December 10, 2016
Compost. It's what farmers and backyard gardeners covet. It is full of microbial life that in turn makes our life pleasant and worthwhile. "Worthwhile" is quite the bold claim, but if we look at the places that are deficient or altogether devoid of microbes, we see conditions similar to a desert. Our world mirrors the microcosmos of microbial life that the soil contains. The desert is an environment where the soil is deficient in microbial life and their carbon food source and, subsequently, in water as well. Therefore, you have a narrow band of plant life and wildlife. The desert is scattered with scorned shrubs, doing their darndest to develop biomass to shelter and feed the soil and the microbes that live in it. Whether it is in the form of the misunderstood bacteria or the almighty fungi, these microbes are the essence and most basic elements of life, whether it is in the desert, old growth forests, or your raised beds. Soil fertility is directly associated with soil biology.
To increase the life in our soil, we compost. We gather a large pile of plant and manure material, scrutinously layer the universally recommended 15:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen, and the sheer mass begins to decompose the organic matter within the pile, causing the temperature to steadily rise in relation with microbial activity. This is the thermophilic process of breaking down organic matter with heat-loving bacteria. Something to keep in mind is that the aerobic and thermal nature of this method of material breakdown also means that portions of the nutrients are off-gassed. Additionally, sourcing the material and turning and spreading the compost is no easy task. Compost takes a lot of material and is labor intensive to produce and apply, making the process somewhat difficult and impractical to implement on large scales.
Instead, people make compost tea. Compost tea, an amazing microbial solution that duplicates the quality of the compost you teabag in a vat of water. When exploring compost tea, there are options of using intricate special equipment to actively aerate the tea or even regulate temperatures for you. There are benefits of using such equipment, but there are people who choose to keep it simple and do without.
For the straightforward process of making compost tea, you extract the life in the compost by submerging it underwater, agitating it to dislodge the microorganisms from the compost, feeding it (typically with molasses) and letting the life in the tea proliferate and multiply. As you would imagine, extracting compost into a liquid form means it is much easier to distribute. But it is only made with good compost.
Farmers will also apply manure to their pastures or fields to reintroduce microbial life and add nutrients into the soil. After all, bovines evolved with grasslands and grasslands evolved with bovines, meaning their manure is exactly what grassland soils want. If you care to think about it, manure is a fermentation process. Food travels in the alimentary canal, broken down by the enzymes in your mouth and acids in your stomach and then proceeds into the intestines.
The body, at least for humans, has 10 times more foreign cells than domestic cells. And those foreign cells reside in the intestines. While that partially digested food passes through the intestines, the floral lining within the intestinal tract feeds on the partially digested food and an exchange of food source and waste takes place! There are vitamins that the human body relies on that result from this process, such as vitamin K2, which is an agent responsible for clotting blood on wounds. This is all done anaerobically: a fermentation process! The culture is the intestinal flora and the food source the partially digested food excreted by the stomach.
It is these underlined practices that our society utilizes to inoculate the soil in order to vamp up our biological diversity and activity. Other than these techniques, the agriculture in this country does not address the soil life. After having learned what I have learned over the past year, I find these options to be rather limiting. Since it is labor and resource intensive to produce compost and then apply it to the fields, farmers will just opt to import compost and/or manure from facilities who compost using heavy machinery. The product of these labor intensive practices and dependence on imported fertility results in the stereotypical poor, overworked farmer.
There are alternatives and other kinds of agriculture in this world that go beyond composting and manure to quickly create fertile, biologically active soils. I consider these forms of farming and gardening to be natural and probiotic. It is a kind of agriculture that focuses on collecting bacteria, fungi and other microbes from the immediate environment and culturing them, oftentimes by fermentation, to create strong, diverse and adapted microbial communities to be introduced into the soil.
These systems of farming place importance on soil life and have developed methods to create microbial inoculants and natural fertilizers, or biofertilizers, onsite, from the local environments using inexpensive imports to achieve fertility sovereignty. The secret is culturing local microbes by feeding them a rich food sources and providing favorable living conditions. By fermenting our invisible allies, we propagate them and multiply their numbers in a very short amount of time to fill in the niche that the overworked farmer is trying to fill.
To begin with, there is the relatively well known method of Biodynamics. Developed in Austria in the 19th century by Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Waldorf Schools and Anthroposophy, this is the most common form of probiotic agriculture practiced by western society. Biodynamics, which uses both aerobic and anaerobic systems, is first off a very broad and spiritual system of farming. It involves fermenting cow manure in cow horns during special times of the year and even planting in accordance to the position of the moon and planets to harness their cosmic influences on the plants and water.
Those who use Biodynamics also ferment various herbs and plants (dandelion, stinging nettle, yarrow, camomile, valerian and oak bark) in witchcraft-like preparations. An example is fermenting yarrow in an elk bladder tied to a tree during the growing season, plus more that I don't care to get into. With their staple amendment, known as Preparation 500, they take manure that was fermenting in the cow horn during the fall and winter months and add a small amount of it into a vat of water, which they "activate" by vortexing the water with a stirring stick for an hour, alternately stirring clockwise and counter-clockwise. With that mixture, they foliar spray the soil to give it that special microbial kickstart that keeps Biodynamic soil famously fertile.
