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Elaine Ingham @ PV1 - Building Soil Health  RSS feed

 
Julia Winter
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Me again!

So, are you sad that you didn't get to go to the Permaculture Voices conference? Did you go but you can't remember what was said? Well, I am an obsessive note taker (most of the time) and I took notes at most of the talks I attended.

I will share them here with you!

Please note that this is in no way a transcription. These are my notes, taken in real time, on the fly, whilst trying to look at the slides and follow along. I find that note taking helps me synthesize information. None of this should be construed as an accurate quotation, even when I put it in quotes. (For example, I'm pretty sure not a single speaker used the utterance "Yo.") Much of the time, I am trying to summarize and it's entirely possible that I've gotten some things wrong.

My next notes document is Elaine Ingham. The topic this time was "Building Soil Health"

---------------------------------

Elaine Ingham

I’ve spent the past 40(mumble) years working on soil biology. We didn’t understand much back then, didn’t understand how important all these organisms in the soil are.

What does a living soil do for plant production? What is the soil food web? Assessing soil life via direct microscopy.

How can we integrate living soil with mono-crop agriculture (or, not).

A Healthy Food Web will
—suppress disease (competition, inhibition, consumption, no more pesticides)
—retain nutrients
—nutrients are available at the rates that plants require, leading to flavor and nutrition for animas and humans
—decompose toxins
—build soil structure, reducing water use, increasing water holding capacity, increasing rooting depth.

We need aerated soil, we need good structure. Bacteria make the glues that hold particles together, micro-aggregates are the smallest structures in our soil and they are made by bacteria. The fungi are the ones who take the micro aggregates and build further structures in the soil. Now we have space for oxygen, for water, and for the roots.

Pests prefer reduced oxygen conditions.

Soil versus dirt: sand, silt and clay are the mineral fractions of soil - that’s dirt. Can you change pure clay, pure sand? Well, if you start with that, the experts will say you can’t grow a crop there. We smile and start adding compost. We get all the critters in there, bacteria to voles. Organic matter holds 10x it’s weight in water.

We spend a summer growing crops and invite the soil scientists to come back at the end of the summer and now they say “Oh, that’s not sand, that’s a loam!” But if you take a sample you’ll see, no, it’s still pure sand, no clay, no silt. The organic matter and the biology is what we need to grow plants.

Soil food web:
first trophic level: photosynthesis by plants, making organic matter (42 essential nutrients for a plant to be able to grow)
second: decomposers, mutualists, pathogens, parasites
third: shredder, predators, grazers
fourth: higher level predators
fifth: even higher level predators

80% of inorganic fertilizer will wash out of the soil and get into your drinking water

Plant roots are putting out exudates, special for the bacteria or fungi that can get that plant what it needs. An exudate is something the plant is dumping out into the soil. It is mostly sugar, a little protein and a little carbohydrate - mmm, cookies and cake. Think of all these different kinds of cakes and cookies and each will support a particular bacteria that can pull the needed nutrients from the inorganic material around them.

Isn’t it amazing that nature does more than one task, with every thing she does?

So, the nutrients need to be held in the soil, and the bacteria and fungi do that, but the plants need that stuff. Whenever any of the first level predators (protozoa, “good guy” nematodes) eat bacteria or fungi, they release nutrients right there by the roots of the plants. Nutrients in soluble form, ready to be taken up by the roots of the plants. Chelated calcium, meaning Ca ions stuck to proteins. Sulfur as sulfates. Nitrogen as ammonium. This is why those predators are essential.

If things go anaerobic, you get the worst things possible for your plants. You will lose your nitrogen, your sulfur, your phosphorus if your compost tea goes anaerobic. Anaerobic compost tea can KILL your plants.

If you lose the fungi and bacteria, you lose the structure in the soil, it collapses, compacts, goes anaerobic. You need EVERYBODY in the food web. We are at the top of the food chain—it’s our job to manage all of this (ed: or get out of the way).

Steps to Healthy Soil
what is in the soil right now? - check it out with the microscope
what plant are you going to grow, and what does that plant need? - understand succession
where will those organisms come from? -from compost, from healthy soil
apply the organisms needed - compost, extract, compost tea

75,000 different bacteria per teaspoon (!)

About a million species of bacteria needed for an acre of healthy corn, 750,000 species of fungi

We only know around 5000 species of bacteria. We can identify the others via DNA analysis, but we can’t culture them, hard to study them.

How do we get the right stuff? Make compost, good aerobic compost. If it’s anaerobic, putrified stinky black stuff, call that yuck. People will say “Oh, that’s fine if it goes anaerobic.” Those people have no clue.

How to assess soil: get a microscope, find a person who knows how to use a microscope. The one we use costs about $350 and it has a camera in it. It takes me about a day for me to train you how to use it.

