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Book excerpt: Humusphere by Herwig Pommeresche

Herwig Pommeresche, a German-Norwegian explorer of soil life, graduate permaculture designer and graduate engineer, shares his lifetime of research into humus. Humusphere, translated into English for the first time, digs deep into a myriad of little-known research papers, comparing their findings with the usual conventional methods.

Herwig Pommeresche offers an ecologically oriented understanding as a check to the still prevalent chemical-technical agricultural system.

In the excerpt below, Pommeresche discusses the cycle of living material and its biological and chemical roots.

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently (as of December 2018) available for pre-order only. Put in your order at the special pre-order price of $26.60 by clicking the link above.

From Chapter One: Agrobiology and Agricultural Chemistry: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Whom Does Agriculture Serve?

I would like to pose an intentionally provocative question: Who should determine the future of agriculture and thus our food supply? Should it be the field of chemistry or the field of biology?

Biology needs to concentrate more strongly on the living processes within organisms and look at them as just as important as the fundamentals of chemistry, and agricultural science and biology need to work much more closely. My appeal is: This new biology is obliged to support agriculture in introducing new explanatory models. Furthermore, the difference must be explained to consumers of the products in a comprehensible way.

Some may say that this is impossible, but that is true only of our conventional view of chemistry. By its own definition, chemistry cannot describe life and living systems and its explanatory models cannot cover them. The difference between the two models or methods, however, is significant and verifiable. If the ecological scene is not ready embrace this, I am convinced we will be unable to solve the urgent problems facing us today within agriculture. I believe that it is absolutely necessary to get a new, synergistic biological movement going that is clearly and explicitly based on the fundamental concept of living material. This will allow us to establish a confident “biological” biology as well as a confident biological agriculture. The idea of the cycle of living material has been challenged and “scientifically” rejected many times by proponents of the current model. But in the last thirty or forty years, molecular biology has become so independent that outsiders to it—such as Margulis and the supporters of the Gaia theory—have once again turned to the idea of the theory of living material. Recent research in molecular biology (e.g., Kroymann 2010) has made it possible to develop and provide support for older hypotheses and models of the cycle of living material. There is a good chance, with the help of the endosymbiotic theory and the Gaia theory, of constructing a believable, viable model that finally brings together the “science of tomorrow” (Rusch 1955; Schanderl 1970), thereby making a broader audience aware of our new understanding of agriculture and plant cultivation. An important result would be that the practically senseless application of more and more outside energy and materials in agriculture would come to an end, and their places would be retaken by the care, nourishment, and propagation of the life in the soil.

To accomplish this, the biological aspect of this problem needs to be, if not fully separated, then clearly and comprehensibly delineated from models originating in the field of chemistry, because metabolic processes—and here in particular plant nutrition—encompass a large field of research.

W. Hamm wrote on this subject in 1872 about Albrecht Thaer:

He, and with him every farmer, assumed that plant food was made up of organic (combustible, arising from living beings, animals and plants) material found in the soil, and that the more of it was contained in a field in the proper state, the more fertile the land would be. This decaying material was known as humus . . . and it was believed that plants could absorb it on their own with use of the water contained in the soil. But this was an error. Some researchers had already . . . shown that plants acquire the carbon that they need from the air, and soil or mineral material was already recognized as a component of their bodies, and some doubt had arisen concerning the earlier doctrine. Then the great chemist Justus von Liebig appeared in the year 1840 and did away with the entire collection of older views on plant nutrition. He proved that a number of mineral components— potash, phosphoric acid, lime, iron, clay, magnesium oxide, sodium bicarbonate, silica, sulfur—make up the fundamental nutrients of plants in the soil; they can be recovered from the ashes of burnt plants. (Hamm 1872)

I am going to attempt to show that Thaer’s assumption might not have been an error after all.

The Eternal Search for Nitrogen

The biosphere contains a certain quantity of nitrogen in the form of organic (and generally living) compounds. According to Frederik Vester (1987), 200 billion tons of organic material are converted on and in the soil each year—as we shall see later, primarily through “eating and being eaten” processes in the form of the metabolism of living material. This vast amount of organic material is the “waste” generated by the life processes that keep the biosphere running in all its variety. But it is also the nutrients for the following year’s life processes! In this “waste,” much of which is living (1–2 tons of living organisms per 1,000 square meters of uncontaminated agricultural soil), the much-coveted nitrogen is relatively firmly bound, by, for example, being built into the organic structures of protein molecules (among other substances). This means that it cannot be washed out by the large quantities of water that are constantly flowing around it. Relevant to this issue are the findings of Virtanen, Schanderl, and Rusch, who showed that organic substances do not need to be reduced to inorganic ions in order to be absorbed by plants as nutrients once again.

Now let’s imagine an equal quantity of the synthetic, easily accessible nitrogen that we have put into circulation in the biosphere. For one thing, we have a very imprecise idea of what actually lives in the soil. Furthermore, we have essentially zero knowledge about which of the life-forms that aren’t known to us perish when we regularly apply large amounts of synthetically produced nitrogen salts.