For their Biodynamic compost, they inoculate a pile of material that they wish to compost with the 6 specially fermented and prepared ingredients to create Biodynamic compost, a humus-rich compost that is imbued with the powerful micro-organisms of the aforementioned inputs. It is an interesting combination of ingredients; for instance, many of them are known to be able to take up nutrients from the soil that are otherwise not available to other plants (known as dynamic accumulators in the Permaculture world), and valerian is known to contain organic acids that have the potential to unlock nutrients from the soil and rocks.
Biodynamics is certainly esoteric and relatively difficult to understand from a scientific point of view. It aligns with homeopathy in the sense that it uses very small amounts of ingredients to create tremendous effects. In addition to the astrological planting dates and observation of the spirits of plants and animals, fermentation is key to the powerful Biodynamic method. As strange and crazy as it sounds, Biodynamics has proven to work wonderfully time and time again.
For more down-to-earth methodologies, there is Korean Natural Farming (KNF), another combination of aerobic and anaerobic processes, which is a type of agriculture that cultures microbial life, more specifically, fungi, from the local environment. KNF was developed in Korea in the 60's by microbiologist Master Cho.
Paul Stamets, arguably the world's leader in mycology, asserts that by allowing the fungi to take hold in a system, everything else will fall into place. An example is KNF's staple fertility system, referred to as Indigenous Micro Organisms (IMO's). This process is started by allowing cooked rice placed in a box to culture in the forest. At the end of the one week process, you have rice absolutely covered with white, tendril-like fuzzy fungi and cultured with all sorts of other microbes. By adding an equal amount of raw sugar, the sugar will draw out any moisture in the rice by osmotic processes, and turns your rice into a sugary, thick, liquid slurry. The sugar simultaneously acts as a preservative, freezing the growth and evolutionary process of the cultured rice, which coerces the microbes into a sort of inactive hibernation with the lack of water present and causes the fungi to spore.
Into the resulting thick molasses-like solution, you add other KNF ingredients, such as specially prepared Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ), Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB), Oriental Herbal Nutrient tinctures (OHN), among others, to inoculate a moist pile of bran, or flour, and allow it to compost at low temperatures (to keep from killing the microbes and offgassing nutrients). The flour acts as a readily available form of carbohydrates that the microbes can easily eat to proliferate and multiply. The product will be a finished pile that will be covered in fuzzy fungi, much like the initial rice culture, that is incredibly rich in biologically diversity. You compost it once again with the same liquid microbial solution, this time adding leaf mold from the forest and garden soil into the mix to homogenize the forest microbes with the local garden microbes to get a hybrid compost pile, part forest and part garden, ready to be introduced into the farm or garden. The result, when applied to fields, is a tremendous boost in soil biodiversity. You've essentially sped up the soil's natural succession and have intervened to make that soil that much more closer to soil found in the forest, rich in fungi.
Another example is JADAM, which is a Korean abbreviation of "people who are like nature." An offshoot of the KNF system created in the 90's, JADAM is strictly an anaerobic method of farming. You ferment forest soil, which acts as the culture, in water with mashed potatoes as the food source. It is very much like compost tea, except you are using forest soil instead of compost, and you deliberately keep it anaerobic. You add sea salt, which contains all of the known elements. The microbial activity during the fermentation process then mobilizes the elements in the sea salt. You've just inserted all of the micronutrients of the ocean in your potent tea! So potent, in fact, that you need to dilute the final tea 10:1 in water. Failing to do so, or over-applying the diluted solution to your trees and plants, will cause your plants to burn. Watch out, I've done it myself, that's how potent this is! While the described JADAM Microbial Solution is the staple fertilization program of the JADAM method, there are many other inputs under this system of farming, some crop specific, some focused on supplementing nutrients, and even some homemade organic toxic-free pesticides.
There is also Zero-Budget-Natural-Farming, another anaerobic system. It is practiced in east India and was made popular by Subhash Palekar, whose fertility is centralized around their sacred cow. Their main fertility input is called panchagavya, or jiwamrita. Panchagavya meaning "five products of the cow," involves combining all sorts of bacterially-rich cultures from the cow, such as manure, milk, yogurt, ghee, other dairy products and even urine for nitrogen. They then add fermented plant tea to the concoction. With that, they allow it to ferment, then apply it to their fields at a 1:30 dilution once a month or so. It's much like the western practice of manuring the fields, except you have the cultures and nutrients of all sorts of dairy products and plant juices extracted by fermentation! Much like the JADAM method, they have their own system of integrated pest management. Of all of the mentioned farming systems, I am the least familiar with this one and have yet to make or try any of its inputs. I simply don't have a cow (yet).
