Tom’s Food Forever Method for Long-Term Soil-Building

Reader Contribution by Tom Stephan and Barn Owl Boxes
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I wanted to grow my special variety of crossed tomatoes, which I use in my often ballyhooed guacamole. They are an ‘Early Girl X’ cherry tomato inter-specific cross. I think they’re delicious and they are prolific. My garden’s soil blended with my homemade composts and the biochar did well. The key was soil preparation before planting. Growing the earthworm farm first before planting is a virtual guarantee of the crops future vigor and vitality.

Then it happened. I saw an interview online with Professor Reginaldo Haslett Maroquim. As a young man in the Guatemalan highlands, Dr. Haslett Maroquim dreamed of getting a degree in America in the standard U.S. model of industrial farming. He thought he would go back and teach his mountain clan these skills to help them rise above poverty. This came to pass at the University of Minnesota.

His degree in hand, Dr. Haslett Maroquim realized that, unlike his Native American traditional farming methods, industrial farming is not sustainable. It pollutes while depriving the soil of nutrients. Indeed, approximately 65% of the world’s farmlands is now depleted of soil nutrients, and that figure is growing. With an increasing human population and the constant loss of soil, one need not be a soil chemist to see where this is going.

“Regi” as Dr. Maroquim’s friends endear him, decided that a mixing of the two methods was in order and began his form of “Regenerational Agriculture,” now an accepted farming method sweeping the planet in its many forms. Currently the good professor may be found at Regeneration International, a globally recognized advocate for soil.

Building Soil Using a Livestock Paddock System

Soil not only is like a battery, the earth is a battery — a huge one. When the soil is full of life’s nutrients, it can be measured. A single positively charged soil particle is called a “cation” (pronounced “cat I on”). There is a point when the life in the soil has reached a saturation point. This is a high “cation-exchange capacity” or “CEC”, as those in the know term it. Arborists use the slang that the soil is either “live dirt” or “dead dirt”, depending on the crust’s hardness or carbon-richness, as the case may be and which, when loaded with worm castings, looks like coffee grinds.

I copied Regi’s design of raising poultry in row crops in the confines of fenced paddocks. I took a parcel of three 1-acre paddocks, separated by a living fence, in my case of Nopale cacti to keep out the coyotes. This cultivar of cacti is adorned seasonally with the big, red fruits on them. Chickens love the fruits. I started an earthworm farm in each paddock using chipped trees from my tree service and horse manure from the local horse farms, forming worm beds called “windrows”.

While the worms grew, I made biochar and raised chicks up to poults. In spring, I planted my crops. The small fruit trees, elderberry, pomegranate and chestnut, already started. When the vegetables were about to mature, I released the large poults into paddock number 1. They went straight for the earthworms. They ate so many worms that if you looked, you could see them floating in the backs of their throats and still they were stuffing down more!

The chickens began to mature rapidly on the high protein. Their egg-laying soon began in earnest, and the yolks were tall and a brightly colored orange. The chickens were only slightly interested in the greenery inside the paddocks. That changed as the worms became more scarce. The birds began to hunt insects that were feeding on the chicken manure and feeding on the plants. Their scratchings acted as micro-tilling. The dips and divots they made left helped rainwater penetration. I used oyster shells as grit in the soil to further this forage and put Beyond Tangy Tangerine vitamin supplement in their water. I traded eggs and meat for produce that others grew to round out my diet.

When the crops were beginning to show signs of foraging stress, I moved them into paddock number 2, and replanted number 1, making use of a common dirt road passing by all three paddocks to wheel about the birds’ mobile coop, or “chicken tractor.”

When number 2 paddock was browsed sufficiently as was the first, I moved them to number 3 and replanted 2, then back to number 1, so forth and so on. I was amazed at how well this concept worked. It grew intense amounts of food in a small area while keeping the CEC at full charge in perpetuity. As long as farming operations continues in this model, the soil fertility will remain fully charged forever.

This is the inevitable future of farming globally. It’s the oldest new way. The next year, I entered the idea in the Southern California Agricultural Exposition’s farm competition and won first place in “Most Innovative Farming Concept”.

