Review: Biological Farmer

Title: The Biological Farmer: A Complete Guide to the Sustainable & Profitable Biological System to Farming
Author: Gary F. Zimmer
Farmer, consultant, Midwestern Bio-Ag
Publishing Info: 2000, Acres U.S.A.
Book Type: Soil science textbook, case studies
Zimmer was raised on a Wisconsin dairy farm and started his career in academia in dairy nutrition, so his experience and knowledge have a solid hands-on foundation. Like others (Neal Kinsey), Zimmer was heavily influenced by Dr. William Albrecht and does believe that high calcium is a hallmark of healthy soil. Since the early 1980s he has been in partnership in the Midwestern Bio-Ag consulting/fertilizing venture.

This is a good overview of general soil science and biological farming. Zimmer defines biological farming as “farming with fewer chemicals, better soil stewardship, and a cleaner environment” (15). He stresses throughout the book that this is farmer driven and farm specific. Thus, you can’t just copy what others are doing per se, but need to adapt ideas to your own farm, methods, machinery and pocket book.

The book is broken up into “how’s” and “why’s” and then case studies and conclusions. The “how’s” cover the basics of soil science such as soil structure, microbial life, nutrients and soil testing. This section is a great introduction or refresher for anyone, and covers all the important areas equally. The “why’s” focus on the interaction of all the parts and the individual farm case studies to demonstrate the soil science in practice as how it is applied by Zimmer to biological farming. His main focus is getting the soil in balance, which includes having high calcium (70-85%) and 25+ earthworms per square foot during spring and fall. Here he gives soil results from different years and explains what was done in between to cause positive changes. He also gives lists of different nutrient sources and gives the pros and cons of each. Next he gives more in depth case studies of various farms to give a more complete farm-system view of how biological farming principals work. He sums up his basic rules in the conclusion: 1) Test and balance your soil, 2) Use fertilizers which are life-promoting and non-harmful, 3) Use pesticides and herbicides in minimum amounts, only when absolutely necessary, 4) Use a short rotation, 5) Use tillage to control decay of organic materials and to control soil air and water, 6) Feed soil life. The appendix gives a scorecard to rate your own soil and his final word is to also do your own research and not be dependent on others.

Since the book is heavily identified with Midwest farming, some of the examples will not be applicable around the nation. Zimmer himself noted this, and again stressed the need for the application of basic soil science principals to improve the soil and to focus on farm specific results. He also gives specific guidelines for only a few crops: corn, soybeans, alfalfa, small grains and potatoes. Yet again, that covers a majority of the cash crops, and one book could not have information for all crops everywhere.

I would recommend this book to anyone starting out to improve their soil, especially if they have a soil test as it is best to have something to compare the book examples to. Even if someone is more interested in post-WWII conventional farming, this book’s section on soil science would be invaluable at explaining basic soil concepts.

Finally, this book was published in 2000, and in 2011 Zimmer released an updated version titled “Advanced Biological Farming.” It would be interesting to read that book and compare it to this one. Perusing the book on Amazon book preview shows a similar table of contents, but Zimmer’s introduction explains it is “my story; a story gleaned from my winter meetings from 2003 to 2005” and “my understanding of the system has expanded to include the concepts of carbon-based fertilizers, homogenized blends, and balanced quality nutrients that are root friendly, pH controlled, and hooked to carbon so that leaching and erosion are reduced.”

Here are his Chemical Balance guidelines (77):
Calcium 70-85%
Magnesium 12-18%
Potassium 3-5%
Phosphorus 50 ppm
Sulfur 25ppm+
N:S ratio 10:1
pH 6.5-6.8
Medium to high OM (2-5%+)
Adequate trace elements