By Dennis Lythgoe, Staff Writer
Published: April 6, 1995 12:00 am
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JACOB MITTLEIDER is an Idaho baker turned agricultural wizard. For 30 years, he has specialized in turning “devil land” into genuinely productive crops that will feed families many times over.
His is a single-minded effort to help people all over the world to become self-sufficient.A Utahn for almost 20 years, he grew up in California but has spent extended periods in such underdeveloped countries as Ethiopia, India, Lebanon, Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, New Guinea and several African countries teaching people how to grow crops that will never disappoint, whatever the climate, materials or circumstances.
He is best known for his “grow-box garden,” which is known for the elimination of weeds and the production of a large crop in a small space. The old grow-box garden was planted in raised beds in open wood frames and filled with custom-made soil.
The beds were usually about 30 feet long, 5 feet wide and 8 inches high, and the nutrients were mixed in. The soil was a mixture of sawdust and sand. The boxes were purposely bottomless so the roots could penetrate the subsoil.
The “garden doctor” has learned a lot since he introduced grow-box gardening and now believes in a more refined system with even greater simplicity.
The irony is that Mittleider has never liked farming.
“I grew up on a farm, but I never could understand why we could have so many bad patches in a corn field. I remember asking my father, `Why can’t we grow it all the same?’ He said, `The ground makes the difference.’ But it just didn’t make sense to me.”
Even though he became a baker, then spent 20 years in the nursery business – growing flowers and vegetables commercially, he never forgot that conversation with his father. He was unsure of his future when some agricultural specialists at the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s Loma Linda University approached him about taking a trip.
Mittleider’s nursery was located near the university. Besides, he is a devoted Adventist and had taught gardening classes there.
“I had never taken any education in agriculture, but they said, `We’d like to have a disinterested party give us a report on why the yields in these underdeveloped countries are declining.’ ”
Mittleider talked it over with his wife, Mildred, and they decided to do it. “We spent 41/2 months in 1963 in 24 developing countries, and I was never so shocked in all my life with what I saw. I said to myself, `There is absolutely no excuse for people to be going hungry, and why doesn’t some-body do something about it?’ ”
When he returned, the Australasian division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church questioned him about what he found. He was typically blunt. “You get the sunshine, the rain and the land free, and you waste all three.” Their wise response was to challenge him to spend two years in New Guinea demonstrating how to make the best use of natural resources.
Mittleider immediately remembered a simple statement about farming he had memorized years earlier: “The narrow plans, the little effort put forth, the little study as to the best methods call loudly for reform. If any of them do not wish you to speak to them of advanced ideas, let the lessons be given silently. Keep up the culture of your own land. Let the harvest be eloquent in favor of right methods. Demonstrate what can be done with the land when properly worked.”
That statement was “as loud as loud can be” in his head. He knew he could never convince anyone unless he was willing to make a demonstration, even though there was no money to underwrite the project. “Even today the same thing exists. You can find money for anything, but you can’t find it for agriculture.”
He proposed that a scientific method of agricultural production be simply taught to people in a variety of countries, and they could then care for their needs. So he went to New Guinea, where they had a plethora of weeds and did not get 2 percent off the land. He used a shovel and a rake, plus a tractor, to plow the land. Then he made a seedbed, planted and finally added nitrogen, phosphate and potassium for fertilizer. It’s called NPK.
“They hadn’t fertilized, so they got nothing. I won’t let the plants die. I can’t just look at it and forget it. I want healthy plants.”
The 110-acre farm he started is still operating today – and continues to make a profit every year. After his stay in New Guinea, Mit-tleider went to Fiji, where he transformed more wasteland into a successful modern farm.
After spending years teaching people to grow gardens in every imaginable circumstance, including Monument Valley in Utah, he was convinced anyone could do it. “I don’t care what kind of ground it is. You can grow the same kind of crops that you can on what is called `good ground.’ ”
Mittleider’s method is synonymous with simplicity. He says it is easy, eliminates guesswork and guarantees success anywhere. It is based on maximum utilization of space, time and resources. His crops tend to be large because the plants are placed close together, nourished by supplemental feedings of mineral nutrients. No special equipment is required.
“When people are sick, they go to the doctor and he takes a blood sample. And if they need potassium, he fills them up with potassium – and they go home and they’re well. With the stresses of the nursery business, I lost part of my stomach, and because of that I have to take iron now every day or I’m sick. We do the same for animals – but we have never told people that with a plant it’s just as easy to do it as it is for people and animals.”
