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263. Advancing Eco Agriculture | Where Plant Health Builds Soil Health | CEO John Kempf
23rd February 2020 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 00:57:41

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So excited because my guest today has this amazing green future grower story I KNOW listeners are going to absolutely love! So if you’re driving don’t worry I’ll make awesome SHOWNOTES because I know we are going to have a million golden seeds dropped with this amazing interview.

CEO of Advancing Ego Agriculture, John Kempf is on a mission to “produce healthier soil, stronger crops, and consistently higher yields!”

What I love about his story is how he started out and I can’t wait for you to hear it too! His passion for growing healthy soil and healthy plants for profit is contagious!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I love what I do I have fun!

I grew up in a family vegetable farm in snow-belt south of Lake Erie

Small scale market ~ fruits and veggies for wholesale markets

early 2000s we had 3 consecutive years

intense disease

we lost majority of crops to a variety of disease and insects

In the 3rd year in 2004, we observed that

plants which were grown on healthy soil

better biology

were very disease and insect resistant

cantaloupe resistant to powdery mildew that was side by side

soil with he previous pesticide exposure for the prior decade of growing vegetables we lost the majority of the crop to powdery mildew, 80% of leaves

The new soil didn’t have pesticide exposure didn't have any powdery mildew. Not 5-10% you couldn't find any! ZERO! There was a knifelike effect right down the field.

really a major turning point

what was the difference between those two plants 

resistant to powdery mildew when the next plant 2 feet away was susceptible. 

asking that question and the things I learned

plant science and agronomy from asking that question were what led to founding

Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA)

in 2006


Was the idea that we can grow plants that are completely resistant to diseases and insects based on how we manage nutrition.

where we identified plants that are healthy

not only are they

resistant to diseases and insects but they regenerate soil health at the same time

process of this journey I was fortunate to be guided by

USDA experts

land grant universities

all over the world

realized this exceptional info that very wise people had was scattered all over the place

  • difficult to find
  • not recorded at all
  • some experiences were not being transferred

Led me to starting the Regenerative Ag Podcast

with the intention and goal of interviewing

  • leading farmers
  • leading scientists

sharing their information with other professional agronomists and growers who wanted to produce in a regenerative agriculture context!

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

I grew up even from before I remember, we always grew our own food.

appreciate it as an adult

There were many years my parents purchased salt and pepper and spices and that was just about it

  • maple syrup
  • honey
  • stevia
  • sweeteners
  • grew many of our own herbs
  • 2 farmed ponds where we raised fish
  • raised poultry
  • grass fed beef
  • family dairy cow
  • grew a large garden
  • small orchard

Lived an incredibly rich life from a food quality perspective

My parents started growing vegetables commercially in 1994, so I was still very young 

My earliest memories are working out in the fields harvesting fruits and vegetables.

Awesome! I love millennials. I thought you were older then that.

So you have this amazing journey. I am curious it seems like you almost have this test plot like at Rodale's, how did you have this plot without chemicals and the other part was getting sprayed with pesticides etc. Is that it right?

It was sort of an accidental test plot

land grant universities

pesticides were fine

didn’t know any better


were uninformed

Whereas the challenges and dangers of pesticides are now very clearly

as a result using a lot of pesticides on my farm

My dad was the original distributer

we were the first people to use to the newest products and cocktails so we could make recommendations to customers

I was a licensed pesticide applicator at 16.

As a result of this

farm we were farming on and managing

Had a history of growing very intensive vegetables

cover crop

intense pesticides

In 2004

We started renting


corn, small grains

2 year of alfalfa rotation

So that soil did not have the history of pesticide applications it had 

  • limestone
  • manure

That soil was much richer and more fertile

field bordered up against our field and we started 

one side intense powdery mildew infections and the other there was none present

This is fascinating?

That was the lightbulb. I wanted to know what was the difference between thee plants

what emerged after research and speaking to a lot of people

areas of plant science which are not even considered in mainstream agronomy

particularly in that point in time

Thanks to people like you...

