Meters for Modern Farmers from The Meter Man - David von Pein

Obtaining optimum prices by looking after your soil

Text of an article based on an interview with David von Pein

Farmers are recognising the need to continually monitor the health of both plants and the soil to ensure their produce is of a quality that attracts optimum prices in this competitive marketplace.

An easy to use device, which has traditionally been used in vineyards to determine optimum harvest times, is simplifying the way in which producers can monitor plant quality, thereby providing farmers with a guide to continuously improve the plants and soil from which they make a living.

The Brix meter. A hand-held device, with a prism at one end, and an eyepiece at the other. When just a few drops of sap or juice are placed on the prism and held up to the light, the light passing through the sap is refracted (bent) according to the composition of that sap.

The brix measurement can be read off the scale, showing levels of sugar, minerals, proteins and vitamines in the plant's juices, commonly referred to as dissolved solids.

The brix meter provides more than just an indication of the nutritional value of the produce itself, it can be used to help monitor underlying problems in the soil in which the produce is grown.

Retired farmer, David von Pein, explains that brix readings provide an instant monitoring mechanism so that we can see what is going on in our soil.

"If we can identify what the soil is lacking in, we can implement management techniques to help restore the soil to health," said David.

"This in turn will have a flow-on effect to plants grown in that soil."

In conjunction with the presence of weeds and insects, brix levels can be used to help assess crop health.

David explains that if you analyse a weed, whatever elements the weed is high in indicates what the soil it was growing in, is lacking.

He uses a common problem to illustrate this: Paterson's curse, a weed high in cooper. During extended dry periods, sheep eat more of this weed, and levels of livestock death due to copper toxicity increases.

In a similar vein, the presence of insects also provides an important indicator.

"A plant with low brix makes an easy target for insects who sense the plant's ill health, and will hone in for an easy feed." David explains that healthy plants, registering a high brix level, indicate superior resistance to pests and diseases, which ultimately means less time and expense need be spent on pest control measures.

Moreover, for the consumer, produce with high brix levels have increased sugar, mineral and protein levels, and have improved flavour.

Mr von Pein was first introduced to Brix meters when reading Dan Skow's book Mainline Farming for Century 21. About this time he saw first hand, a case involving one of his friends.

"He had massive health problems. Whilst overseas, he was introduced to the use of rock dust and barley green, and used his learning to fix himself up. Upon returning to Australia, he started his own rock dust business.

When rock dust was first introduced many trials were undertaken. David explained one of these tests involved two tomato plants - one grown with urea, the other with rock dust. When the plants were ripened, fruit was taken from each bush and put in saucers in direct sunlight. The tomato grown with urea quickly turned into watery mush. The tomato grown with rock dust slowly shrivelled up.

Fascinated by these concepts, David borrowed a Brix meter to conduct his own investigation. Impressed with the pattern he was seeing emerge when testing individual paddocks and crops, David hunted around to buy his own meter, but was shocked to find the exorbitant price attached to the instrument.

It snowballed from there. Soon after, another of his friends, also complaining of the high cost of the instrument, approached David for a source of reasonably priced meters. David instigated a bulk-buy deal which saw more farmers, who have been previously discouraged by cost, jump on the bandwagon.

David von Pein's interest in sustainable agriculture saw him seek out research and participate in in-field experience. Inspired by their findings, he follows closely research conducted by prime movers in the organic field; Dr Dan Skow, Dr Philip Wheeler, and Dr Arden Anderson to name just a few.

David explained that some of the research conducted by these recognised agricultural scientists is hard to go past. One of his 'mentors', Dan Skow is practicing vetinarian in the States.

Dr Skow has enjoyed widespread success solving problems in animals. Working on the premise that as animals live on what comes from the soil, Skow believes that by assessing what animals are eating, and treating the soil to correct any imbalance identified, the subsequent feed produced from the rectified soil will see the animals' overall health improve in kind.

