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This week's Book of the Week feature is Eco-Farm by Charles Walters. 

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Lesson 8: The Soil-Life Connection

When life in the soil becomes a consideration, it is no longer time to indulge in single-factor thinking. The irrigation pump may deliver fluid, but the impact on root organisms could be devastating. Microorganisms that live rent free in nature’s settings often die or leave the scene not only when the weather changes, but also when salt fertilizers or rescue chemistry pelt the land. Only recently has university science assembled the data base and the insight necessary to identify Elaine Ingham’s food web. Hints for the direction trail back to the beginning of the last century.

What then are the right food webs needed to support wholesome field-ripened crops without reliance on inorganic fertilizers and/or toxic rescue chemistry? How can the grower identify the organisms that power crop production?

The soil food web

Poverty acres support weeds, as Albrecht pointed out, because the bacteria dominate, the way mycorrhizae dominate woodlands. Grass systems seem to have two times more bacteria than forage. Row crops, in turn, require an 8-to-1 ratio, forage to bacteria. The Wisconsin ginseng grower who expects open prairie under wooden slats to approximate the environment of shaded woods is either ignoring Ingham’s food web or is still ignorant of the concept.

Perennial crops, vines, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries — all require more fungi than bacteria. The ratios vary. Indeed, the grand mosaic of nature’s whole is an exponential infinity of variations. Deciduous trees demand at least ten times more fungi than bacteria. Without the ratio, growers are forever spraying and waxing fruit to preserve a cosmetic look. Conifers simply won’t survive without 1,000 more fungal life forms than bacteria, all according to Elaine Ingham’s research.

Investigators have categorized the twenty or so microorganisms we refer to as soil life. Their names — genus and species   — are of interest in the same way postage stamps are of interest to collectors. The names create arrays under heads such as algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro anthropods, earthworms, vertabraes and, not least, plant roots. All of the above eat. All move through the soil. They filter water, decompose organic matter, sequester nitrogen, fix nitrogen, preside over aggregation and porosity. They prepare nutrients for assimilation, they battle crop pests, and, with biblical dedication, present themselves as food for above-ground animals.

“All food webs are fueled by the primary producer, the plants,” — may be one of the more profound statements to have emerged from the last half century. Lichen, moss, bacteria, algae — all are actors in a drama that fixes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In the main, energy and carbon are supplied by compounds found in plants, waste byproducts, etc. A few organisms have very special needs. These are the chemoautotrophs, and they take their energy from nitrogen, sulfur and iron compounds, not from the carbon compounds or a solar source.

Nature has decreed that all organisms attempt to increase and multiply. They liberally feed each other and in turn fee the plants, for which reason the objective of fertility management should be “feed the soil” so that in turn it can feed the plants. Plans, of course, provide the larder for soil organisms.

The old cowboy song had it, “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em,” and that becomes the eco-farming imperative, as a fuller knowledge of soil life requirements reveals itself.

Farmers tend to think of fungi in the same way most people think of a virus. Cell biologists tell us that once a viral agent enters a warm-blooded body, it stays on for the life of that body. The key is the immune system. A strong immune system simply overpowers a virus. Much the same is true of a soil system. Fungi will always be present in the soil, evil fungi included. A healthy soil system requires the presence of organisms that inhibit, compete with, and consume disease-carrying organisms. Sadly, decisions made by the farmer over the kitchen table either inhibit or invite the pathogen.

The lessons that fill out the rest of this book deal chiefly with the correctness of those kitchen-based decisions. If an action is decided that results in compaction, send not to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for organisms, usually for the right ones. The soil has to be kept aerobic. It has to permit intake of water and capillary return.

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About the Author:

Charles Walters

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

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