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Book excerpt: Eco-Farm by Charles Walters – The Soil-Life Connection

Acres U.S.A. founder Charles Walters wrote Eco-Farm: An Acres U.S.A. Primer to be the definitive guide to eco-farming. That includes managing farm and ranch soil fertility, crops, fertilizers, weeds, insects and more while avoiding dangerous chemicals.

The excerpt below discusses the importance of maintaining the microorganisms and other lifeforms within the soil by understanding and working with the soil food web.

From Chapter 8: The Soil-Life Connection

Few people use the fingerprint left in the soil to identify the drum rolls of history, and yet the connection is so obvious that only the simple-minded, the boasting dishonest or the rank opportunist can manage to ignore it. Goethe touched on the genius of Joseph, who saved Egypt from starvation by foresight and wisdom, at the same time putting the Pharaoh into possession of the land by unprecedented speculation. Goethe had his Mephistopheles do the opposite, creating inflation rule, as have government economists in centuries 20 and 21.

We were told that the Xhosa and Zulu of the African continent once enjoyed the lush savannahs of the area now known as the carbon-less Sahara. The bottom line that adjusts history is always the food supply and man’s witless destruction thereof.

Even without recent studies, USDA cannot pretend ignorance of this fact. In 1938-1939, Walter Lowdermilk, formerly assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service, toured the Middle East, North Africa, Cyprus and Europe to study food production and discern what separated desert from fertile soil. The lands he inspected had been cultivated hundreds and thousands of years. He wrote that “in the last reckoning all things are purchased with food.” He went on to propose that food buys the division of labor that begets civilization. He discerned land and farmer and soil life as the work foundation of our complex social structure.

The farmers of 7,000 years ago could not have known what we know now. But they must have had some appreciation of fertility. Ancient artifacts reveal slaves wringing the sweat from their garments for a soil amendment. In Egypt as well as Mesopotamia, Telus learned how to grow wheat and barley, giving rise to a renewable civilization. Flood irrigation and silt from the Nile charged and recharged the soil, giving a fix of nutrients for prolific soil life, year after year. It was perhaps in the Valley of the Nile that a genius of a farmer learned how to disturb the soil with a yoke of oxen and a plow, unwittingly re-establishing nature as a mandated balance between bacteria and fungi.

Bible students will recall that King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago made an agreement with Hiram of Tyre to furnish cypress and cedars for the construction of Tyre’s temple. We are told that Solomon supplied 80,000 lumberjacks to work in the forest and to skid the logs to the sea. Only about 40 acres remain of a forest that was once 2,000 miles square. Obviously, clear-cutting annihilated the microbial population, especially the mycorrhizal. Apologists for man’s debauchery cite climate change, intervention of the gods, the cycles of life and death, whatever.

Lowdermilk’s message was clear. Man’s intervention prevailed. In Babylon he pondered the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s canals. At the ruins of Jerash, one of the ten cities of Decapolis — once populated by 250,000 people, now 3,000 — he wondered aloud about cities under erosion and silt. He was told that the French archeologist Father Mattern counted at least 100 dead cities in Syria alone.

The Sahara is expanding in excess of 30 to 40 miles a year. The Aswan Dam, a mechanical marvel and an ecological disaster, will silt over in 500 years. The common denominator everywhere is the death of life in the soil. Man proposes, but God disposes.

Often, analysts became lost in their metaphors. The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. In fact, there is no food chain; rather there is a food web, a mesh of life in the soil, this according to Elain Ingham, Ph.D. of Soil Food Web, Inc., formerly with Oregon State University, Corvallis. Ingham wrote a sizeable chunk of Soil Biology Primer, the most useful booklet published by USDA since that agency gave its imprimatur to Walter Lowdermilk’s Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years well over half a century ago.

1. A 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 Ingham’s food web. Hints for the direction trail back to the beginning of the last century — as illustrated in previous chapter — but definitive answers are as new as the present edition of Acres U.S.A. Primer.

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?

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 now 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.

Want more? Buy this book here.

Hot Deal sale!

Through Monday, Jan. 21, Acres U.S.A. is have a 15-50% off sale on soil and crop-related books, including Eco-Farm, The New Organic Grower by Eliot Coleman, The Biological Farmer by Gary Zimmer, and more! Browse the Hot Deal sale here.

About Charles Walters

Charles Walters

Charles Walters

Charles Walters was the founder and executive editor of Acres U.S.A. He penned thousands of articles on the technologies of organic and sustainable agriculture and authored many books on the subject, including Weeds: Control Without Poisons; Dung Beetles; Grass, the Forgiveness of Nature; A Farmer’s Guide to the Bottom Line; Fertility from the Ocean Deep, as well as many others. A leading proponent of raw material economics, he served as president of the National Organization for Raw Materials (NORM) and authored several books on economics, including Unforgiven: The American Economic System Sold for Debt and War.

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