Middlefield plant growth guru says strong plants make strong soil

By Debbi Snook, Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/14/15

GRANVILLE, Ohio — We try pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, compost, integrated pest management and crop rotation – even in our littlest yards.

But do we really know what plants want?

John Kempf, a Middlefield consultant on plant health who has clients across the country, said we are not going to get the best out of agriculture and the environment if we don’t start paying attention to the distinct needs of plants.

“They have immune systems, just like we do,” Kempf told an audience of mostly organic farmers Friday at a pre-conference session of the annual meeting of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association.

And, like ours, those immune systems need to be fortified over a life cycle. Kempf revealed his own food pyramid for plant nutrients, and a diagram of the stages of growth when it’s necessary to administer the right minerals in the right balance.

Herbicides and pesticides are a relic of our “warfare mentality” he said. Pests have sharpened sensors that will always draw them to a weakened plant.

“You can spray insecticide, kill the pests, and you’ll still have a weak plant,” he said.

A strong plant will not only fend off pests and disease, he said, it will also help build up the soil, assuring a stronger future for both.

Kempf says he’s not offering new information, just a synthesis of findings lost in a rush to chemical solutions and the fragmentation of plant study.

“Farmers used to be generalists,” he said. “Now there are so many specialists, and they don’t always talk to each other.

“An incredible amount of information never gets applied to the field.”

A member of the Amish community who set down his straw hat before his presentation, Kempf said much of what he’s saying can be obtained by Internet searches. He recommended a Google search for the words “nutrient requirements of” before adding the Latin name of the plant to be grown. Also helpful, he said, is the online bookstore operated by www.acresusa.com .

He recommended that home gardeners start with seeds from good sources (such as Baker Creek, Johnny’s Selected Seeds and Fedco), well-composted soil and then follow a proper schedule of nutrient application.

Over-application of certain elements can inhibit plants from accessing nutrients, with potassium and calcium frequently at odds. He advocates the analysis of sap from living plants rather than the more common practice of testing dried plant matter for nutritional content. When the crop is still alive in the ground, he said, there may still be time to improve it. He relies on the Bellville company, Crop Health Labs (1-800-495-7938).

Kempf said he got interested in plant health when he noticed a patch of cantaloupe on his family farm planted on two kinds of soil, one with a long history of chemical use, and one without. The latter had fewer pests and disease, which sent him into a self-education and eventually a consulting business. He operates Advancing Eco Agriculture at 4551 Parks West Road, Middlefield, 44062, where he sells nutrients for both commercial and home use.

At OEFFA, Kempf recounted numerous cases of strong plant health trumping bad growing conditions and pests. This spring, he will establish his own demonstration farm on 160 acres in Orwell, Ashtabula County, where he’ll grow food that will develop into a community supported agriculture program by 2016.

“It will have the healthiest plants possible, with the highest immune systems possible, and absolutely no pesticides,” he said.

Paid interns are being sought for this growing season, with information available by emailing Kempf through his web site.

The sold-out OEFFA conference continues through Sunday with more than 100 workshops on sustainable growing.