In the first ten minutes of her presentation in an auditorium filled with farmers, Dr. Elaine Ingham systematically debunked the soil tests on which their farming profession has long relied.
“I really have come to doubt that they are useful at all,” said Ingham, a globally recognized soil biology expert and founder of Soil Foodweb, Inc.
But that didn’t mean farmers were off the hook for understanding the biology of what’s going on beneath their crops.
No, Ingham would very much up the ante with her presentation that day in early December at the Virginia Farm to Table Conference, where she encouraged farmers not only to take their own soil samples, but also to study them under their own microscope.
Chris Lawrence, cropland agronomist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, warned the audience of farmers, mostly from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, that Ingham’s in-depth presentation on soil biology might come across as controversial, if not revolutionary.
“Some of you are going to pick up on things that are very different from what you had in mind. This is from a soil biologist’s perspective,” he said as he introduced the world-renowned speaker on soil health, whom he described as “a genius” in her field.
This wasn’t the first time farmers in the audience — which included small- and large-scale producers — had been challenged about the way they view and treat their soils. National Resource Conservation Service launched a national initiative two years ago to sharpen its focus on soil health by encouraging broader use of practices like no-till and cover crop farming.
Lawrence and others at NRCS have been preaching the soil health gospel since then. The message has positive implications for water quality in the region.
Healthy soils, as Ingham reiterated, are aerobic, infused with oxygen-storing pockets that allow water and nutrients to move freely. Ingham linked many of the problems farmers experience — from compaction and water runoff to disease-ridden plants — not to a lack of nutrients, but to an imbalanced soil biology that makes nutrients unavailable to plants.
“If you ever want to get off the addiction to toxic chemicals, you’ve got to fix the problems,” Ingham said. Soil, she added, is the solution to “all of those things.”
Anthony Beery, who manages 475 acres of crops for a dairy and poultry operation in Rockingham County, Va., said during the presentation that weaning farmers off of chemical inputs isn’t as easy as it might sound.
“The farm-to-table people are probably right on board with it. But, for commercial farmers, it doesn’t really fit our paradigm,” Beery said of the practices Ingham was espousing. NRCS has held up Beery as an example of a farmer who’s improving his soils with a dozen years of no-till and, more recently, cover crops.
Ingham’s suggestion that farmers study their soils, add compost at the right moments and improve the soil biology — instead of adding nutrients like nitrogen that she says are already present in abundance — constitutes a quantum leap for many farmers like him.
“I don’t disagree that all the nutrients are in the soil. But how do you get them plant-available at the appropriate time?” Beery asked after the first half of Ingham’s course that day.
Ingham also challenged the roomful of farmers to eschew traditional soil tests, which get varied results depending on the extracting agent that’s used, in favor of using their own microscopes to study soil samples.
“All the mineral nutrients are already present in your soil. Why would you have to add more?” Ingham asked rhetorically.
“You don’t, unless you’ve killed the biology.”
Ingham said she’s used these soil-analyzing methods to annually increase yields on a test plot continuously growing corn in Colorado without rotating crops. She used “one ton of compost” to turn sandy soils in North Dakota into soils that looked so healthy they tricked extension agents into thinking they were loam a year later.
Showing PowerPoint slides of soils under a microscope, Ingham primed the audience on what to look for when conducting their own analyses. She pointed out the thread-like fungi and dot-like bacteria that must be present to combat disease and make nutrients available to the plants.
The daylong soil course was interspersed with short presentations from local farmers who have seen what improved soil health can accomplish at their operations.
Daniel Austin with Green Sprig Ag in Franklin County, Va., told how corn and silage production nearly double after using several rounds of cover crops to “supercharge the soil.”
“I’m just a farmer, but what we’re seeing is improved soil health,” he said.
Beery said after the conference that Ingham’s presentation was the first he’d heard detailing the “life in the soil” in quantifiable terms and specific microorganisms. Though still skeptical, he plans to follow up by using her practices on a test plot and reaching out to a local consultant.
“I’m not opposed to it, but that’s a big change,” Beery said. “A year is fast. From what I’ve seen in trying to build soil health, it takes 10 years.”
More information on Ingham’s work can be found at www.soilfoodweb.com.