Exploring Holistic Alternatives

Families practicing: Alternative & Natural Health; Attachment and Mindful Parent

Johnny Robinson goes about things organically

[Final Edition]

By Karen Bair / The Herald, The Herald Online, 1592 words
Jul 14, 2002

Document Text

"Secure yourself some cow horns."

That's the advice of Johnny Robinson, boys and girls. He's a sort of Mr. Wizard of farming, and near December's vernal equinox he will bury 15 to 20 cow manure-filled cow horns. In the spring, he will unearth them and mix the innards into his compost pile. One could put the contents in a jar and store it in a cool place for up to a year, but Robinson believes in putting those microbes to work ASAP.

"Those microbes are down there giving their lives to those roots," declares the retired Army lieutenant colonel and former physical science teacher.

It's all part of a biodynamic plan to convert manure into enzymes and bacteria for his multi-ton compost heap.

"This will blow your mind," Robinson said of biodynamics. He's as enthusiastic as a child introduced to his first chemistry set.

"It's a method of farming where you are trying to tune in to nature and its forces to take care of soil and produce more nutrition in vegetable or animal husbandry. It sounds like voodoo, but it's scientific."

Robinson farms his 65 acres the organic way, subsisting on his retirement income and viewing the acreage as his experimental playground.

He plunges his fingers deep into the drought-ridden soil of his tomato field and pulls up earth damp to the root. That's largely the product of his pride and joy, his compost pile.

The same fingers are apt to swoop up an over-eager baby barn swallow and return it to its nest. The eaves of his farm's roadside stand on S.C. 161 are a veritable Capistrano to barn swallows who nest, roost and multiply there. He provides food, water and swallow- friendly ambiance, and they arrive in increasing numbers each year.

"We don't have any mosquito problems here," he chirps with self- satisfaction.

Customers also flock into his roadside stand to buy his organic produce, chew the breeze and seek counsel on tending home gardens. A jovial Robinson trails into the parking lot with them, toting their produce and dispensing advice. It can range from organic cures for blight to selecting and storing a choice cantaloupe.

"If it don't clear up," he tells one with pepper problems, "hit it again about every seven days." 'It' is powdered milk. He recommends spraying it on the plant because it needs calcium, and the plant will absorb the calcium through the leaves.

"We had a problem with our tomatoes, and he cleared it right up," says friend and neighbor Bob McAlister. "He gave us some of his mulch. Brought it down and plowed it under. It was a calcium thing. He shares his secrets." Among other things, Robinson's compost contains sheet rock, full of calcium-rich gypsum.

"Those tomatoes are so sweet," compliments another customer returning for more. "Taste just like sugar."

"Well, I haven't tested them yet," replies a beaming Robinson, who keeps a refractometer behind the counter in case someone requests scientific proof. He also stocks grocery store tomatoes to compare their sugar content to his.

Slicing open a grocery store tomato, he pours its juice onto the refractometer's test slide, then holds the gizmo's lens up to the light.

"That's a 5," he explains. "That's not good."

Then he cuts one of his own tomatoes and drops its juice onto the slide. It measures about 5.75. "That's measured in brix," he said. "B-R-I-X."

"You know," he said of the $200 refractometer, "people could carry one of these around in a grocery store."

On the wall behind him are Cool Necks. They look something like neckties, but are filled with a polymer that absorbs and holds water. His daughter-in-law sewed them to keep his neck cool in his fields. They worked so well he decided to share them with customers for $6 each.

They contain the same synthetic used in baby diapers, so it's no surprise Robinson put it around his peach trees.

"Any time you get a rain, it holds that water so I don't have to irrigate so much," he said. "It's inert, so it doesn't hurt the soil. It seems to work real well."

Robinson boasts he doesn't grow beautiful plants. "I like to grow beautiful produce," he bragged.

