced the soil in half of their flower beds at Okane Park. The beds were salt fed and had some issues. In the spring, powerful hail storms decimated the freshly planted beds. The old beds never recovered. The living organic soil beds recovered within a week and thrived.

As growers, think of all the plants that died before they were established and were replaced. What is that cost?

Water, soil organic matter and nitrates

Another impressive factor I noticed on the organic farms of the North Fork valley was they produced a higher yield with significantly less water than neighboring conventional farms – up to a staggering 70% less water, to my surprise. The mechanism at work here is the amount of organic matter. Soil scientists tend to agree that organic matter (OM) is the primary water holding component of soil. For instance, if you double soil OM, you can increase the soil’s water holding capacity by 300%!

Most nitrate-fed fields have 1% to 2% OM. This means an increase from 1% field to 2% can provide 300% more water holding capacity. In potting mixes with 35% or more OM, it’s not an issue, but for crops planted in soil and turf fields, it’s another story. I have read hundreds of soil tests and have seen a significant correlation. Most organic farms have 6% or more OM – at least 3-times higher than nitrate-fed soil.

My theory on the reduced OM comes from a talk by Kristine Nichols at a soil health conference in Delta Colorado many years ago where we were both presenting. She shared some facts the nitrate industry doesn’t like to talk about. The first is that nitrates are toxic to several species of beneficial soil microbes. This is why nitrates are used to preserve meat products. Second, to get the desired uptake, it is necessary to provide twice the amount that the plant can use in the root horizon. This is factored into the recommendations and cost and the end user typically never knows about this excess.

Bacterial organisms that can survive the nitrate are highly adapted at processing nitrate. As composters know, these species need carbon (meaning OM) at a 20 to 1 ratio to process the nitrate. This means that the nitrate is effectively burning OM out of your soil at a 20:1 ratio. This is not only happening during the growing season but continues after the crop is harvested until the soil freezes. Another problem is that a significant amount of this soluble nitrate is washed out of the soil and into waterways by precipitation and irrigation causing these bacteria to grow out of control. This is the biochemistry behind red tides and other serious environmental problems. Many municipalities are creating regulations to try to mitigate nitrate runoff.

The solution to nitrates is to use amino-based nitrogen, which is how natural systems deliver most of the nitrogen to plants in the wild. Almost any protein can be an acceptable source of amino nitrogen. While amino nitrogen costs more to purchase than synthetic nitrate, when you factor in the loss of OM in soil, the increase in water consumption, the loss of beneficial biology, and the destruction of natural ecosystems, I feel confident that the overall cost of amino nitrogen is less, particularly in turf management. Turf is the largest crop in Colorado. Think of the struggling turf we see, particularly in Denver. Much of the soil under the turf is hard clay – mostly devoid of organic matter – with turf showing brown or bare patches year-round. Water runs right off the top, especially if we don’t aerate frequently. Turf fields have a hard time resisting traffic and turf managers are locked in a cycle of trying to counter these problems with more nitrates and more water.

As Colorado faces serious water shortages, municipalities like Aurora are banning new lawns. Several well-meaning but under-informed legislators are pushing similar laws statewide in 2024. Their proposed solution is xeriscaping. While this seems logical on the surface, xeriscaping has its own problems if poorly executed. It is well established that plant cover – including grass – decreases ground and soil temperature. Grass and landscape plants also help transpire moisture into the air which then cycles into precipitation. I believe that wide scale adoption of xeriscaping – if mostly rocks – will increase temperatures and contribute to desertification in Colorado in the long term. Furthermore, invasive species like cheatgrass thrive on top of weed fabric in xeriscapes. I believe that this type of legislation – banning or limiting turf and recommending xeriscaping – poses the greatest threat CNGA members have ever faced.

Will Colorado growers accept the organic challenge?

Now for the good news. Consumers are ready for organics. Enormous amounts of data show that consumers 50 years-old and younger will gladly pay up to 30% more for organic certified products. While these consumers don’t eat much of their landscaping, their kids play in and on it. Several organic landscaping certifications across the country have become quite popular. CNGA member businesses are leaving revenue on the table. The association also has an opportunity to create their own certification and reap the rewards, such as fees for organic certification and certification classes, and having more control of the new regulations. The only industry that loses is the nitrate industry, which will lose either way as xeriscaping doesn’t need nitrates. How long do we want to be tied to that sinking ship?

It’s our choice. Will we become rock sellers for desert landscapes covered in cactus and cheatgrass? Or will we earn make 30% more by selling organic landscape plants, an increase that more than offsets any potential cost increase for adopting organic growing methods, and provide politicians a solution that saves water and makes Colorado healthier, greener, cooler and more resilient? I believe in CNGA and our ability to change!