Soil Food Web Course with Dr. Elaine Ingham

October 30 – November 1, 2009
Orella Ranch, Gaviota Coast, California.

A wise person once said that soil is not only more complex than we know, it is more complex than we can ever know! The good news is humans have lately achieved a level of practically applicable knowledge and experience in soil biology to be absolutely capable of massive, positive impacts on sustainable soil use world-wide! It is undoubtedly true that we’ll never know everything, but no matter – we already know enough to get very, very busy!

Renowned microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham kicked off the West coast leg of the first-of-its-kind Carbon Economy Course with a powerful three-day learning-fest centered on the soil food web. The bionics of biology, miracles of super-charged soils, blessings of extra-strength compost, and explosive results of super-activated compost teas were all on abundant offer in this powerful course. Such topics sparked a highly-charged, enlivening energy in the ‘brain-food-web’ of the attending students, while setting an inspired tone for the modules to follow in the series!

Thirty seven enthusiastic soil nerds, garden-geeks, and other ecologically minded farmers, permaculturists, and assorted agrarian adventurers from all over the US and beyond (many from all parts of California, Colorado and as far as Vermont) converged at the beautiful Orella Ranch for a full complement of complex food web inter-dynamics, mind-blowing biological success stories, rigorous scientific data, and no shortage of classic, coastal California sunsets overlooking the rippling Pacific (this radiance was rivaled only by the continual ‘light-bulbs’ popping on above the heads of the students in class!).

Orella Ranch, California coast

Dr. Ingham is President and Director of Research of Soil Food Web, Inc.; a successful commercial lab (with locations in Australia, Canada, South Africa and the US) which analyses soil and tea samples for their clientele, as well as providing consultation on using biology to vastly increase soil and plant health and promote a sustainable permanent agriculture. Clients include everyone from backyard gardeners to ranchers to 5,000 hectare farms and beyond (SFW, Inc. has worked with growers on over 2 million acres). A prolific author of cutting-edge research in the area of soil biology, Dr. Ingham is also a very engaging speaker and energetic teacher who is never more excited than when sharing her wealth of knowledge with students in the courses she offers regularly.

Talk about “Care of EARTH!” Most would agree this first of the Permaculture ethics begins quite literally with the small ‘e’ earth itself; soil. In this spirit, the Orella SFW course started off with a detailed introduction to the massive variety of soil organisms, from bacteria and fungi, through protozoans and nematodes, and on through the food web into micro and macro-arthopods and earthworms (An excellent condensed introduction to these can be found in Dr. Ingham’s Soil Biology Primer—a USDA publication). Along the way students learned about how the various organisms function in soils to:

  • produce good soil structure
  • cycle various nutrients (nitrogen, sulfur, phosphorous, etc.) and make them available to plants
  • interact with each other and with the root zones of plants
  • provide nutrition to plants in the right places, at the right times and in the right amounts
  • improve water holding capacity and aeration
  • reduce compaction
  • eliminate any need for pesticides or inorganic fertilizers
  • greatly reduce water use (often, up to 70% reductions)
  • increase both plant yields and topsoil

All of this, along with much more learning–about the affects of aerobic vs. anaerobic soil conditions, bacterial to fungal biomass ratios in the various ecosystems of the world, as well as the steps needed to move from a conventional industrial farming model to a biological and sustainable one—was only the first half!

Next, Dr. Ingham took the increasingly energized class through a detailed and well researched explanation of creating lively composts, brimming with the good biology needed in the soils and by the plants. This included different recipes for different scales and contexts, ways to tilt your composts towards bacterial or fungal dominance depending on your needs, as well as worm-composts and general vermiculture.

Finally the course dug into the topic of using good composts to brew excellent compost teas! From teas to extracts and soil drenches, Dr. Ingham took the class through the process, explaining how to best get life—and the precise life that you want–exploding in your tea bucket, vat, or tank, and from there out into your soil, or onto your plants. In the process students were exposed to amazing slides and explanations of the various and fascinating forms of life we want to see and identify in our teas and extracts when sampling them under the microscope. By course end, having been very well ‘inoculated’ and ‘activated’ with this valuable information, everyone was itching to get brewing!

A few additional ‘light-bulb’ sparking tidbits from this excellent course:

  • There is life in soils as deep down into the earth’s core as humans have sampled—16 miles! There are even bacteria adapted to a habitat of molten lava!
  • Organic matter holds TEN TIMES its weight in water, and there is no upper limit to the amount of organic matter a soil can hold! 100% not impossible.
  • A healthy soil will have 50,000 protozoa per gram/teaspoon. These will collectively eat 500 million bacteria (per gram) every day (about 10,000 bacteria per protozoan), releasing 400 million molecules of Nitrogen (per gram, per day), typically right in the root zone!
  • Standard soil tests measure only 1% of the total pool of soil nutrient (which is the ‘soluble fraction’ existing precisely at the time of sampling). This 1% fraction gives no information about the rate of nutrient cycling and replenishment provided by the soil biology from the remaining fraction. There is, therefore, no relationship – zero – between the numbers these standard lab tests will give you and the nutrients that end up in your plants! With the right biology in your soils plants will tend to have access to all major nutritional needs regardless of ‘low’ soluble fractions shown on standard lab tests.
  • Using good soil biology can even eliminate the need for the very ancient practice of crop rotation! No disease, no need to rotate. Continual nutrient supply, no need to rotate. Therefore, one need never till again, saving time, energy and money, while increasing surplus topsoil, yields and other profit margins!
  • Who doesn’t like CHOCOLATE! A well made, finished compost – likely to have all the ‘good guy’ food-web organisms we want – can be COLOR checked against a 70% cocoa chocolate bar. That is the ideal color we want to aim for in our composts and even topsoils. Check it out and enjoy!

Thank you, Dr. Ingham, for your tireless efforts and kudos to the good folks at Quail Springs and Orella Ranch who are jointly organizing and convening this leading-edge series. Congratulations on a very successful start! See the links to these organizations to learn more or to donate in support of their ongoing efforts to bring sustainable land management practices to a wider audience. Also, see the Soil Food Web, Inc. website for updates on future SFW courses or to purchase Dr. Ingham’s books or lectures (on cd) and learn even more of this fascinating and powerful information.

Next up in the Orella hosted West coast Carbon Economy Series: Sustainable Land Management with Kirk Gadzia (Holistic Management – Resource Management Services) and Darren Doherty (Keyline Design, Broadacre Permaculture – ). See you there!

Owen Hablutzel performs international work in Permaculture design, consultation, speaking, and education. He is a director of the Permaculture Research Institute, USA, and can be reached at owen (at)