Water: The Beginning Farmer’s Primary Concern

Becoming a farmer for the first time was an eye opener, to say the least. I was only a micro farmer but suddenly began to realize the scope and logistics of the larger farming operations. These logistics were presenting problems to my future plans to expand the operation. These are the same problems a farmer might encounter anywhere on agricultural or desert areas of the planet.

Water, or the lack thereof, was burning copious quantities of brain calories. How to get it? To answer that, I must locate it and procure it without paying for it. Where is it? In the Southern California environment, one is bombarded with water conservation advertisements. But these cities sit next to the Pacific Ocean, which is, of course, the largest water source on the planet. All water shortages there are human-made. Southern California has all the water it could ever use right there at the beach. There are new desalination methods in San Diego with patents and methods that use no power, only gravity. Methods producing 99.99% pure water.

Nowhere in America is the price of water so high and the water district so mighty as it is in Ramona, Calif., in San Diego County, where I operated. I had to think of ways to get my water other than from a well or a pipe as it was far too expensive to continue farm operations. Permits for wells are scarce there, and these water barons hand out hefty fines for bootlegged wells. So I began to plan my next operation. I am now ready.

I knew there are vast amounts of water in the air we breathe and surrounding us 24/7. How to get it from the air? “Swamp cooler”-type window air conditioners produce water while condensing air in the air conditioning process. But air-conditioning units are not efficient because of the large amounts of electricity needed to power the units. 

Why couldn’t a machine be designed specifically to harvest this moisture from the air? An online search produced a litany of electrically powered and even passive and solar powered “water generators”. These experimental and some commercial machines are existing technology. The water these devises produce is negatively charged. By draining this water into a fish or duck pond, it will soon be stinky with life, most definitely positively charged, and Grade A worm food ready for irrigation.

In addition to the use of water generators, there is the collection of rainwater through glorified “water guzzlers”, which the Fish and Game biologists build in desert regions to collect and store water in underground revetments to hydrate wildlife. These and other water-conserving methods could be employed on this future farm. These are drip irrigation and possible solar stills to recapture that water dripped onto the soil.

Planning and Advocating for the Future of Farmland

It is conceivable that a small 1- or 2-acre farm could feed a family, or maybe two. In my mind’s eye, I see it used as a community garden or as subsistence farming in remote deserts at the micro level. It could be scaled up to a much larger operation. The limiting factor is how much water can be condensed from the air? The sky’s the limit as they say. Even a large farm used in this manner would have a much smaller “footprint” while out-producing industrial farming of equal acreage. All of it organic and non-GMO. The resulting small size reduces impacts to wildlife habitat and underground aquifers than conventional farming operations.

But are our many global governments ready to endorse this new but old concept? Only your lobbyists know for sure. The one bit of wisdom I have found from 27 years of public speaking on various issues is that letters, much more than emails, written to your Congressmen and women work. So tap the keys and lick those stamps. Save mankind while conserving water and wildlife.

My next farm will be in Idaho and address the three logistical “opportunities” of power, water and labor. Power is always available from the sun though solar panels, to be stored in batteries. I plan to rearrange the paddocks from the three-panel rectangle to a square with four fenced-in paddocks, the internal fence making an X pattern. The poultry, either chickens, turkeys, pheasants, or a combination of all three, will be lofted in the coop in the exact center of the four paddocked fields. This stationary coop will be sporting four doors, with each door to allow the birds to access one of the four panels, used in rotation. This way, the coop never needs be hooked up to the hitch and moved and increases the paddocks to four from three.

Tom Stephan works in the green industry treating sick trees to improve their vigor and vitality through anti compaction and soil fertility. He is a former certified arborist, a master falconer, and has incurable minimalist tendencies. Connect with him at Barn Owl Boxes, and read all of Tom’s MOTHER EARTH NEWSblog posts here.


In an organic garden, plants in optimum health thrive abundantly, produce harvests with amazing taste, and possess the ability to fight off plant predators. When they don’t, there’s often something lacking in their proper nutrition. Maybe they are missing beneficial microorganism companions, or perhaps they are short of the energy needed to reach their full nutrient-dense potential. The solution is to “start with the soil,” but healthy soil doesn’t happen just by composting, fertilizing or companion planting alone. The solution can be found in Building Soils Naturally, which gives gardeners a hands-on plan for creating productive, living soil by using a practical, holistic approach – crafted right in your garden.

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