The Beneficial Impacts of TERROIR on your Food
Enhancing the flavor and quality of the food you produce by paying attention to the biology and diversity on your farm.
By Jerry Brunetti
Added August 4, 2011. In the European food vernacular, there is a term called "terroir", essentially an agricultural description pertaining to the bouquet of flavors in foods that originate from the soil. Terroir not only influences the food flavor but also affects the keeping quality of meats, milk/dairy products and eggs. To maximize the beneficial impacts of terroir on your food, it's necessary to incorporate the three-legged stool of geology, biology and diversity.
Geology consists of the minerals you were blessed with by natural forces like glaciers, marine sediments and volcanoes; or what you applied to the land, such as limestone, gypsum or trace elements. Biology pertains to the billions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, arthropods, earthworms, nematodes, etc that dwell in large, vigorous root systems (rhizosphere) and that are literally the plant's digestive and immune systems.
Diversity is the gift of at least dozens of species of grasses, forbs, legumes and hedgerow trees, shrubs, vines and brambles that interact with the geology and biology to synthesize the primary plant metabolites (proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals); as well as the secondary metabolites (phenolics, terpenes, alkaloids, etc.) that are plant protectants against U.V. light, insects and diseases.
So what does all of this have to do with flavor? Let's take protein for instance. Milk protein is what gives milk a unique sweet flavor. To make high milk protein, an essential amino acid, isoleucine, is needed, along with other essential amino acids such as lysine, methionine and tryptophan. There are twenty-two amino acids and eight of them are essential or necessary in our diet. Pastures that are devoid of certain minerals such as calcium, boron, magnesium and zinc are less likely to produce essential amino acids, thereby being higher in non protein nitrogen (NPN) which makes Blood Urea Nitrogen/Milk Urea Nitrogen (BUN/MUN), creating an off flavor meat or milk. This can also be caused by applying nitrogen, which if taken up too quickly creates "funny protein" instead of "true protein." This off flavor often appears as a compound called "skatole" (C6H9N), a microbial metabolite that has a fecal odor/flavor.
In order for amino acids to combine and create peptide chains which combine to create many thousands of proteins, sulfur is needed. Applying soil sulfur will do the trick on domesticated grasses and legumes- but can be expensive. Native plants such as burdock, plantain, nettle, dandelion, willow and brassicas (e.g. kale, turnips, radishes) are very rich sources of sulfur and the reason why livestock crave them when in a lush, high- protein paddock. Most forbs and native plants are rich in tannins which not only suppress parasites, but also suppress the production of certain microbes which convert protein into rumen ammonia. Tannins thus help livestock create a slow release "by-pass" protein which suppresses skatole production. Molybdenum, essential for nitrogen fixation in legumes, also helps detoxify nitrogen in livestock.
To remove BUN/MUN an enzyme called arginase is produced in the liver which converts ammonia to less toxic urea for excretion. Arginase production is dependent upon manganese in the diet. Manganese in the soil also assists plants production of vitamin E (tocopherol), which is the best food preservative and keeps the color and flavor of milk intact. Tocopherol extends the shelf-life of meat by 400%! Manganese is also a carotene booster.
Copper has been recognized to increase carotene and ascorbate levels in plants. Both are antioxidants like vitamin E. Beta carotene is only one of over 600 carotenoids! Others include lutein, zeaxanthin, cryptoxanthin, and lycopene. Carotenoids impart the bright colors of yellow, orange and red to animal fats (butterfat, egg yolks, lard, and tallow) and impart distinct flavors to those fats. That's because carotenoids are terpenes (terpenoids), actually cousins to the aromatic terpenes known as "essential oils." Native plants are a rich reservoir of terpenoids which act as antimicrobials and antiparasiticals.
The phenols (phenolic acids) include the flavonoids and are found in high amounts in legumes. Plant phytoestrogens (e.g. isoflavones) are one example; quercetin a powerful one is yet another. These aromatic compounds are also antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. In order to synthesize phenols, legumes require adequate calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, cobalt, molybdenum and sulfur.
The bottom line is this: The fewer the species diversity, the more important it is to analyze your soils geology and provide the missing/deficient macro and micro elements. Mineral deficient and acidic soils are worth amending with lime and even trace elements, as has been proven in university trials for milk cows (an extra 1400#/acre DM and extra 300# milk per ton of DM due to digestibility). Beef trials on pasture have shown that amending poor soil translated into reduced finishing times (15 months down to 12 months) and increased carcass yields (57%-61%). So, take the pulse of your land, encourage plant diversity (!), soil test and correct major production limiting deficiencies. Until your paddocks "get there," supply free-choice supplements (70% of consumed minerals go out the "back door" onto the land, packaged in a microbial rich delivery system) and foliar feed your paddocks. The proof of the pudding is in the eating (i.e. flavors and shelf life).
Jerry Brunetti is managing director of AgriDynamics, which specializes in products for farm livestock and pets, and consults on a wide variety of other issues. He can be reached at Agri-Dynamics, P.O. Box 267, Martins Creek, Pennsylvania 18063, Phone 877-393-4484, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.agri-dynamics.com.