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Fence Rows And Gut Health: A Macro Look At Microflora

By Edwin Shank

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 the complex and obscure. So it is with fence rows and gut health.

I recall with some chagrin my days as a young farmer in the early 90s. My wife, Dawn, and I took over the farm from my parents immediately upon returning from our wedding trip in August of 1990, and as a still wet-behind-the-ears 20-year-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 Roundup was the most effective killing agent to be had. No grass or weeds were too tough. Roundup would kill everything— which was great, because vegetation, especially thistles growing on the fence line, was the enemy. They were “pathogenic” plants, and had to be eradicated. This was progress! We were defeating the enemy through anti-vegetation technology. And the fence rows became vegetation-free zones, just as we wanted them.

At least at first they were just as we wanted them… until we began to notice a disturbing trend. Where we once had an occasional thistle on the fence row threatening to overgrow the fence and short 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 Roundup was doing its job. It was killing everything. For a few weeks after a dose of spray, there would be a 2-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.

Opportunism Knocks

Thistles do not compete well with other plants. They are opportunistic plants which 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 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, competitionfree 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 call came much more slowly and in a roundabout way. As our family became increasingly frustrated with this and other aspects of our then highintensity 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 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, the grass, clover and other beneficial plants began to grow with a renewed lushness…and 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 were. And it was not because there were fewer thistle seeds 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 shouted, “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.

Populate Your Gut

Right over this time I was studying a lot about the amazing, almost bulletproof 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 them at all costs. They sterilize themselves and their environment. “Kill all the bacteria!” they cry. “Fight BAC!” They buy Purell, and put a dispenser in every room. They get antibacterial soap, and use antibiotics for every sniffle. They pasteurize nuts and almonds, and outlaw unpasteurized cider, as well as 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, these people 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 go online to Food Safety News ( and search. People are falling ill from pathogenic illness in alarming numbers and from increasingly unheard-of sources. Here is just a 30-day sampling, from March, 2011.

  • Zeppole: 78 sick, 2 dead, salmonella, from a bakery in Rhode Island

  • Hazelnuts: 7 sick, E. coli O157:H7

  • Walnuts: 12 sick, E. coli O157:H7

  • Pancakes: 8 sick, salmonella from a church breakfast in Thurmont, Maryland

  • 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 everpresent thistle seeds. This is a symptom of a food safety program and a healthcare 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 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 that makes it impossible for them to proliferate. Think about it!