Do you know who Liz Carlisle... she wrote the book the lentil Underground. It kind of asked the same questions. I think she was getting her phd from Stanford. She teaches there now.

there are

What I learned in my research

that plants have an immune system and yet they don’t all work equally well

We know people who become ill

never become ill

two individuals is the way their immune system is supported over the course of their lifetime even before they were born

holds true of plants as well

We can support a plant nutritionally so it has a very functional immune system

aggressive immune systems

extremely resist to a broad array of pests and diseases

I feel like a lot of people ask me these questions you have a great way of breaking this down.

there are agriculture ecosystems

it's challenging to communicate because there is a fundamental dissonance between the scientific method and ag

the scientific method is based on the single factor analysis

specific factor or addition

when you add something

attract something

agriculture and soil are so interconnected and interrelated so when you shift and change one piece everything else also changes

One of the gifts I have been able to bring is to communicate these interrelated concepts is to communicate them in a way to understand.

On your website you have so many webinars my listeners would be interested in learning.

It’s hard to identify a single surprise.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the realization that this knowledge and understanding of plant immune systems and managing plant nutrition has not already been the mainstream.

I understand there are substantial economic forces that would be at a disadvantage if this information was more wildly known. 

regenerative ag ecosystems have been around for 50,60, 70 years or longer

agricultural green revolution

refuted by some of the

Justice von Liebig when he wrote the law of the minimum


plant yields and development

Triggered the development of

  • potassium
  • phosphorus
  • nitrogen

What most people don't know he published a 2nd book that completely reversed his position and said

it’s all about biology

150 year old example

leading scientists of the day

understood the


information today

how to implement regenerative ag systems on a very large scale

don’t need new ideas of

simply need to implement what we know

Is it similar to what people are talking about no-till, permaculture or is it something you're doing.

I think our approach

developed at Advancing Eco Ag (AEA) one key fundamental difference

in particular to other

  • biological
  • ecological
  • organic

agriculture the difference is are very soil centric

common mantra to regenerate that healthy soil creates healthy plants but we believe that the opposite is true

healthy plants create healthy soil


plants and photosynthesis

plants create

  • soil biology
  • soil environment

in our approach where we work with very large scale commercial

Focus is on changing soil across the entire farm is by growing really healthy plants!

commercial strawberries

Focus is to change the health and quality of those plants such that those plants will change the soil

We can build organic matter while growing

  • corn
  • strawberries
  • tomatoes

The only difference between regenerative and degenerative is how farm manager manages plant health

regen ag ecosystems

It's all about how do you manage plant health

  • tillage agnostic
  • permaculture agnostic

Valuable ideas that have merit and appropriate

You are not going to grow carrots in a no-till environmental on a large scale


implement on large scale

don't have in depth conversations

regenerate soil health in a tillage environment

continual annual cropping system

much prefer to focus on the results then the specific ideology.

Ok, so then how do you create healthy plants then?

Ah, the magical question, the perfect question?

functional food as medicine

to do that I tend to

How do you create healthy plants then?


if you're emphasis is not on soil health


you need to have healthy soil to have healthy plants is not a fallacy you can do that when you have regenerated and rebuilt soil health

challenge most growers don’t have healthy soil

common prescription is to

  • cover crops
  • compost
  • no-till

those are valuable and useful tools don't always make sense for a given farming environment

Incorporate when we can.

The most foundational piece is we need to drive a plants photosynthesis

What we have come to accept as common


photosynthesizing at 15-25% of their inherent

Plant 5xs more sugar

5x more yield

more biomass?


yield increase

particularly on vegetative crops

won't commonly see a

sugar production

where did all the sugar go? The surplus gets sent out as a root source for soil biology as root exudates

Foundation how

sequester large volumes of carbon

The have the capacity to transmit tremendous volumes of sugar out through the rot system as root exoduses

many crops the quantity of exceeds the quantity of plant biomass

if you have a tomato plant

20 lbs of tomatoes and 20 pounds of biomass

40 lbs there is an equivalent

if it's a healthy plant


in the soil

as long as you have a really healthy plants don’t do this

in a commercial setting

where we have compromised soils our approach is to use foliar application of trace minerals that are needed specifically for the photosynthesis process

give the plant the nutrients that it needs

to photosynthesize at a high rate

soil profile begins making extracts

foliar applications of nutrients are the jet fuel that get the plane growing

initial strong surge

not something that is necessary for the long term

can get things moving quickly on a much higher performance

where do you get the trace minerals?