He grew up in Clover and was hooked on chemistry from the beginning. After teaching for a year while attending The Citadel in Charleston, he took a U.S. Army commission when he graduated. That led to 33 years in the military, including five combat campaigns during the Tet Offensive of 1968 in Vietnam.

He bought the farm between York and Clover about two years before his military retirement, then taught physical science for 11 years in Gastonia.

When Robinson began farming full time about 16 years ago, his land was hard and dry. A decade ago a friend introduced him to organics. He's been experimenting on his little Eden ever since.

"I doubt if Adam and Eve had any fertilizer," says York Clemson Extension Agent Henry Nunnery. "Nature lets plants feed themselves."

There's been a trend toward more organic growing by small farmers, Nunnery said, but it's impractical for larger operations because it is very labor intensive.

Nunnery enjoys his visits to Robinson's farm and recalls Robinson once tried to convince him of a cure for canine arthritis.

"He had about three strands of copper wire wrapped around his dog's neck," Nunnery chuckled. "He said his dog had been unable to walk and, lo and behold, his dog could walk again."

Nunnery has tried more conventional treatments on his own dog but is keeping the copper wire theory in mind for future potential.

Clemson University itself recently started an organic agriculture research project, primarily due to U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations that take effect in October. Because of the rise in popularity of organic markets in the past decade, the USDA will require anyone selling with an "organic" label and grossing at least $5,000 a year to meet certification requirements. Clemson is overseeing the program in South Carolina.

Geoff Zehnder, who heads Clemson's organic research program, said Robinson has applied for a farm research grant using fermented compost as a spray to increase fertility and suppress disease. "He had good results," Zehnder said.

Zehnder is growing the type of tomatoes Robinson cultivates on Clemson's organic research farm. They don't look luscious. They have ridges and tend to crack at the stem, just like grandma's garden tomatoes did. More importantly, they taste like grandma's tomatoes. Zehnder says the flavor and texture is "incredible."

He calls them "heirloom tomatoes."

"They weren't bred for long shelf life," he said. "People bred them for flavor and dense flesh. They didn't breed them to pick green and ship."

Organic farming is officially known as "sustainable agriculture." Robinson believes farmers have to look at organics because insects and diseases are becoming increasingly resistant to existing chemicals, requiring development of stronger chemicals - chemicals that can be harmful to people.

Although he grows tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and cantaloupe organically, even Robinson has to use some fertilizer on his corn and pesticide on his peaches in this climate and soil.

Twenty of his acres are cattle pasture, 10 are peach grove, four are various other produce and the balance is hay. He says his cattle are organic "by default" because they eat only grass from organic pasture. No supplements.

He hauls 20 to 30 truckloads of yard waste totaling about 50 tons annually from the City of Clover and adds his cows' manure, biodynamic manure and sheet rock, among other things.

He was introduced to organic farming by a friend a decade ago. Now he reads about it voraciously. That led to discovery of biodynamics, introduced by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1930s.

So he bought some BD 500, a biodynamic inoculate for his compost pile.

"Lo and behold, I couldn't believe the result," he said. "Turnips so big they wouldn't fit in my hat. It turned compost into soil as rich as can be. The mysticism of biodynamics drives people away. It did me at first, but it worked and I wanted to know why."

Then he employed the cow horn formula to make his own BD 500. He uses one pint per 20 tons of compost, which computes to 1 ounce per gallon of water to spray on 1 acre.

But chemicals and commerce are fast encroaching on his little farm. Because the mail is now radiated, he doesn't want to order that way.

"When some of the older farmers die out, it's going to be big, commercial farms and buying our processed, radiated food from Mexico and South America," he believes.

He operates his farm and produce stand for the joy of it, not for profit. And none of his children want to farm.

"My farm will probably be made into lots for houses," he said. "They'll have rich land. Good gardens."

Meanwhile, Mr. Wizard will enjoy his customers, his organic playpen and his barn swallows.

"Now I'm not saying we draw barn swallows because of biodynamics," he cautioned with a grin, "but they like it here."

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