Amish farmers could teach us a thing or two about agriculture. Lesson No. 1: You can smell the difference between healthy plants and unhealthy ones.

Or at least, one Amish farmer can. In a recent article in The Atlantic, an Amish farmer named Samuel Zook was interviewed about his decision to phase out of the use of fungicides and pesticides, instead opting for less-harmful chemicals developed by the Amish-founded consulting firm, Advancing Eco Agriculture (AEA).

AEA produces nutritional supplements for plants to increase health and yields without the use of harmful agri-chemicals. Their ingredients — such as seaweed, humic substances, and minerals including calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium — aim to stimulate plant growth and enhance soil quality. Zook explains how that affects the smell of his crops: “Those aromas are actually compounds the plants produce to defend themselves from insects and disease attacks. A lot of people don’t realize that plants have immune systems.”

So now would be an apt time to mention that AEA and companies like it haven’t undergone a whole lot of academic and scientific scrutiny. While AEA’s products worked for Zook, that doesn’t mean they’re a cure-all for growing healthy plants without harmful chemicals. But to AEA’s credit, fostering healthy plant immune systems from the soil up makes more sense than attempting to wipe out all of the plants’ natural predators (which is what pesticides and fungicides do).

Lesson No. 2: It’s time to improve on the ol’ standby. In Zook’s words: “Organic certification is a negative-process certification. You can do nothing to your field and become certified. In contrast, we focus on actively restoring the balance found in natural systems.”

Even though Zook’s plants aren’t completely disease-free, he’s producing quality crops and, at the very least, he likes his work again.

Before, if I applied fungicide on my tomatoes, I had to wait three to seven days before I could reenter the area. Now, it’s so nice to just walk in my field any day of the week and not worry a bit. That in itself is huge. The other thing is, when I used to mix these skull-and-cross-bones chemicals to put in my sprayer, I’d have to be suited up. The children would be around and I’d say, “Now, get in the house. It’s not safe.” Now though, if the children want to help, it’s fine. If I want to mix the solutions better, I’ll just put my hand in a stir it around.

Simply feeling good and smelling happy plants probably isn’t enough for most farmers who need to make a living. But maybe thoughtfully considering how harmful agri-chemicals will affect your life is a more sophisticated way of approaching agricultural technology. Smells like a good idea to me.

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