Pic: a nematode. A friendly nematode. Eats bacteria. Has a mouth, but no spear. The fungus eating nematodes have spears to break into the fungi. The root eating nematodes have a spear with a big knob on it.

Pic: a ciliate, a protozoan that shows up when oxygen levels go down. Also a nice aggregate of bacteria there, see that honey color - those are folic acids. See the brown color? Those are humic acids. So, once upon a time, this was good soil, but now it’s going bad. You can see that the root has a divot in it—a disease causing fungus is attacking the root.

If you can get the structure back in the soil, you won’t have to worry about water. We are successfully growing things in parts of Australia that have been in drought for 38 years.

We’ve been looking at the ratios of fungi to bacteria as land goes through succession from bare land to forest. Bare land 100% bacterial. When mostly weeds it is F:B = 0.1, early grasses, like bermuda or brassicas 0.3, mid-grasses or vegetables 0.75, late successional grasses (good grazing grasses), row crops 1.0, shrubs, vines, bushes 2.0 to 5.0, deciduous trees 5.0 to 100, conifers, old growth forests 100 to 1000

Weeds are plants that need high NO3 and can deal with a lack of oxygen

If you want to grow strawberries, you need to think where they grow naturally - in a forest. They want more fungi in their soil. No wonder you can’t grow good strawberries in fumigated soil!

As you improve the quantities of bacteria and fungi in the soil, yields can go up dramatically. Ed: She’s talking corn with 10 ears per stalk. Wowza.

If you take a teaspoon of old growth forest soil, 75% of that by weight is fungus. Don’t tell me that only 5% of soil is life, by weight. Maybe some sad industrial farming soil, not our good soil

Bacteria make soil alkaline. Fungi make soil more acidic. If the soil is acidic, the NH4 released by bacteria will stay as NH4. If the soil is more alkaline, the NH4 turns to NO3. Weeds are cool with NO3. Old growth trees want all NH4

Pic: onion farmer decided to let us try our compost thing. This is in Tasmania, where the government is encouraging this work.

Note: we do a lot more work overseas than in the U.S.

So, this is the industrial field, after two applications of roundup. Lots of weeds.
Next, this is after two applications of compost tea. Almost no weeds and the onions are bigger.

Interesting slide: how do you move succession backwards? Fire, flood, insects, volcano (superimposed on previous slide with the clockwise succession and the fungus to bacteria ratios).

The yellowstone fires moved some forest back to grasslands, and that was good for the buffalo. Some places the fire was so hot it melted the silica into glass. Some of those places are still having a hard time coming back 20 years later.

To Maintain Healthy Soil
Nature abhors bare soil. You can’t allow that.
mulch? lots of work, never ending


Cool pic: rye grass planted 7/15/2002, dug up 11/6/2002 with more than 4 feet of roots. The best ever has been 25 feet deep roots - ryegrass.

We want plants that are short but have deep roots. Industrial ag has been “totally idiotic and stupid” in choosing cover crops. They keep choosing plants with massive above ground biomass. If you cut this, you will end up anaerobic. If you till this in, you will compact the soil. Industrial ag chooses annual cover crops.

We want perennial cover crops, short tops with deep roots.

“I am the world’s laziest gardener. Don’t make me work. Make them work.”

These guys did this (ed: with what? with what?!?) They put in a mix, so that under different conditions, different things grew.

They showed that when they put in a row of soybean, right after it germinates the roots are getting colonized by the bacteria and rhizomes. The understory plants reach over and actually share goodness with the soybeans. The soybeans grow faster, fruit earlier.

“But, the other plants will take water from the crop!”
“You know who did that research? An herbicide company. And yes, they chose particular weeds to do that study. Weeds are not good with water—they just don’t care. These perennial plants are more careful with water.”

Get a list of these plants from Carol at the booth. Try them, take pictures and share the data with me.
 
Galadriel Freden
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Thank you for posting this (and the others too!); this sounds like it was an awesome presentation.
 
Julia Winter
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It was really awesome. If anybody has a list of good species for perennial cover crops, I'd love to see that!
 
John Saltveit
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Thanks Julia,
Great info.
John S
PDX OR
 
Sam Boisseau
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Thanks for the notes!


Would love to read more from Elaine Ingham... Any recommended books/resources/videos?
 
Luke Townsley
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Julia Winter wrote:It was really awesome. If anybody has a list of good species for perennial cover crops, I'd love to see that!


http://www.soilfoodweb.com/Cover_Plants.html
 
John Wolfram
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Does anyone know why white clover is not on that list? It seems to be the one low growing cover crop that's readily available at any rural/gardening store in Indiana...and it usually comes with a cool picture of a deer on the bag.
 