It is Mittleider’s claim that anyone can look at an animal or a person and tell if either is healthy. “We don’t have to carry a sign saying we’re healthy. But when we look at vegetables, most of the organic produce you see is discolored, small, woody – and we say that is food we should eat.”
Mittleider has seen all the extremes of weather and circumstance in his long career – “heat, cold, wet, dry, all kinds of soil – and we grow the same kinds of crops.”
The secret is fertilizer.
Mittleider remembers being snickered at when he went to the old Soviet Union to teach his methods. “One of these guys admitted they didn’t put the fertilizer on the land. They dumped it in the creek. So they thought the fertilizer from the land killed the fish. In the collective farm days, they got paid 200 rubles a month whether they did anything or not.”
Today Mittleider maintains manure or compost are not needed to grow successful crops. “I’m not against manure or composts, but how are you gonna feed people if they don’t have it? The fact is you don’t need it. That’s what I’ve demonstrated now for 30 years. We’ll take ground as hard as this floor, but we’ll prepare a seedbed, plant, water, feed and harvest – that’s all. We don’t care what kind of ground it is.”
According to Mittleider, “The plant is going to fight, if you give it half a chance. We’ve been doing this since 1964, and we’ve never had a crop failure. We feed regularly and watch for signs of the plant’s nutrition. If it needs boron, we give it to them. If it needs more calcium, we give it to them. Plant nutrition is the key. You need 13 nutrients. This whole thing is very simple. You can’t run an automobile unless you put gas in the tank.”
So Mittleider watches his plants very closely, and if a deficiency becomes apparent in any of the 13 nutrients – whether nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, manganese, sulfur, copper, zinc, iron, boron or molybdenum, he treats them accordingly.
Mittleider’s analogies trip off the tongue. “There is a bank on many corners. I lean against the bank on the corner with 10 cents in my pocket. In the bank vault there is a million dollars. How much of that million dollars and 10 cents can I spend? 10 cents. That’s the way the ground is. Man doesn’t have the ability to loosen these things up and make them water soluble. Osmosis is the key to what I’m doing. These inorganic soils are loaded with nutrients.”
If anyone is critical of Mit-tleider, it is likely to be because of his conviction that chemical or inorganic fertilizer is acceptable – as opposed to organic fertilizer. He notes that organic materials are often characterized as natural, such as leaves, grass, compost, animal manure and other decayed materials. Yet such “natural” materials can be deficient in important nutrients.
In fact, Mittleider believes the most important function organic materials provide is loosening soil and adding fiber to absorb and hold moisture.
On the other hand, some people assume that because inorganic mineral fertilizers are commercially prepared and packaged, they’re unnatural and not good for plants or those who eat them.
Mittleider says, “The organic material has to rot to such a state of decomposition that it reverts to inorganic solution. Plants use nothing in the organic form. Everything a plant uses is inorganic. It’s converted to organic material in our bodies.”
Mittleider has written 10 books, the most recent of which is “6 Steps to Successful Gardening,” a quick-read paperback guide to simple, dependable gardening. In it he says, “Soils are soils and vary surprisingly little in fertility, regardless of the area or country. Even though specific minerals may vary from place to place, water-soluble minerals (those that plants require) nearly always are deficient. Thus the same type and amount of balanced, essential nutrients can be fed to all garden varieties.”
Among his other books are “More Food From Your Garden,” “Grow-Bed Gardening,” “Let’s Grow Tomatoes,” “Gardening by the Foot” and a three-volume set titled “The Garden Doctor.”
Because he is “way into” his 70s, Mittleider and his wife do not plan to travel as extensively in the future to teach gardening techniques. His friend Jim Kennard has prevailed upon him to assist in planting a piece of property he owns adjacent to Hogle Zoo, near the giraffes.
When the numerous zoo patrons look at the giraffes, they are likely to get a good glimpse of the new garden. “Jim wants to put in a showcase, and I’m going to support him. If I fail, it’ll be the first time.”
Over the years, Mittleider has worked tirelessly with various groups, including Catholics, Baptists, Apostolics, Mormons and his own Seventh-day Adventist Church, teaching the tricks of the trade. He is convinced that his work is more spiritual than practical as he dedicates himself “to the Lord.” The key to his success in teaching others his theories is that he always insists on demonstrating rather than talking.
“I’ve been to about 30 countries, and I often have several projects going at once. If I have to travel 229 miles a day to keep the gardens growing, I’ll to it. I won’t let them fail.”
And remember this – he’ll do it in the worst possible soil.