A Master Consultant Shares His Secrets

John Norton heads the groundbreaking South Australian company, Bio-Tech Organics. This company was the very first NTS distributor in Australia and for the past fifteen years they have carved out a role as leaders in biological horticulture. John is now one of the World’s leading potato consultants and he has been responsible for record yields of this crop, achieving both quantity and quality. He is also a gifted consultant in viticulture and small crops. Recently, I delivered a one day course in South Australia and I took the opportunity to question John about his strategies and successes. I’m sure you will find something of value in this sharing.

Graeme: Thanks for agreeing to this interview. In retrospect it is long overdue, as you have had more experience at initiating biological programs than most of the experts in this burgeoning field. How long has Bio-Tech Organics been in existence?

John: I started the company with my close friend, Dave, right back in 1990 and we were originally involved in horticulture training. We were offered an opportunity to market fish fertilisers as an adjunct to the training business and we became one of the pioneers of this natural liquid fertiliser in Australia. 15 years ago we discovered NTS and became the first and only full State distributors for your company.

Graeme: You have found a productive synergy with the use of NTS liquids, microbes and humates in conjunction with a local coal-based compost.

John: Yes, we were actually marketing the Ferbon compost before we began with NTS. We were involved in some initial trial work with the organic guru, Peter Bennett, using the coal compost and the fish fertiliser and we were all amazed at the results. Dave and I looked at each other and realised we had stumbled upon something very special. Then the NTS opportunity arose and it opened a whole new world of possibilities and synergies.

Graeme: It must have been quite a step up from marketing just three products to what has now become almost 300 products. Incidentally, you have developed considerable expertise in the use of these products and I thought this interview might serve to help others seeking to understand their use. For example, you were the first consultant to discover the frost protection potential of some of our products. Could you tell me how that happened?

John: Yes, certainly. Well, we were working with an avocado grower in Ashbourne in the Adelaide hills. When we became involved the managers of the property were using a typical chemical fertiliser regime. They were really suffering from phytophthora and were injecting with Phos acid on a regular basis with minimal response. They were suffering huge tree losses so they were desperate for some help. Winter was coming and frost damage was another issue. We recommended that they brew Nutri-Life 4/20™ to improve the balance of soil life and we also suggested the use of silica to strengthen the plant. Around the same time I had been researching a beneficial organism called Pseudomonas fluorescens because NTS had recently introduced Nutri-Life Sudo-Shield™ to the range and I wanted to fully understand the product. I was fascinated to find that the damaging effect of frost is actually linked to biology. A group of organisms called ice nucleating bacteria actually create the frost crystals that do all the damage. If you can neutralise these bugs you can stop the frost damage. Pseudomonas fluorescens feast upon these damaging organisms and there were a couple of US inoculates already on the market for biological frost protection. I figured there might be some gains in combining the cell strengthening effect of silica with these predatory organisms.

Graeme: It’s funny that you should mention silica in relation to frost. I recently received a letter from a large scale leek grower in Holland who had enjoyed two years of impressive frost protection with the use of silica. He had been treating the seedlings with our silica-based Dia-Life™ product, along with some calcium (Cal-Tech™) and boron (Nutri-Key Boron Shuttle™) and repeating this application through fertigation a couple of weeks later. Calcium and boron work as synergists with silica and he had survived major frosts that had damaged neighbouring crops. How did your new strategy work with the avocado grower?

John: Well, we applied Nutri-Life 4/20™ every two weeks for three months by which time there was no evidence of this continuing. Now winter had arrived and the frosts were vicious. We decided to trial Nutri-Life Sudo-Shield™ with the silica. The manager of the property actually went out during the night and measured temperature. He measured a grid across the property at 3 am in the morning. He was using an infra red thermometer and measuring ambient temperature, soil temperature and he even chipped away part of the bark and measured tree temperature. One pocket was down to minus 18 degrees and several parts of the orchard were down to minus 13 and yet there was absolutely no frost damage. Shortly after that a grape grower called. He had lost his previous crop to frost and was hoping we could help. We suggested the combination of silica and Pseudomonas fluorescens and he phoned at the end of the season to report really good frost protection. Since then we have used this approach successfully on several crops.

