Why learn about the Soil Foodweb?
Masanobu Fukuoka spread seeds out, and created a natural orchard. Charles Dowding does not dig his veggie beds, and they grow like crazy. Allan Savory advocates holistic grazing taking the patterns of wildlife movement to avoid overgrazing, and restores the soil. Bill Mollison taught to use specific plant assemblies, so that nitrogen fixers provide nutrients to “hungry” plants. It all works. There’s so many working solutions, why bother with knowing about the soil food web, or foodweb as used by Dr. Ingham? Mr. Fukuoka even started his journey on the path of natural farming after quitting his research position at an agricultural institute. There he studied rice, and its pests. When he saw a healthy, wild rice plant growing by the side of the road he had an epiphany: it’s all useless! Everything we try to force on nature makes no sense. Nature works, and we need to work with it, to succeed.
That’s very true, and for eons we’ve been lost trying to impose our will onto natural processes without really understanding them. It is only in recent decades that ecology has been married with agriculture science from the bottom up, and the soil food web has been studied closely. From the dawn of agriculture we’ve tried to take a single element, usually a grass plant, or one kind of animal, and we’ve focused just on that. It made sense: we like this one type of food, and we need, and want more of it. Capitalism promoted specialisation for economic reasons, the industrial revolution pushed that agenda further, and the green revolution brought it to its peak.
Now we’re in this strange situation, where most of the food is produced in monocultures, and chemical solutions are heavily used to isolate plants, and feed them, whilst the soil is mostly treated as “the medium to grow it in”. I imagine that this is how hydroponics started – someone thought that, since we provide everything to the plant ourselves, why not get rid of the soil altogether? It’s just a place to stick the roots in, whilst it is water and nutrients that are actually needed, right?
Finding out, that the soil is alive not just with pathogens and pests that the chemical agriculture wants to protect our crops against, but with a host of support organisms, and a myriad of interactions that are the mechanisms for feeding the plant is not short of astounding.
Not all pests are pests
For those of us who thought that say, nematodes are pests that drill the roots of our plants, it was a revelation to find out, that there are others. Firstly there are bacteria, and fungi feeding nematodes, and then there are predatory ones, that feed on the root feeders. There are even parasitic nematodes that colonise bodies of slugs, and bring them to their deaths. But there’s more than just looking at nematodes. Studies have shown, that pests and disease to thrive need anaerobic conditions. We create these when we till the soil, and pour poisons onto it.
Aerobic vs anaerobic
Aerobic means with access to air. There is a mechanism that creates passageways within the soil, and that mechanism is this: Bacteria create glues that stick them to soil particles – the sands, silts, and clay. They bunch together to form what is called “micro-aggregates”. Then fungi come in, and with their thin strands group those into “macro-aggregates”. In between all of those, there is empty space, that allows water to filter through as deep as this structure exists. When it rains, water goes down into the soil, and pulls air behind it, creating aerobic conditions.
Beneficial vs bad microbes
With the soil structures established, beneficial microbes can thrive, and here’s what they can do for our plants. Bacteria and fungi “mine” the soil particles for minerals. Something that plants can’t do. What they can do, is to turn sunlight, water, and CO2 into sugars, and they use them as currency to exchange them for the minerals with the soil ecosystem. It works roughly like this: the plant makes the sugars, sends lots of them into the roots, and pushes them out into the soil. That sugar feeds bacteria and fungi, which in turn mine the soil for minerals. In most cases, they can’t simply give the minerals to the plant. What comes along, and eats them is the mechanism that releases the stored nutrient right beside the plant root, and what enables the plant to get them.
Here’s where the good nematodes come in. Bacteria and fungi feeding nematodes eat those microorganisms, and what comes out the other end is plant food. Exactly what the plant needs, when it needs it, where it is needed, right by the micro-hair of the root. There are other little critters that help with that process – amoeba, protozoa, and micro-arthropods. They also have the role of opening the micro-fertiliser bags right beside the plant.
What happens when we plough and add chemicals?
When the soil is turned and sprayed with chemicals, a whole host of these microorganisms get killed instantly, and the fungal hyphae gets cut into pieces. All the soil structure is lost, the soil collapses, and anaerobic conditions have a chance to form. This is where pathogens and pests come in. They are opportunistic in nature. Unlike beneficial soil ecosystems, that take time to build, pathogens have “boom and bust” life cycles: eat all you can, multiply like crazy, and hope for the best. They eat everything in their path, and then die off when nothing’s left. Think of yeast. You put your grape juice in, add yeast, they eat the sugar, poop happy juice, and then die when alcohol concentration is too high.