John Saltveit
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She had a free series of videos that were available before one of her video courses that cost money. I've bought some books of hers on making compost tea, which I have done every year for 15 yeaars or so. The Rodale institute where she works is a great source. It's in PA. They make books and Organic Gardening magazine. They also do experiments in sustainable agriculture. I saw her talk here for free many years ago. That probably is no longer available.
John S
PDX OR
 
Luke Townsley
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John Wolfram wrote:Does anyone know why white clover is not on that list? It seems to be the one low growing cover crop that's readily available at any rural/gardening store in Indiana...and it usually comes with a cool picture of a deer on the bag.


I don't know, but have wondered the same thing and even discussed it with a friend. Sweet clover grows too tall for most veggies, but short white clover should be the right height. I suspect though that it isn't a simple oversight. It isn't terribly deep rooted and has a reputation for crowding out stuff, but still, it seems like it would have some merit.
 
Diego Footer
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If you missed it, I put this talk on the podcast.
Episode 96
 
Luke Townsley
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Diego Footer wrote:If you missed it, I put this talk on the podcast.
Episode 96


Diego,

That was definitely one of my favorite episodes. In fact, I'm so stoked about perennial cover crops/mulches after her talk and some research on the web, I'm working towards starting some business ventures relating directly to that.

Unfortunately, there really isn't much field data, and I have yet to see a single picture or video of anyone growing annuals in a permanent low growing deep rooted perennial cover like she describes. Nevertheless, my intuition says when we pull together all the necessary pieces, this idea could be the most revolutionary thing in row cropping and vegetable market gardens since nitrogen fertilizer.
 
Diego Footer
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Luke Townsley wrote:
Diego,

That was definitely one of my favorite episodes. In fact, I'm so stoked about perennial cover crops/mulches after her talk and some research on the web, I'm working towards starting some business ventures relating directly to that.

Unfortunately, there really isn't much field data, and I have yet to see a single picture or video of anyone growing annuals in a permanent low growing deep rooted perennial cover like she describes. Nevertheless, my intuition says when we pull together all the necessary pieces, this idea could be the most revolutionary thing in row cropping and vegetable market gardens since nitrogen fertilizer.


I will try to chat up Gabe Brown at some point. I think he can bring a lot of insight to this area. Same with Colin Seis and Bruce Maynard. I will try to get those three on in the the first half of this year.
 
Luke Townsley
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Diego Footer wrote:
Luke Townsley wrote:
Diego,

That was definitely one of my favorite episodes. In fact, I'm so stoked about perennial cover crops/mulches after her talk and some research on the web, I'm working towards starting some business ventures relating directly to that.

Unfortunately, there really isn't much field data, and I have yet to see a single picture or video of anyone growing annuals in a permanent low growing deep rooted perennial cover like she describes. Nevertheless, my intuition says when we pull together all the necessary pieces, this idea could be the most revolutionary thing in row cropping and vegetable market gardens since nitrogen fertilizer.


I will try to chat up Gabe Brown at some point. I think he can bring a lot of insight to this area. Same with Colin Seis and Bruce Maynard. I will try to get those three on in the the first half of this year.


I'm not familiar with Colin Seis and Bruce Maynard. Thanks Diego!

One thing I'm seeing is that most regenerative ag people seem to have trouble getting their head wrapped around the concept of perennial mulch/cover cropping with appropriately tuned soil biology, at least at first take. They think they understand it, but are really talking about something else. Or they will take a piece or two of the puzzle and disregard it because they know it doesn't work. Or they will lump it together with Fukuoka's techniques which most admire but have had trouble reproducing. Or they will disregard it because we don't yet have the appropriate tools to make it more efficient.

I think a video would be worth a lot in this space. I've pondered the wisdom of trying a low budget kickstarter video this summer documenting at least one new project using these techniques and possibly more. I'm still thinking...
 
Diego Footer
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Luke Townsley wrote:One thing I'm seeing is that most regenerative ag people seem to have trouble getting their head wrapped around the concept of perennial mulch/cover cropping with appropriately tuned soil biology, at least at first take. They think they understand it, but are really talking about something else. Or they will take a piece or two of the puzzle and disregard it because they know it doesn't work. Or they will lump it together with Fukuoka's techniques which most admire but have had trouble reproducing. Or they will disregard it because we don't yet have the appropriate tools to make it more efficient.

I think a video would be worth a lot in this space. I've pondered the wisdom of trying a low budget kickstarter video this summer documenting at least one new project using these techniques and possibly more. I'm still thinking...


I am going with they think it doesn't work, and it might not. If it worked really well on a commercial scale someone would be doing it. That being said, it is an area worth experimenting and trying to really look at results and optimize a system if there is one there, but I think at this stage it is theory that needs test, versus something that works and just need to be shown that it works. Which I see as one huge need for this space, start testing ideas to see what works and what doesn't. There are too many bold claims that don't have any results behind them. It's time to test ideas.
 