Graeme: We have recently begun to recommend a combination of kelp (Tri-Kelp™), potassium (K-Rich™) and Nutri-Life Sudo-Shield™ for frost protection. There has been some recent research linking compounds in the seaweed to frost protection and potassium is an electrolyte that maximises fluid movement in the leaf, thereby reducing the freezing potential of static sap. This approach also works well but it sounds like there might be some benefit in adding silica to the equation. If Potassium Silicate were used it would kill two birds with one stone. You recently mentioned some tremendous results combining your humate compost with our calcium fulvate product. Do you mind sharing this story?

John: This involved a Vietnamese farmer in Virginia. The biggest problem at the moment in that area is that it has been thrashed with high salt fertilisers for over 60 years and the recycled irrigation water is also high in salts. The soils are consequently very saline and high in chlorides. Soil tests usually reveal excesses of the cations, sodium, potassium and magnesium and a lack of calcium. Even if lime is applied to the soil the calcium is often inhibited by the three cations in excess. Leaf analysis always reveals low calcium, and calcium-related problems, like blossom-end rot, tend to run rampant. In this instance we have found it very productive to focus upon just carbon and calcium. The carbon serves to buffer the excesses while the calcium finally gets to do what calcium is meant to do. It improves crop quality, resilience and yield. We want to set as much fruit as possible and then hold that healthy fruit through to harvest.

The chap involved had put up new poly houses and used chemical fertilisers and his first crop went nowhere. He called for help and our soil tests revealed the same old problem. He actually had sodium and potassium levels that, when combined, accounted for over 30% of base saturation. This excess of sodium and potassium has a huge impact upon manganese uptake. It is so common for growers to get the plants halfway to the wire, which is seven feet tall, and then the problems begin. At about one metre high, the wheels fall off. They suffer major losses to blossom-end rot, and the manganese deficiency is obvious everywhere on the lower leaves. There are also often signs of magnesium deficiency, even though the soil magnesium is adequate. Again, this is related to the high potassium, inhibiting magnesium. The conventional guys keep piling on the potassium even though there is such an excess and this can also lead to shortages of boron and phosphorous in the plant.

Graeme: This is one of the best areas in the country to witness mineral interrelationships at work. It is hard to understand why people still question Albrecht’s ideas when you are working with these soils. You get to witness the key ratios at work on a daily basis and you learn to ignore them at your peril.

John: That is very true. Anyway, this guy came to us and we suggested he apply 200 kg of our humate-based compost per glasshouse. This seems like a lot (on a hectare basis), but it is the amount that is proven to do the job. This equates to 40 kg of humic acid per greenhouse although it is not in the fully soluble form. He then applied Calcium Fulvate every week and the results were spectacular. I will send you the photos of the large healthy leaves with exceptional chlorophyll density. There were no signs of deficiency and he had phenomenal yields and no disease issues.

Graeme: In these kinds of intensive horticulture situations it is more common to see huge excesses rather than deficiencies and they are often harder to handle. Do you see evidence of the overuse of phosphate?

John: We sure do! We have guys with a tonne a hectare too much phosphorus and zero P recovery.

Graeme: How do you manage these soils?

John: Well, compared to soils where growers blindly add more and more acid phosphate into soils that are already overflowing with P, in the soils where we just add the humate compost and Nutri-Life 4/20™ we see less Pythium and fungal diseases on the roots and a huge lift in productivity. Most of these growers follow crop after crop without the use of rotations or cover crops and consequently nematodes are another big problem. We had a grower come in recently carrying a tomato plant with a root system that looked like Bob Marley’s hair.