We built a company called Advancing Eco Ag (AEA) to answer that questions

There are five key minerals that are necessary to increase it by several orders of magnitude

for all of our listeners

list of necessary nutrients. Your plants need to have enough of these

  • magnesium
  • iron
  • nitrogen
  • manganese

if any of those four is limited to any degree it will have an immediate blocking effect on photosynthesis

  • fifth mineral is phosphorous

all the sugars that are produced

over simplification

gardeners are also lacking other nutrients

We find that these initial nutrients when we apply them as a foliar spray can accelerate 

Can you get those minerals from any other sources

nitrogen can be sourced in many ways

commercial side

  • urea organically
  • dry powdered amino acids

Nitrogen is readily easy to source and supply

But we need to be careful not to do it in excess

magnesium can be 

epson salts

mag sulfate readably

iron and manganese

must be chelated and in the reduced form

should be able to source them from any garden supply store

Fifth element phosphorus is also readily available

Source from any garden store and address from each of those

I guess what I meant is can you grow them? Like beans for nitrogen or buckwheat?

short answer is if you want to take 10 years

30-60 in 3 weeks No.

If you want to grow really healthy crops quickly

It takes a very long time to regenerate

The challenge is this, when you are growing your cover crop of buckwheat but it is only photosynthesizing at 20% 

capable of what it is releasing

If you focus on managing the nutrition that cover crop and increase it’s photosynthesis you are going to get much more rapid release of nutrients in the soil profile

more nutrient availability

10 years to produce and effect or do it in 60 days

A fundamental difference and why we took different approach

need to deliver an immediate economic response. When a grower applies a product it needs to pay the bills this growing season

promise many soil amendments

rock powders


other amendments

Cover crops take a long time and they make the other soil amendments work

So is the place to start a soil test?

I have to be the controversial person here and stir up a debate

you can take a soil analysis

We use soil analysis on all the farms we work on, we recommend it.

The question is if you do take an analysis, what are you going to do with that recommendations?


  • limstone
  • gypsum
  • rock phosphate
  • compost
  • whatever the list contains

that’s the wrong answer in my perspective.

My most recent webinar was on managing nutritional priorities

I described the sequence

make an immediate impact

how do you decide whether a 

  • foliar
  • biological
  • soil amendment

what is the right place to start?

In my opinion

I believe the place to start is with the photosynthesis and growing really healthy plants.

When you have healthy plants can change the soil analysis really fast when there is an underlying geological profile.

is a farm we were working with in Nebraska commercial soy bean production

we put on one application on 

30 acres of a 60 acre field

split the field and had soil analysis on both sections before the treatment

second analysis followed  one year apart

same season

on the treated section before the applications the 

untreated field

calcium deficient



calcium base saturation on the treated field where we put one foliar application

calcium levels jumped

ph's were 6.2-6.3

We added no calcium no limestone

What changed is the plants put such a large volume of sugars out through the root system they were able to reach out to an abundant food source

release calcium

obviously this doesn’t work

in all soils

soil’s underlying foundation had to have adequate

I don’t want to suggest you can do this across the board and biology will fix all imbalances but I do believe that soil amendments aren't always the right place to begin. 

What's the difference between a foliar application and a soil amendment?

foliar application is sprayed onto a plant leaf to accelerate plant healthy


large quantity of material to soil itself

100k pounds per acre 10s of pounds per 1000 to almost. feet

Truth be told, I feel like Patti Armbrister has said a lot of the same thing but perhaps differently.

I invite the dialogue and the debate, it's an intriguing debate.

shift the perspective

conversation should be framed as from the soil up it should be from the sun down

photosynthesis the engine we can harness that drives the entire system

the only way you have of building the new energy to ecosystem

have this conversation with commercial farmers but for gardeners 

when you do the math

of the quantity of carbon that can be sequestered and fixed into a soil

written history of agriculture the agronomists of 60s and 70s engaged in converstations

fastest way to build soil organic matter is to grow corn.

idea that corn extracts organic matter, it's true that it does but it’s not the fault of the corn plant

1/2 of a percentage point of organic matter on a commercial scale on the same soil growing corn and corn and corn

when you do the math

a corn crop can transmit as much as 15000 pounds out of the root system to feed soil biology

On a farm that’s 7.5 tons per acre

A farmer can not afford to do that in compost

economics don’t exist in or less true in a garden because you justify dozens of tons of compost per acre

ultimately the fastest way to build soils to focus on building plants

emphasizing very strongly and specifically on plants because I feel that it's a side of the conversation that has been missed and not been well described

soil and plants are on the same ecosystem 

healthy plants create healthy soil creates further supports further generations of health soils and...




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