These techniques and methods are rather unconventional and can be intimidating for some just entering the game. However, there are options to purchase to probiotic farming inputs. They say money can't buy everything, but it can buy you a product called EM-1. Sometimes referred as effective microorganisms, EM-1 is a proprietary microbial concoction, developed by Japanese microbiologists in the 60's, of a handful of bacteria and fungi that is used as an all miracle all-purpose fertilizer, soil amendment, compost activator and even odor-remediation for livestock bedding (actually KNF and JADAM both have odor-battling properties for bedding as well). Without getting into details, EM-1 consists of a special ratio of yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and purple non-sulphuric bacteria that work in symbiosis that causes them to be so "effective", as cued by the name. Much like the methods described above, introducing this laboratory brew of microbes to the soil can reinvigorate soil biota, however, many case studies attest that it will not be nearly as effective as the other farming technologies. The reason why it falls short is because EM-1 is a solution of just a handful of microorganisms produced in a laboratory, whereas probiotic/natural farming techniques culture a wide diversity of microbes on-site from their natural environment where they are already familiar and acclimated to the climate that they are going to be reintroduced to. So while EM-1 is against the philosophy of using what is immediately available and cheap, it does offer microbial answers if you are too busy to create your own microbes to recondition the soil.
In short, all of these forms of farming rely on fermentation. In layman's terms, the nutrients in biomass must first be processed by microbial life forms before they are accessible to plants. By fermenting biomass first, we are effectively bypassing the break down stage that would occur in the soil so that nutrient cycling happens at a much quicker pace. By fermenting plants first, you are allowing the bacteria and microbes to decompose the material quickly and break it down so that the resulting nutrients are immediately available to the roots of plants. With much disappointment, I see a great gap of this knowledge between the average farmer and gardener. Because of this shortcoming, it traditionally takes many years to build fertile soils, whereas those implementing these technologies will achieve that fertility in a fraction of that time.
When soil biology is up and active, you will find that everything you need is already there. The minerals are inherent and exist in soil and rock: they are simply locked up, waiting for microbiological activity to activate them and bring into a form available to plants. World renown soil scientist Elaine Ingham supports such claims. There is something known as the Kervran effect, or biological transmutation. It is the phenomenon of plants transmuting elements of one kind to other elements to suit the plants' needs. In the mid-19th century, German scientist Vogel germinated cress seeds in self-contained terrariums and found that the mature plants contained more sulphur than the cress seeds themselves had. This is just a single example of biological transmutation. The extent of the phenomenon has been widely studied and is not wholly known. I don't think it will ever will be. It goes without saying that plants and microbes are the true alchemists of the land, performing remarkable feats of transmutation with miniscule amounts of energy that challenges the scope of our comprehension. Life under the microscope is too difficult to try to science out. One can just rest assured that life begets life.
I far too often see the typical farmer downplaying the importance of soil life and instead micromanaging the pH and macro- and micro-nutrient content of the soil. When they choose to focus on the complicated intricacies of the chemistry and nutrient composition of the soil, they are removing the life elements from the equation and instead taking up the role that the microorganisms are supposed to fill of maintaining soil homeostasis. It is infinitely more effective and efficient to build biologically active diverse soil than it is to implement complicated tips and tricks farmers come up with as a result of having to farm in biologically poor soils. If you are growing food organically in soil low in biodiversity and fertilizing with nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, even if organic, you are still missing micronutrients. The result are plants susceptible to pests and disease and minerally deficient foods, even if they were grown without chemicals.
I'm more than positive that our bodies are minerally deficient in the absence of minerally rich foods. Properly stewarding the microcosmos of life in the soil will in turn allow us to thrive from the benefit of nutrient-dense foods. If we can remineralize our body, I believe, along with many others, that disease and illness can be remediated. Perhaps at some scale of reality, we are considered the microcosmos in our fractal-based universe and if we thrive, the realities that examine us under the microscope will thrive as well.
To reiterate, there is a gap between what is known about soil science and what is known to the typical farmer and gardener. The practice of tilling is evidence of the farmers' misunderstanding of soil. Tilling the soil is equivalent to an earthquake, landslide, tornado and hurricane in the soil, simultaneously destroying soil life and structure and drying it out. It is a practice of convenience, not of stewardship.
There is an even greater discrepancy of these proven holistic farming systems, and the trend these days is to revere all organic foods as sustainable and healthy. In reality, it is just a hype that has been perpetuated by a society that lives so abstracted from agriculture. It's taken me a lot of effort and more error than trial "filtering and sifting throughout the years of experiencing, what I consider, impractical agriculture techniques," as quoted in my previous article. The combination of minimal/no-till systems and probiotic farming is a dynamic duo of incredible rapid soil building.
Incidentally, it took a while for the effectiveness of probiotic agriculture to click for me. I have heard of Korean Natural Farming close to a half a dozen times over my lifetime, but just did not understand the implications of it. Simultaneously, I was always unsatisfied with the fertility programs of my farming mentors. It was because they were all dependent on importing a lot material that was essential to the operation of the farm. I knew that there had to be a better way, that farmers of millennia ago did not have the feasible option of importing tons of material to apply to their fields (but then again, some of them did, all by human labor!).
I set out to become a steward of the land, not an organic farmer dependent on store-bought fertility and composting facilities. Fertility sovereignty was what I set out to do – my vision of holistic living systems. The farmers of millennia ago were always able to maintain fertility by using what is available to them and using what works – probiotic agriculture and Natural Farming.