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Fence Rows and Gut Health

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By Edwin Shank, April 20, 2011

Hello folks, my apologies for the length of this personal story. But it is a true one and I shortened it as much as I could. I hope sharing my experience helps your family as much as it did ours.

The similarities between diverse ecologies never cease to amaze me. One area of life may seem to be totally unrelated to the next, but upon reflection, we notice that an extremely simple truth connects the two. Observing and understanding the simple and visible helps us grasp of the complex and obscure. Enter: Fence Rows and Gut Health.

I recall with some chagrin, my days as a young farmer in the early 90’s. Dawn and I took over the farm from my parents immediately upon returning from our wedding trip in August of 1990. As a still-wet-behind-the-ears 20 yr old, I naturally looked to those older and more educated for answers. Agricultural university experts, extension agents and the always helpful Monsanto reps seemed like trustworthy sources of information and advice. Since they all agreed, there seemed to be no need to look further.

And in relation to fence row management, they did all agree. It was all about achieving the most perfect kill. Monsanto’s patented glyphosate herbicide Round Up was the most effective killing agent to be had. No grass or weeds were too tough. Round Up would kill everything, which was great, because vegetation, especially thistles growing on the fence line, was the enemy. They were ‘pathogenic’ plants. They must be eradicated. This was progress! We were defeating the enemy through anti-vegetation technology. And the fence rows were vegetation free zones just as we wanted them.

At least at first they were just as we wanted them… till we began to notice a disturbing trend. Where we used to have an occasional thistle on the fence row threatening to overgrow the fence and shorting out the current, we now had a major problem. All around the farm, thistles were becoming more problematic as the years went by. There were some sections of fence line where thistles had pretty much taken over. We would spray them and they would dutifully die, but in a few months, the fence row would be full of thistles again and it was time for another go-around.

Here is what was happening. The Round Up was doing its job. It was killing everything. A few weeks after a dose of spray, there would be a two-foot wide swath of vegetation-free soil directly under the fence. And this bare, competition-free ground is exactly what thistles need to really take over.

Thistles do not compete well with other plants. They are opportunistic plants and thrive in the absence of beneficial plants like grass, dandelion, and clover. They love bare ground. If you have ever noticed how vacant lots and construction zones so often erupt into a rip-roaring thistle bloom, you know what I mean.

While we meant it well, (who can fault thistle killers?) we were inadvertently preparing the perfect seed bed for a real thistle patch. What a tragedy that we were misguided to miss such an observable truth for so long. Thistle seeds floating on the warm summer air were delighted to find a welcome mat of bare, competition-free soil already prepared for them. I’m sure they were laughing up their leaves.

I wish I could say we woke up one morning and saw the futility of this management-by-killing paradigm. Instead, the 'wake up' came much slower and in a roundabout way.

As our family became increasingly frustrated with this and other aspects of our then high-intensity conventional farming we knew there had to be a better way. We decided to step out in faith and convert the farm to an organic farm. Even while doing this, one of our biggest fears was how was to control the thistles on the fence rows without the aid of herbicides. We were sure they would be a major problem. We mentally prepared ourselves for weeks of string trimmer work on the fence rows.

Here is what actually happened. When we stopped spraying, the grass and other native vegetation, including thistles, filled in the bare ground along the fence. No surprises there. The first year we did do a lot of string trimming, but as the second and third years rolled around and the grass, clover and other beneficial plants began to grow with a renewed lushness, the thistle population, almost as if by magic, began to die off. The more we encouraged and supported the beneficial plants the less problematic the pathogenic plants. And it was not because thistles seeds had gotten any less in the environment.

The realization came out of the blue. Thistles just cannot survive in any great number where the beneficial plants are healthy and strong! It was like a light bulb came on in my mind. (I might have said Eureka!) It’s exactly like a healthy gut! Thistles are like pathogenic bacteria. The opportunistic, pathogenic microbes just do not have a chance to proliferate when your gut is populated with beneficial probiotic microflora.

Right over this time I was studying a lot about the amazing, almost bullet-proof immunity-building power of raw milk and kefir. Especially of interest to me was the concept of competitive exclusion. I realized with a smile and renewed understanding that I had observed, in my humble fence row, the amazing process of competitive exclusion that happens invisibly in our gut when we make sure it is populated naturally with powerful probiotics.

But I am sympathetic. Because of my fence row learning experience, I can see how easy it is for worried moms and dads to fall into the Monsanto-like pharmaceutical mindset of killing bacteria as the perfect solution to illness. It seems to make so much sense. Who can fault bacteria killers?

Many well-meaning people have concluded that bacteria are the enemy and so have set out to kill… set out to sterilize themselves and their environment. Kill all the bacteria! Fight BAC! Buy Purell…put a dispenser in every room. Get antibacterial soap. Antibiotics for every sniffle. Outlaw unpasteurized cider. Pasteurize the nuts and almonds, too. Outlaw raw milk and raw milk cheeses. These foods may contain pathogens!

There is only one problem with these bacteriophobic actions and reactions. In spite of their best attempts, in spite of living in constant fear of the microbe and in spite of increased food safety regulation, they will someday find that a stray bacterium has penetrated their sterile bubble and their artificially protected, flabby immune systems will have no defense against it.

It’s already happening. Just do a search on foodborne illness. People are falling ill from pathogenic illness in ever alarming numbers and from increasingly unheard of sources. Here is just a sampling from the last 30 days.

  • DeFusco’s Bakery - 78 sick, 2 dead, Salmonella, Rhode Island
  • Hazelnuts - 7 sick from Ecoli O157:H7
  • Walnuts -12 sick from Ecoli O157:H7
  • Pancakes - 8 sick, Thurmont, MD
  • Pet frogs - 217 sick, salmonella

Folks, this is not normal. I don’t know how to say it strongly enough. This is a powerful wake-up-call of immune suppression in America. This is a symptom of a gut that is the bare-ground seed bed under the fence line just waiting for the ever present thistle seeds. This is a symptom of a food safety program and a health care program that are focused on killing all bacteria…pasteurizing, sterilizing and irradiating the food supply rather than feeding and seeding probiotic bacteria in the gut.

We never will be able to eliminate all pathogens or thistle seeds from our environment. It is a delusion and an exercise in futility. But we can work to make sure that when the thistle seed lands in our fence rows or the pathogen in our gut that they find a protective blanket of healthy, thriving, bio-diverse flora and microflora which make it impossible for them to proliferate.

Think about it!

And best of health to all,

Your farmer
~ Edwin Shank

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This essay is an excerpt from the Fresh Thoughts on Real Food newsletter written by your farmers at The Family Cow. If you like this article and would like to receive other similar articles fresh as they’re written, feel free to subscribe here.

FDA Disclosure Statement

Edwin Shank is an organic dairy and chicken farmer, not a health professional. If it is a medical opinion you seek, by all means, call a doctor. This information is intended to challenge, or even provoke you to explore beyond the conventional food and health system.

Please Note: Any statements or claims about the possible health benefits conferred by any foods have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.