The Farmer and the University Scientist

A woman was having problems growing her vegetables  – they all seemed to be getting diseases – some were turning yellow, some were infested with bugs, some were losing leaves. She called the local university, and, after two months, she finally got a soil science specialist got on the phone. He listened for five minutes, then asked her to send in some soil samples and a list of her plants, which she did. The scientist ran a series of soil tests at the University and was able to determine numerous chemical imbalances that might be causing the problems, and he sent her a list of 6 different soil chemicals to be added to the soil to deal with each of the different problems of each of the different plants. She received a bill for $400. The soil chemicals cost an additional $1,200.
She did as told, and added the chemicals. The plants responded, but in unexpected ways, – while the bugs went down and the leaves stopped turning yellow, some of the plants began to harden on the surface, new types of bugs began to move in, and some plants began to grow super fast, twisting out of shape.  Frustrated, she sat near her garden and began to cry.  At that moment,  a friend stopped by and told her about an old farmer who had helped lots of people get their gardens to grow better.
She called him, and the old farmer came by. He listened to her story and looked over the field, and said simply – you need to check your well – might be something wrong with the water.  Sure enough, she checked her well and found that there were some contaminants leaking in. The he told her he could give her some quality topsoil at $25 a bag.  He explained how healthy water, sunshine and good topsoil were the basis of plant health, and that , while chemicals sometimes were needed, this had to be handled first. Not only that, if these three pillars of plant health were followed, often no chemicals were needed. Once she fixed this problem and added the topsoil, like a miracle, the plants began to grow and thrive.
She called up the university and told the soil scientist what happened. He was angry, and asked the authorities to investigate the old farmer for practicing soil science without a degree This was a crazy place where people could get in trouble for helping people’s plants get healthy without the proper soil science credentials, completely unlike modern America, so he was arrested and hauled into the court.
During the prosecution, the prosecutors pointed out that the old farmer had never studied soil chemistry, had no degree from a prominent university, and yet was claiming to know how to fix plant problems. Several soil scientists were called in to testify that the only legitimate way to make plants healthy was to use soil science, and only soil scientists were qualified by law to heal plants.  Further, the prosecutor ridiculed the farmer’s membership in the American Farmer’s Guild, and the old farmers story of living with the Sacred Valley farmers near the Urubamba river in Peru, from whom he claimed he learned some of his craft. He pointed out that most of the other old farmers had no soil science credentials, nor did the Peruvian farmers.
He said the farmer was a danger to the community, as his presence might entice people to avoid real soil scientists. Not only that, but the farmer was known to be selling his own brand of organic topsoil, so his real motive was monetary.  Numerous soil scientists were called to testify to the dangers of listening to farmer who had not studied soil science, or who claimed they could make plants grow with sunshine, water and topsoil without the additions of strong chemicals to the soil. They even managed to find a few cases of plant deaths caused by an old farmer over-watering his plants.
The prosecutors then asked a soil scientist to explain to the jury what ammonium nitrate fertilizer was. He testified that it was one of the chemicals in the old farmer’s bags of topsoil. The prosecutor then asked the soil scientist to explain that ammonium nitrate could also be used by terrorists to make bombs – was this not a good reason why only soil scientists should have access to fertilizer? The prosecution rested.
During the defense, the farmer called in only two witnesses. The first was the lady whose garden he had helped to grow. She testified that it took two months to get a soil scientist appointment, that he only spent 5 minutes with her, and that he did not ask about her well or her topsoil. She said that she had trusted the word of her friends, and that the old farmer had helped plants do better in just two weeks.  She said that the old farmer had told her she was always free to talk to the soil scientists, and that her crops might still need some of their chemicals, but he was going to try to help her reduce her need for expensive chemicals with sunlight, quality topsoil and healthy water.
Finally the old farmers defense attorneys called in a soil scientist of their own.  This soil scientist was considered to be at the top of his field, author of several books, holder of numerous patents, and a professor of quantum soil science, the most arcane and difficult division of soil science. He related that public and professional confidence in the “constants” of soil science were at an all time low. Recent research had found evidence that the value of certain fundamental parameters of soil science may have been different in the past, and may not apply to today’s crops due to changes in atmosphere and soil.

“There is absolutely no reason these constants should be constant,” he stated. “These are famous numbers, but we have no real reason to know why they are what they are.”
He pointed out that in spite of the advances in soil science, that gardening problems were at an all time high, and that there was a national garden crisis of historic proportions. Not only that, but the cost of soil chemicals was bankrupting the government and that people had to choose between growing their plants and sending their children to college.
He stated that his own practice of soil science had truly begun to mature when he began meeting with old farmers and listening to them, something that most soil scientists were loathe to do. He stated that his colleagues had abandoned the simple in search of more and more complex solutions, and that they had forgotten the lessons of the past. He pointed out that there were areas of the world where old farmers had created magnificent crops for thousands of years, and that in each different area of the world they had different techniques, but they all depended on pure water, good topsoil and sunshine.
He stated that his study of the old farmers had cost him much, because the soil chemical companies withdrew much of his finding when they found out what he was doing. He said he was told bluntly that you could not patent topsoil, sunshine or water.  Finally, he stated that he himself had learned a great deal from the old farmer, that the old farmer had saved many crops of his clients, and that the old farmer had listened to and learned from him, and sent him cases that needed his expertise. He said that he considered the old farmer to a “genius in every sense of the word” that his methods worked, and that soil scientists should be listening to old farmers as much as old farmers should listen to soil scientists for the benefit of the community.

This is a teaching story designed to present a point of view in a different context for the purpose of  making certain controversial issues easier to understand. There is right now a crisis in health care,  and the torch for “natural medicine” vs “chemical medicine” is being carried by practitioners who have much lower financial backing and standard academic credentials, and who in the future, as this controversy intensifies, may have their livelihoods challenged in court.