Nutrient Rich Crops

Farming movement goes back to the roots for a nutrient-rich crop

JOHN SLADEWSKI/The Standard-Times Derek Christianson harvests fresh greens at Brix Bounty Farm in Dartmouth recently. He utilizes growing practices that produce nutrient-dense soil, which produces nutrient-dense crops that are measurably more nutritious than mass-produced vegetables.

November 29, 2010 12:00 AM

They say you are what you eat. Some farmers are taking this logic beyond its people-centric focus, and applying it in innovative ways to their crops.

Enter the nutrient-dense farming movement — a start-at-the-soil approach to growing food that proponents say is much better for you, in the form of plants that are healthier themselves.

"In the nature versus nurture debate ... we are falling short on nurture," said Dan Kittredge, director of the Real Food Campaign, who will give a free lecture about nutrient-dense farming Tuesday at Friends Academy in Dartmouth. "Simply by addressing the nurture deficiencies, our plants begin to express more of their full genetic potential."

That plants don't always hit this mark is evident in a 2004 study by University of Texas at Austin biochemist Donald Davis, charting a nutritional drop in garden crops over the past 50 years. Using U.S. Department of Agriculture data, Davis found the crops had suffered "apparently reliable declines" of protein, calcium, iron, phosphorous, riboflavin and ascorbic acid, ranging from 6 percent to 38 percent.

"We conclude that the most likely explanation was changes in cultivated varieties used today compared to 50 years ago," Davis said in a university press release, and he described how, even more than pest resistance and climate adaptability, the driving force behind breeding new varieties is increased yield.

"Emerging evidence suggests that when you select for yield, crops grow bigger and faster," Davis said, "but they don't necessarily have the ability to make or uptake nutrients at the same, faster rate."

Nor can plants uptake nutrients that have been stripped from the soil or never existed there in the first place.

Nutrient depletion can be the result of erosion, farming or natural deficiencies, according to Dr. Arden Andersen, a Florida physician, an agricultural consultant and a prominent voice in nutrient-dense farming.

"If you're going to be harvesting crops from the soil on an annual basis, what those crops are doing is they're bioaccumulating mineral nutrition," said Kittredge. If nutrients like calcium, boron, cobalt, and zinc aren't replaced after these plants are harvested, they're effectively mined from the soil, he said.

"As we begin to run out of certain minerals ... it becomes harder and harder for life to continue, and harder and harder for life to thrive."

Simply speaking, nutrient-dense farming focuses on returning these crucial elements to the soil — which involves a deeper understanding of the soil's components — and nourishing the microbial life Kittredge and others called key to crops' health.

"Commodity agriculture has just gotten so big and so focused on yields that it didn't leave a lot of room for a conversation about quality," said Derek Christianson, who will host the Real Food Campaign's five-part workshop (one of several in New York and New England) at his Dartmouth farm beginning in January. Christianson is not new to the nutrient-dense concept and has worked at enriching his soil since starting his farm in 2008. Even the farm's name — Brix Bounty Farm — tips its hat to a mode of gauging dissolved solids in a plant's sap or juice, such as sugars and minerals.

"When we say, 'nutrient density,' we're not talking about just comparing kale with Oreos," he said. "We're talking about comparing kale with kale or carrots with carrots."

Beyond their impact on public health, nutrient-dense crops bring other benefits, according to farmers interviewed. Malnourished produce has a shorter shelf life and attracts insects, which can only digest incomplete proteins, said Ben Grosscup, education events coordinator for the Northeast Organic Farming Association/Massachusetts, which is assisting the Real Food Campaign in the upcoming events. And, Kittredge said, malnourished plants are also more susceptible to disease.

So are malnourished people.

"You can't grow without nutrition if you're a child. If you're an adult, good nutrition keeps you healthy and keeps chronic illness at bay," said Beth Winthrop, chief dietician of Southcoast Hospitals Group. "If you are properly nourished and your nutrition and your exercise are balanced, you have much less chance of getting heart disease, having a stroke, having diabetes, having osteoporosis, being anemic, having your kidneys fail."

Nutrients are most beneficial when drawn from food versus supplements, she said. And, she added, local, sustainably grown fruit and vegetables brings another nutritional asset to the table — flavor that makes people want to eat them.

So why, with the explosion of organic farming, has nutrient-dense farming taken longer to catch on?

One reason Christianson cited is sparse funding for soil health research — particularly, he said, since healthy plants and soils that don't need pesticides, fungicides and herbicides, would take major money makers from industrial agriculture. Andersen pointed to the complexity of nutrient-dense farming and the difficulty of getting consumers to demand high-quality fruits and vegetables when they may never have tasted them before.

But Maureen Sperry of Rochester is already on board. A veteran gardener, Sperry took a Real Food Campaign workshop in the spring and will come to Brix Bounty for more. Sperry described a realization she had, one day in a garden, that piqued her interest in soil health.

"These plants are the same as us. ... They need food. They need clean water. They need clean air. They need a safe place to live," she said. "What is it specifically that the soil needs that's different from me?"