Nature abhors vacuum
Once all soil life is gone, the process of settling of bare ground begins anew. The science of ecology knows this process very well. It’s a succession of assemblies of species from simple microorganisms, all the way to large connifer forests.
When after ploughing and adding fertilisers, the first thing that we see is weeds, it’s only because they have evolved to be the first rung in the ladder of plant succession. They are the most happy living just with bacteria, which are the first microorganisms to colonise bare soil. If we let this happen, after some years the entire food web in the soil rebuilds itself, and we can grow vegetables, grain, and other foods without added fertilisers. This is why Masanobu Fukuoka was successful, but it takes time if we let nature go through all iterations to get to the best assemblies of organisms.
We can work with nature and speed up this process
This is the real value of learning about the soil food web. We can rebuild fertility in the soil in one growing season, but we have to work with nature, and its processes. There are composting methods that allow us to attract the correct balance of microorganisms, that is right for the kind of crops we want to grow. Some plants need more fungi than others, but all soils will have bacteria in them. There need to be predatory nematodes, micro-arthropods, amoebes, and protozoa. Larger soil critters feed on those, and in turn they become food for animals like moles, or chickens. The plants could be food for large animals like cows, who in turn return nitrogen rich manure that feeds the microbes. The cycle continues in a never ending web of interactions, but it starts with that soil microbe assembly.
Microscopy has been the tool of choice for assessing that assembly, and a hot composting is the method for breeding the microorganisms.
Seeing is believing
Until Dr. Ingham developed a method for assessing the microorganism assemblies under a microscope, scientists have used growing them in a lab to check what they’re dealing with. The problem with that was, that only a few bacteria successfully grew on the food provided to them. There was a clear discrepancy between the few species that grew in the lab, versus what Dr. Ingham could see under the microscope.
This is now a tried and tested way for assessing what’s in the soil. A sample is taken from the first three inches, from several spots in a particular field, besides the same type of plants, of the same health condition. That sample is lightly mixed in a plastic bag by hand. Then several chunks of that soil sample, a total of a teaspoon worth is thoroughly mixed with water. The mixing is not done very vigorously to avoid damage to the organisms in the sample. A drop is put onto a glass plate, which is then inserted under the microscope for viewing.
What you see is what you get
We can now tell which bacteria and fungi are beneficial to our plants. The same goes for nematodes, micro-arthropods, and protozoa. The way they look like, and how they behave differentiates the good ones from the pathogens and pests.
This is the method that lets us be certain of the quality of the soil we’re preparing to grow our plants in. If we want plants that are disease and pest free, and grow to their full size and nutrition potential, being able to see what is in that soil is crucial. Most large scale composting operations in the UK have been set up to reduce the volume of waste going into landfill, not to build soil ecosystems. Some products from these can harbour pathogens and pests, which will kill your saplings, rather than help them grow.
If you care about rebuilding the soil, to support everything you wish to grow in it, this may be a subject you wished to learn more about. Links to further reading are below this text. If you are so busy, that you would prefer to get a specialist in to help, consider my soil testing service offer.
If you want to hire an agronomist, you will find thousands across the UK, but if you want your soil tested for the soil food web composition, there are less than fingers on an unlucky carpenter’s hand.
I wish I could send out to you a kit right now, so that you could take a sample, pop it into a post box for free next day delivery, and give you my report a couple days later. I can’t do that yet. Although I’ve learned enough to write this general introduction, I still need to go through training with Dr. Ingham to learn everything I need to become one of her consultants.
See my crowdfunding video below please, and consider supporting me on the path to becoming of service to you, and pledge in the campaign page. I hope that I can become one of the few people who are the real alternative to the army of chemical vendors swarming our farmers year round.
Thank you if you do pledge and sharing. Some of the people who you will be joining:
Dr. Mark Simmonds – founding member of culture.coop – a co-operative consortium of co-operative and community advisors, entrepreneurs and enterprises.
Willie Smits – biologist, conservationist, one of my original inspirations to go into permaculture. Click here to view his TED talk about restoring Indonesia’s rainforests.
Anne Stobart – owner and creator of Holt Wood – a 2.5 acre medicinal forest garden – one of few in the World. Click here to listen to our interview.
Melanie Shaw – a medical herbalist, and facilitator of the Exeter Pound – a local currency that helps promote local businesses, as opposed to large chains. Click here to listen to our chat.