Graeme: I’m not sure that Bob would have been pleased to have heard that his dreadlocks look like rootknots (laughs). How do you guys usually manage nematode affected soils? I’m sure that many growers will be interested as they are the most costly pest in horticulture.

John: We condition the soil with neem oil first and then use humates and Nutri-Life Root-Guard™. It is all about creating conditions that they don’t like rather than hitting them with poisons that kill the good with the bad.

Graeme: It is a classical example of how conventional growers can shoot themselves in the foot with mismanagement of chemicals. The creatures that keep root knot nematodes at bay, in the natural scheme of things, include mycorrhizal fungi, nematode trapping fungi and predatory nematodes that feed on root knot nematodes. All three of these groups are knocked out by chemical nematicides and ironically the first creature back after the holocaust are the root knot nematodes and now they have no competition. Agricultural science gave us nematicides and they are about as unscientific as is possible. The definition of “science” is “adherence to natural laws and principles” It is anything but scientific when the so-called cure actually magnifies the problem.

John: I agree. When you mentioned Mycorrhizal fungi it reminded me of your new Nutri-Life Platform® product. Most of the soils in this region are devoid of mycorrhizae and we see a huge benefit in reintroducing them. Particularly since this product also contains Trichoderma and it is so cost effective. There really is no reason now that these organisms can’t be brought back into all soils including pasture and broadacre.

Graeme: I know. I am so excited about this inoculum. Mycorrhizal fungi are the missing link in many soils and their absence is very costly. Not only do they increase soil and plant resilience but they deliver phosphorus and zinc and increase nitrogen, calcium and potassium availability. They are also responsible for up to 40% of the humus in our soils so in this context they are probably the most important creatures on the planet at this point in time.

John: The potential is huge in horticulture. It is just like the nematode story. The growers soak the seedlings in fungicides that kill all of the protective organisms and effectively create a rod for their own backs with ongoing disease pressure throughout the season. The chemicals are not working in many cases. A resistance begins to form when they are overused. Nutri-Life Platform® will be a real boost.

Graeme: Do you feel that there will be much education involved to introduce the mycorrhizal fungi to local growers.

John: They will be welcomed by the growers in the know but it will be more difficult amongst the diehards. I attended a local sustainable ag seminar this afternoon but arrived to find that it had been cancelled because no one showed up. There is still a long way to go with some of these guys.

Graeme: Do you think that part of the problem is related to the supermarkets and some of their tactics? I mean it is unlikely that any grower will gamble with a new approach when they are struggling to break even and a crop failure could be their undoing. One of the largest vegetable producers in Queensland just went bankrupt today putting seven hundred people out of work. The local Minister of Agriculture is finally suggesting that the supermarkets may be at fault in terms of their treatment of primary producers.

John: The market used to be a true market where everyone had to bid for the produce. In our area the supermarkets deal directly with the growers and it has not been to their advantage, They have become price takers rather than price makers. At least the biological growers have superior produce to offer but they really need a new marketing apparatus to truly benefit. I can understand how businesses could fail. The price for Lebanese cucumbers at present is $7 for a 10 kg bucket. That’s just 10 cents per cucumber and there is no way you can survive for long at these prices.

Graeme: They are many times that price in the supermarkets and that is the exact problem. Anyway we had better move on. Are there any standout success stories about the use of biological products that you would like to share?

John: Several years ago, Dr Elaine Ingham spoke at a seminar in the Barossa Valley. When asked about biological strategies for white snail she mentioned an organism called Bacillus subtilis. We have had reasonable results with broad spectrum inoculums that contain these organisms but specialist products work even better. An organic grower recently reported a complete kill of his white snails using Bacillus subtilis. In fact, he harvested their bodies and put them all in his compost. Western Flower thrip is another scourge in the Virginia region. Three different chemicals every three days is the standard solution and that barely works. We have experimented with Metarhizium, the fungi that kills insects, and it works extremely well on this pest.