Luke Townsley
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Diego Footer wrote:
Luke Townsley wrote:One thing I'm seeing is that most regenerative ag people seem to have trouble getting their head wrapped around the concept of perennial mulch/cover cropping with appropriately tuned soil biology, at least at first take. They think they understand it, but are really talking about something else. Or they will take a piece or two of the puzzle and disregard it because they know it doesn't work. Or they will lump it together with Fukuoka's techniques which most admire but have had trouble reproducing. Or they will disregard it because we don't yet have the appropriate tools to make it more efficient.

I think a video would be worth a lot in this space. I've pondered the wisdom of trying a low budget kickstarter video this summer documenting at least one new project using these techniques and possibly more. I'm still thinking...


I am going with they think it doesn't work, and it might not. If it worked really well on a commercial scale someone would be doing it. That being said, it is an area worth experimenting and trying to really look at results and optimize a system if there is one there, but I think at this stage it is theory that needs test, versus something that works and just need to be shown that it works. Which I see as one huge need for this space, start testing ideas to see what works and what doesn't. There are too many bold claims that don't have any results behind them. It's time to test ideas.


My experience is that anytime you talk about cover crops, everyone automatically thinks you are talking about growing above ground biomass or nitrogen fixers to be returned to the soil every year. Elaine Ingham is talking about something totally different. My intuition says she is on to something big. There have been a couple of university type field trials along those lines, with somewhat positive results, but they weren't optimized well at all for a positive outcome and haven't really been followed up on as far as I can tell.
 
Luke Townsley
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Colin Seis is advocating "pasture cropping" and "no kill cropping" in Australia sowing annual cereals into perennial pastures.
http://www.pasturecropping.com

Very different from what I have been looking at for more temperate wet climates, but very exciting stuff. I'm going to look at it more, but it seems like it would require a very dry climate with seasonal spring rainfall to work. If it is doing what I think, it might actually work even here in the American midwest in years after extreme drought like we had a few years ago.
 
Diego Footer
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I think you can use that as a base case because what he is doing works, even if it is different in terms of plant species. You start there then sub out different elements and see what works and what doesn't. I will see if I can get his thoughts on the idea. Because although different it is at least in the right direction.
 
Luke Townsley
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There are things to learned from those techniques, but working with crops like vegetables, corn, and beans in the American midwest is a totally different thing from squeezing a cereal crop out of sparse pasture during the "wet" season, which is more or less what they are doing, if I'm understanding it right.

I think this would be an interesting technique for ranchers to have in their arsenal for areas like parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas among others. I see it as a niche for cattle ranchers to diversify a bit, not as a backbone for principle production.
 
Adam Ormes
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Luke Townsley wrote:There have been a couple of university type field trials along those lines, with somewhat positive results, but they weren't optimized well at all for a positive outcome and haven't really been followed up on as far as I can tell.


Could you please provide a reference to these? Likewise if anyone knows of anyone else applying such a system...

 
Luke Townsley
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I've heard Elaine Ingham mention Gabe Brown in North Dakota several times. My understanding is he is doing this with row crops, but I can't find much information, and a lot of what he is doing seems to be other stuff. He has some really interesting things going though and is doing some speaking.
 
Nick Kitchener
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John Wolfram wrote:Does anyone know why white clover is not on that list? It seems to be the one low growing cover crop that's readily available at any rural/gardening store in Indiana...and it usually comes with a cool picture of a deer on the bag.


I have it volunteering in my garden bed. Whenever I pull it, the roots are teeming with worms. Maybe I'll stop and see how it plays with the row crops.
I'm wondering about sheep sorrel as well. It tends to grow as a ground cover.
 
Luke Townsley
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Regarding the clover, it is a bit hard to explain, but I planted some dutch clover with some of my cover. It was a mistake for my purposes. To clarify, I'm talking mixed species perennial living mulch in a vegetable garden in Indiana around the plants and in the rows ie over everything, not just between beds or similar situations which is entirely different.

The clover I have growing is too tall, too clumped, too growthy and just not well suited for my particular purposes. Perhaps micro clover would be better. I may try it at some point.

And as with all things, I'm not suggesting it would be entirely unsuited for every situation, but for mine, it hasn't been a good fit at all so far.
 
gabriel munteanu
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John Wolfram wrote:Does anyone know why white clover is not on that list? It seems to be the one low growing cover crop that's readily available at any rural/gardening store in Indiana...and it usually comes with a cool picture of a deer on the bag.

It is now on her page: Ctrl-F for Trifolium repens (Dutch White Clover) Zones 3-10. Height: 3-5" here: http://www.soilfoodweb.com/Cover_Plants.html
 
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