Dr. Elaine Ingham. A Student’s Perspective

By Cheri‐Lynn McCabe and Sandra Bartram

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Photograph courtesy of Lexicon of Sustainability (http://www.lexiconofsustainability.com)

“If we as human beings are to continue to live on this planet we have to stop destroying her.” –Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015

Historically, soils have not received the respect nor the attention they deserve. Mechanical and biological processes have not been as well understood as they need to be because the green revolution has masked the severity of the crisis. Ironically, the green revolution was the period of time in the twentieth century during which crop yields were dramatically increased through the use of chemicals and high‐yield cropping. In addition, the degradation of soils through nutrient loss, infertility, increased salinity, erosion and desertification has been identified by the United Nations as one of the most serious threats facing humanity today. Healthy soils are as essential as clean air and water, and protecting these basic elements should be the foundation of all sustainability policies. Globally, plants provide, either directly or indirectly, 99.7% of all food calories for the planet.1 Soil conservation and management should be the top priority of all nations, and appropriately the UN has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils.

“Pests, diseases and lack of fertility don’t exist anymore if you get the biology correct in your soil.” –Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015

There couldn’t have been a better way to kick off 2015 than with Dr. Elaine Ingham’s 3‐day intensive course, “The Living Soils Workshop”, hosted by Mycelium Montreal at Concordia University. This internationally acclaimed soil expert held the entire class of over 120 farmers, students, gardeners and environmentally conscious people enthralled with her contagious enthusiasm, creative demonstrations and easy‐to‐understand animations. Elaine gave a very detailed introductory course on the soil food web that was infused with an empowering message of hope. With sound scientific principles of soil ecology, proper composting techniques as well as compost tea and extract formulas, Dr. Ingham demonstrated that it is possible to halt soil degradation and re‐establish soil fertility within a very short period of time.

“Dirt,” Elaine’s eyes sweep the audience. “Dirt,” she repeats with distain, “is the most despicable of all the four letters words. Let me make a clear distinction between dirt and soil.” –Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015.

The course began with a comprehensive overview of soil and its ecology. Elaine emphasized the importance of a healthy soil food web and clearly outlined the difference between soil and dirt. Dirt is devoid of life, but conversely, soil is a living ecosystem that is home to a diverse collection of biota. Soil is the basic medium of transfer for nutrients and water and provides physical support to anchor roots for all terrestrial plants. Applying toxic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to soil systems decimates the fragile populations within. Elaine challenged tilling practices that began in the Fertile Crescent over 10,000 years ago and continue to this day. The constant slicing and dicing of soil organisms tends to leave these fragile ecosystems weak and sets up conditions for a diverse array of problems including bacterial and fungal pathogens, viral diseases, desertification, compaction and erosion. In addition, tilling favours weedy plants that are the first to colonize areas of disturbance. Industrial farming has developed into a tilling and chemical addiction, a dependency that is increasing difficulty to break.

“The only reason the green revolution was successful is because we had already killed all the biology in the soil, and therefore, any form of soluble nitrogen, phosphorus and
potassium was sure to provide some results.”
Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015

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Elaine explained scientific jargon using creative parables that will remain with students long after the class was over. She creatively demonstrated the symbiotic relationship among roots, bacteria and fungi and explained the complexity of the soil food web using techniques such as parallels to the human world and well known folk stories. The words “oxygen” and “aerobic” became tangible entities that bounced off the classroom walls and permeated everyone’s consciousness. Today, many composting facilities are mistakenly producing putrefied organic matter instead of aerated compost. Disease‐causing organisms flourish in anaerobic conditions. Elaine has perfected composting techniques through many years of study and has created an easy and efficient way to create aerated compost full of beneficial bacteria, fungi and other members of the soil food web that can be tailored to specific farming requirements. Using extracts and aerated compost and
compost tea is an efficient way to successfully apply the beneficial organisms essential for a healthy ecosystem within the soil. With a tool as simple as a microscope to confirm the correct biological ratios in compost tea and extracts, anyone can easily replicate this technique. These cost‐effective methods create healthy nutrient‐dense plants that can resist pests, pathogens and disease and eliminate the need to rely on the expensive and toxic agrochemical industry.