Pulling up yet another, in a series of documented trials that support the case, David explains a trial conducted by Dr Arden Anderson.

"A herd of cows fed on lucerne with low brix reading were being feed grain at a rate of about 33 pounds of grain to produce a quantity of milk. However, when the same herd was put in a paddock of lucerne with high brix, only 12 pounds of grain was needed to supplement the herd to produce the same amount of milk."

David encourages us to look at the flow through for humans.

Arden Anderson runs a clinic in Michigan, USA. Through monitoring Brix, and ensuring his patients consume produce with high brix levels, Mr Anderson has established a record of treating patients who have been unable to find a remedy using conventional medicine.

Already, some US and Japanese companies are hot on the trail of what they see as an important nutritional indicator, and are turning away produce with a low brix level.

David uses the common cucumber as an example of some of the produce with low nutritional value available today. A cucumber's brix level should be on the bottom of the scale a '6' and a '13' reading at the top.

"Recently I tested a conventional cucumber, randomly selected from a supermarket, and it measured 3.5" said David.

David explains that nutritionists have been telling us for years, with campaigns such as the healthy food pyramid, that our bodies need a range of elements which can be found in a mix of fruit and vegetables. He insists that to have food with good nutritional value containing all the elements we require, we need to get the soil right.

David alludes to the amount of sickness and ill health we see in the world as being consequences of stepping outside of the law of nature.

"I believe that ill health, from cancer to allergies are, in the main, caused by imbalance. Initial research is indicated that by merely increasing nutrition value of food intake, many allergic symptoms in humans and animals alike can disappear.

"We need to try and learn laws of nature and work with it in the way that was intended.

"If we can get the soil right, we will have good food."

Hot on the heels of this belief, David uses the Brix meter, in conjunction with a comprehensive chart on plant health to improve soil fertility, with the addition of calcium and phosphate that a low brix level indicates may be deficient in the soil.

"The benefits of this approach have been varied, and fertilising programs can be verified by the resulting increase in brix levels.

David is the first to say that the brix readings are not 'the be all and end all', but can provide a major indicator in the form of instant monitoring of what is going on in our soil which points to what we need to do to fix it.

Other influences such as pH and conductivity, which work together, can be assessed in sol and plant sap for a different level of testing.

By in large, brix indicators are easy to translate: a low brix reading points to low nutrition, and a high brix reading indicates the higher nutritional value of produce.

Several factors influence brix readings. Brix readings vary at different times of the day in accordance with climatic conditions. As heat and light affect the way sugars concentrate in plants, readings should be taken under similar conditions to maintain an accurate record of the crop's progress.

David advises that to ensure consistency readings should be:

  1. Taken at one time of the day (allowing two hours of sunshine in the morning is best he advises).
  2. Taken from the same part of the plant (after choosing to take the reading from the plant stem or leaf, ensure all subsequent readings follow suit).
  3. Recorded in order to track soil conditions and fertiliser management programs are adequately ensuring the best possible health of plants.

"If the brix content is on the increase, you are on the right track. If it is consistently low, you may need to look at revising your crop and soil management program."

He follows this up by explaining that brix is just an indicator, albeit a good one.

"While brix is a good indicator, variables do exist. Even in a plant with high brix, high acidity levels can translate to poor nutritional value.

Take home points

In summary, management of soil nutrition has the following flow on effects for plants: less disease, less insects, better 'shelf-life' and more flavorsome.

Moreover these factors are all indicators of a greater-good:better health for animals and humans alike.

"It is imperative that as a nation we need to start thinking about the nutritional value of food grown and eaten in this country. If we can achieve greater nutrition in our food, more people could live healthier lives on the same amount of food.

"Using soil and tissue tests are an important first step to find where the deficits lay, so righting measures can be taken to restore natural balance.

"High quality food is worth good money." he said.

Reprinted from BFA News - Winter 2001 edition, pp22-23.

The Meter Man, David von Pein
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