Graeme: Moving on to peculiarities regarding the use of NTS products. I understand that you have identified specific timing related to the use of Triple Ten in certain situations that may be helpful to other users.

John: Yes, and it is all related to misuse of potassium. Potassium excess is a scourge amongst local vegetable producers. It is true that crops like tomatoes are gross users of this mineral. In fact, each tomato plant requires seven and a half grams of potassium per week, when their fruit are sizing. However, most of these soils contain copious amounts of potassium, so adding more can be counterproductive. This even extends to the NTS liquid products that contain potassium, like Triple Ten™ and K-Rich. It really is related to the inhibitory effect of potassium upon calcium. There is always a battle to keep good levels of calcium in the plants from a high potassium soil and if you foliar spray something like Triple Ten™ during flowering then the flowers will close up and you will lose those flowers. It is not a problem if you have applied a calcium product like Trio™ or Cal-Tech™ just before the Triple Ten™.

Graeme: It may also be that the potassium is shutting down boron as this mineral is so strongly linked to flower retention.

John: Yes, that is quite likely because even the soils that have high boron levels don’t reveal good boron levels in the leaf.

Graeme: In conventionally farmed soils, there is always a struggle to maintain the luxury levels of calcium in the leaf that we are seeking and I am convinced that it is related to the decimation of mychorrizal fungi (AMF) in these soils. There is some impressive research demonstrating that the reinstatement of AMF can provide the calcium solution. These creatures are constantly releasing acids in the root zone that break the bond between calcium and phosphate. They are renowned for sponsoring the release of locked up phosphate but this release process also delivers soluble calcium to the plant and this is at least as important as the P contribution. This is one of the reasons I am so excited about the new Nutri-Life Platform® product.

John: There are different requirements in different regions. In a potato crop in the Mallee, for example, there are different issues. Here there is too much calcium and not enough magnesium. In fact, the calcium to magnesium ratio in these soils can be as high as fifteen to one. Here we combine magnesium carbonate with compost to improve these ratios.

Graeme: I am always amazed at the number of people who still use magnesium sulphate to try to correct magnesium deficiencies in the soil. If you are trying to improve the soil structure in a tight, high magnesium soil, the tool to use is gypsum. The sulphate breaks free from the calcium sulphate and bonds with the excess magnesium to form magnesium sulphate, which is highly leachable. In this manner you can leach out the soil tightening magnesium and your soil can breathe again. Why would you apply a highly leachable magnesium source to a soil where you are trying to build magnesium levels? When we first started working in Holland there were magnesium deficiencies in every crop we visited. Some of the growers were using over a tonne of magnesium sulphate each season and yet the plant shortages remained. The problem was immediately solved when we switched them over to Mag-Life™, which is a liquid, micronised form of magnesium carbonate. The carbonate form is much more stable than sulfate forms and this applies to most minerals.

John: Yes the magnesium carbonate in a composted humate base has been really successful. We have been achieving potato yields of 30 to 35 tonnes of potatoes per acre.

Graeme: You are a renowned potato consultant. I understand that your programs feature a strong foliar emphasis?

John: Yes we have great results with Triple Ten™ applied every week but, as with all fruiting and flowering crops there is a constant need for calcium. Trio™ or Cal-Tech™ must always be alternated with Triple Ten™.

Graeme: Yes, there is no way that we could combine calcium and magnesium in Triple Ten™ because of the soluble phosphorus component. It is always a productive strategy to alternate these two, for complete mineral coverage. The addition of Nutri-Key Shuttle Seven™ from time to time is also a good idea for blanket coverage.

John: Yes we use that approach mixed with a little more precision when using leaf analysis. We use the Shuttle chelates to address whatever is missing on the leaf test.

Graeme: I could talk with you for much longer but we had better keep this interview down to a readable length. Thank you so much for sharing.

John: It has been a pleasure.

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