“Food is medicine, and only nutrient dense food from healthy ecological systems can create healthy animals and healthy human beings.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015

All the answers to our most perplexing problems from eutrophication and erosion to food security and political stability are buried in the soil. Peace is not possible without food security, and food security is not possible without healthy soils. Backed by sound scientific principles, Elaine has been working hard these past few years to enlighten a new generation. Her persistence, coupled with her contagious message and the courage it takes to stand strong against the well‐entrenched practices of modern agriculture is inspirational. Everyone came away from the course charged with knowledge and hope. To learn more about this exciting topic please visit the Soil Food Web at http://www.soilfoodweb.com.

“Nutrients are available in all soils worldwide, and with the correct biology these nutrients are replenished every second of every day.” –Dr. Elaine Ingham Montreal 2015

Nicholas Burtner of Schoolofpermaculture.com will be interviewing Dr. Elaine Ingham on his website, please checkout his website to see the interview time.

Reference

1. Pimentel David, Food for Thought: A Review of the Role of Energy in Current and Evolving Agriculture: Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences , Vol. 30, Iss. 1‐2, 2011

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5 thoughts on “Dr. Elaine Ingham. A Student’s Perspective

  1. I attended Dr. Ingham’s 3-day workshop and it was fascinating. I intend to make some real compost this summer.

    1. > Hi Alex.
      > After taking Elaine’s workshop, one might realize that previous attempts at composting have been largely ineffective, and one might wonder about how much reduced waste instead of real compost has been produced. One might then make a commitment to follow Elaine’s technique, as I have done. I plan to buy a microscope to confirm the biological life in my soil. For those who have not been lucky enough to attend the workshop, Elaine is holding many online courses, and it is worth visiting her website: http://www.soilfoodweb.com. Elaine also has many great free articles and videos. My favourite is “Thermal Composting” which highlights 10 easy-to-follow steps for making aerated compost. Here is the link to get you there: http://www.soilfoodweb.com/Thermal_Compost.html

    2. Hi Jack
      While your question seems simple, it is somewhat complex and does not strictly follow the more clear-cut trophic level structure that is evident above ground. Earthworms are known as decomposers. They occupy many places in the soil food web, as primary, seconday and even tertiary consumers. As the earthworm eats through the soil, it takes up everything in its path. This soil contains plant material making the worm a primary consumer. It also contains micro-organisms and animal manures as well as pieces of decaying fungal matter making the worm both a secondary and tertiary consumer. Animal manures tend to be more the domain of the small red worms, but as earthworms travel through the soil, they are likely to come across a wide variety of food sources. I tend to believe that this should be the most profound reason not to till soils as tilling slices and dices up these precious creatures and many more soil organisms leading to the decimation of soil systems. In the future, hopefully the worth of worms and their valuable castings will be recognized on a larger scale. The castings are rich in water-soluble macro and mirco nutrients as well as in beneficial bacteria and active enzymes that are required for plant growth. Worm castings are biologically safe in any concentration, unlike chemical fertilizers and uncomposted animal manures that can burn plant roots. In healthy ecological systems, earthworms are releasing their beneficial castings into the soil region where roots can readily take them up.

      Of course, like most elements in a Permculture system, the earthworm has many roles. It provides tunnels and pores through the soil, allowing oxygen and water to percolate. Coincidently, this morning I was reading a very fascinating review by Timo Kautz entitled “Research on subsoil biopores and their function in organically managed soils” in the Journal of Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. As described in the paper “biopores are voids in the soil that are formed by the activity of soil life.” This paper is well worth the read, as it is research that is directly applicable to and in support of permaculture systems.

  2. > Hi Alex.
    > After taking Elaine’s workshop, one might realize that previous attempts at composting have been largely ineffective, and one might wonder about how much reduced waste instead of real compost has been produced. One might then make a commitment to follow Elaine’s technique, as I have done. I plan to buy a microscope to confirm the biological life in my soil. For those who have not been lucky enough to attend the workshop, Elaine is holding many online courses, and it is worth visiting her website: http://www.soilfoodweb.com. Elaine also has many great free articles and videos. My favourite is “Thermal Composting” which highlights 10 easy-to-follow steps for making aerated compost. Here is the link to get you there: http://www.soilfoodweb.com/Thermal_Compost.html

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