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Compost & The Promise of Microbes

Scientist David C. Johnson Explores Microbial Communities, Carbon Sequestration and Compost

David C. Johnson’s experimental findings and openness to new insights have turned him into a champion of microbial diversity as the key to regenerating soil carbon — and thus to boosting agricultural productivity and removing excess atmospheric CO2. His research, begun only a decade ago, affirms the promise of microbes for healing the planet. It has attracted interest from around the world.

Johnson didn’t come to science until later in life. At age 51 he left a rewarding career as a builder, specializing in custom homes for artists, to complete his undergraduate degree. He planned to use his education “to do something different for the other half of [his] life,” though what he didn’t know. He said a path opened up and opportunities kept coming his way. After completing his undergraduate degree, Johnson kept going, earning his Masters in 2004 and Ph.D. in 2011, both in Molecular Microbiology. With his first advanced degree in hand, he got a job at New Mexico State University, where he was going to school and currently has an appointment in the College of Engineering.

He credits a fellowship program that placed undergraduate students in different labs with sparking his fascination with the composition of microbial communities as a graduate student. Johnson, who once farmed as a homesteader in Alaska, says he was once “an NPK junkie” but considers himself to be “13-years reformed.” Continue Reading →

Bt: Toxic Soil & Nature’s Balance

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a GMO more commonly known as Bt toxin, is spliced into the seeds of crops as a biological pesticide. Our environment is now sustaining genetically modified organisms in the soil, affecting everything we grow. As the seed sprouts, the Bt comes alive and grows with the plant as well as in the surrounding soils. This is a biological, living GMO pesticide that remains in the soil long after the plant is harvested. It also remains in every cell of the plant — all the way from the field to the end product, be it food, clothing, paper or tobacco.

Aerial of intersecting roads in rural Indiana.

GMOs are interrupting genetic expression of any and all plants grown in soil that has nurtured compromised seeds. This includes organic farming products coming from any farm that has been transitioned from conventional farming. To-date, there are 33 common crops being grown and harvested on over 444 million acres of land worldwide.

Beyond the soil, the effects of Bt toxin are found in the genetic makeup of pollinators, as the toxin has been found in nectar and pollen of the plants. These are taken back to the hive where it accumulates and contaminates the hive, ultimately contributing to colony collapse disorder.

We find these toxins in animals and in people (it has been found in breast milk and body tissue). It is now being reproduced in the gut. Bts are airborne, traveling in pollen and dust, spreading worldwide. DNA transfers naturally through mechanisms that allow gene flow across species. In this way Bts in the soil as well as in the air serve to compromise all efforts to produce organic and non-GMO plants, challenging their genetic integrity above and below the soil. Continue Reading →

Biochar: Prepping it for Soil

Biochar can benefit your soil, but only if properly prepared prior to application. In November 2007, scientists at the USDA National Laboratory for Agricul­ture and the Environment (NLAE) in Ames, Iowa, began multi-year field trials to assess the effects of biochar on crop productivity and soil quality. Scientists amended almost 8 acres with biochar made from hardwood. Twelve plots re­ceived 4 tons per acre; 12 were treated with 8 tons per acre.

Prepping soil for biochar

Author David Yarrow helps install a biochar test plot at Subterra in Kansas.

They found no significant difference in the three-year average grain yield from either treatment. Other USDA field and laboratory studies in Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Texas showed hardwood biochar can improve soil structure and increase sandy soils’ ability to retain water. But soil fertility response was more variable.

USDA scientists violated four key principles for biochar use: they used 1) bulk char, in one large load; 2) raw, uncharged char; 3) sterile, uninoculated char, with only a tad of microbial life; and 4) synthetic salt fertilizer, tillage, and other antibiotic practices.

Biochar, like water, is best added in a series of small doses so soil has adequate time to distribute and digest it. After all, soil may get 25 or more inches of rain a year, but not all at once in a single event. We already know from research in the Amazon that dumping 5, 10, or even 20 tons of raw char all at once into poor soil retards plant growth for one year and maybe two. After that, though, plants erupt in impressive, vigorous growth.

But a dip in yield isn’t acceptable for production agriculture. Farmers can’t wait a year or two to harvest a profit­able crop. Professional growers need fast response and strong stimulus to growth. Economics and handling logistics require convenience and low cost, with vigorous growth from minimal applied material.

Fortunately, we are learning how to prepare char for optimum results in soil and on crops. Biochar research in America is hardly 10 years old, but solid research shows that properly prepared, intelligently applied biochar has dramatic effects on soil structure and plant growth at as little as 500 pounds per acre.

There are four fundamental steps for optimally preparing biochar for use in soil: moisten, mineralize, micronize, and microbial inoculation. Continue Reading →

The Soil Food Web: A World Beneath Our Feet

The soil food web: Unseen beneath our feet, there dwells a teeming microscopic universe of complex living organisms that few humans ever consider. In one teaspoon of soil alone, there may be over 600 million bacterial cells, and if that soil comes from the immediate root zone of a healthy plant, the number can exceed a million bacteria of many different species. These bacterial cells exist in complex predator-prey relationships with countless other diverse organisms.

This topsoil food web forms the foundation for fertile, healthy soil, for healthy plants, and ultimately for a healthy planet. It is an essential but exceedingly delicate foundation that even the brightest scientists know very little about.

Dr. Elaine Ingham has been researching this tiny universe for nearly 20 years. She has sought to understand the importance of these organisms and the relationships that exist between them, and to elucidate the effects that various agricultural practices have on this vast network of life.

Continue Reading →

Biological Farming: Customizing Methods for Large-Scale Operations

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JR Bollinger in his corn, head-high by Fourth of July.

Biological farming is not just limited to small plots. Take the story of one Missouri farmer, who through holistic approaches to farming, managed to improve his yields and the size of corn on the stalk.

At the end of 2015, I talked to Missouri boot-heel farmer David “JR” Bollinger about his experiences growing corn, soybeans and milo using carbon-smart farming principles and practices. In his first year fully committed to biological agriculture, Bollinger cut conventional fertilizers by 50 percent and applied blends of biocarbons, minerals and microbes. Soils, plants and yields are all showing positive results.

Bollinger is the fourth generation to farm on 3,500 acres in the southeast Missouri Delta, with the family’s main crops being corn, soybeans, wheat and milo.

“In 2012, I first dabbled in biological farming on a reclaimed coal mine,” he said. “A gentleman with microbial products first tickled my brain about dead soil. He challenged me to find an earthworm. I went looking, and … none. I noticed there wasn’t much life. The soil looked like moondust, vacant of life.”

Continue Reading →

More Accurate Soil Testing

soil testingSoil testing that determines needed fertilizer will measure nitrate in the soil, but tests don’t sufficiently account for soil microbes, which mineralize organic nitrogen and make more of it available to a crop. As a result, farmers often apply more fertilizer than necessary.

Richard Haney, a U.S. Department of Agriculture soil scientist in Temple, Texas, has developed soil test that replicates some of the natural processes that occur in a field and accounts for microbial activity, along with measuring nitrate, ammonium (NH4) and organic nitrogen.

The new soil test is known as the Soil Health Tool. It involves drying and rewetting soil to mimic the effects of precipitation. It also uses the same organic acids that plant roots use to acquire nutrients from the soil. The testing tool measures organic carbon and other nutrients, accounts for the effects of using cover crops and no-till practices and works for any crop produced with nitrogen or other types of nutrient fertilizer. For more information visit http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2014/140710.htm

This article appears in the September 2014 issue of Acres U.S.A.