On this subject, I will cite Gerhardt Preuschen from his Ackerbaulehre nach ökologischen Gesetzen—Das Handbuch für die neue Landwirtschaft (Agriculture According to Ecological Laws—The Handbook for the New Agriculture), written in 1991:

“For as long as people have believed that plants can subsist exclusively on water-soluble substances, they have understandably attempted to find these substances or compounds in the soil and to check the plants’ nutrient supply against an established amount, usually in a water-soluble state, and to classify them as signs of fertility. We know today that this theory was incorrect. Under very adverse conditions, plants can process water-soluble material, but they always need microbes to do so. This whole system of direct transfer of material into the plant’s body leads to diseases while at the same time damaging the life in the soil. To put it briefly—the entire mineral theory and the way that it has been applied was the wrong approach. We can also proceed on the assumption that the data used to determine actual fertility is unrelated and thus uninteresting, and in fact must sometimes be analyzed the opposite way (69).”

And he continues: “Free nitrates practically never appear in an undisturbed ecosystem. If this were not the case, rivers would have to have been carrying nitrates for centuries, and mountains of sediment would have formed in the seas and oceans, or they would contain some nitrate content. It is astonishing that scientists who want to be taken seriously continue to repeat the claim that nitrates are a natural component of the living soil and an important plant nutrient” (143).

Plants’ nitrogen supply is precisely regulated in nature. Because this aspect of plant nutrition is being ignored, we have an excess of easily soluble nitrogen compounds today.

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About Herwig Pommeresche

Author Herwig PommerescheHerwig Pommeresche was born in Hamburg in 1938 and has lived in Norway since 1974. He received a degree in architecture from the University of Hanover. He has spent many years active as an architect and urban planner in Norway. After finishing his studies in architecture, he became a trained permaculture designer and teacher under the instruction of Professor Declan Kennedy.

Alongside other permaculture experts, he served as an organizer of the third International Permaculture Convergence in Scandinavia in 1993. He later served as a visiting lecturer at the University of Oslo. Today, Herwig Pommeresche is seen as a pillar of the Norwegian permaculture movement. He also serves as an author
and a speaker.

Book of the Week: Biodynamic Pasture Management

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an Acres U.S.A. book, Biodynamic Pasture Management, by Peter Bacchus. Copyright 2013, softcover, 160 pages. Regular price: $20.00.

From Chapter 3: Organic Soil Fertility, Soil Biology & Whole Farm Management

Front cover Biodynamic Pasture Management book by Peter Bacchus

Biodynamic Pasture Management by Peter Bacchus

To grow healthy plants and animals and high-quality food products, you need fertile soil. Soil fertility in turn is related to the growth and reproduction of soil organisms and to the plants that grow in the soil. In due process this affects the health, well-being and fertility of the animals and humans who live as a result of the plants that grow in the soil.

We often do not recognize that soil fertility depends on the carbon cycle, which starts with photosynthesis in plant leaves and the absorption of light and carbon and other elements from the air into the plant. The carbon taken in from the air by plants and transformed into sugars is the basis of the carbon cycle, which maintains life in the soil by providing food for soil organisms.

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Book of the Week: The Farm as Ecosystem

By Jerry Brunetti

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, The Farm as Ecosystem, written by Jerry Brunetti. Copyright 2014, softcover, 335 pages. Regular price: $30.00. SALE PRICE: $25.00.

An Invitation to Become a Legume

The Farm as Ecosystem, by Jerry Brunetti

 

Another exciting breakthrough in nitrogen-fixing bacteria originates out of the University of Nottingham’s Center for Crop Nitrogen Fixation. Professor Edward Cocking and colleagues found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar cane that could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. Remarkably, this development potentially allows all the cells within a plant to x atmospheric nitrogen! This technology, labeled “N-Fix,” is not a genetic modified/bioengineering technology, either. Rather, it is a seed inoculant, enabling plant cells to become nitrogen fixers, a hopeful boon to annual crop production, which uses wasteful and contaminating amounts of nitrogen. Commercialization of this non-GMO breakthrough is expected by 2015–2016.

In the same vein of investigating the “cellular wisdom” that exists among microbes and plants, researchers at the University of Missouri’s Bond Life Sciences Center, under the direction of professor Gary Stacey, discovered that, for reasons yet unclear, non-legumes have not yet made a “pact” with nitrogen-fixing rhizobia bacteria that allow legumes to convert nitrogen gas into plant food that can be used to build proteins. Continue Reading →

Book of the Week: Secrets of Fertile Soils

By Erhard Hennig

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, Secrets of Fertile Soils, written by Erhard Hennig. Copyright 2015, softcover, 198 pages. $24.00 regularly priced. SALE PRICE: $19.20.

Humus forms as a result of the complicated interplay of inorganic conversions and the life processes of the microbes and tiny creatures living in the soil. Earthworms play a particularly important role in this process. Humus formation is carried out in two steps. First, the organic substance and the soil minerals disintegrate. Next, totally new combinations of these breakdown products develop, which leads to the initial stages of humus. Humus formation is a biological process. Only 4–12 inches (10–30 centimeters) of humus-containing soil are available in the upper earth crust. This thin earth layer is all that exists to provide nutrition to all human life. The destiny of mankind depends on these 12 inches!

Secrets of Fertile Soil

Cultivated soils with 2 percent humus content are today considered high-quality farm land. What makes up the remaining 98 percent? Depending on the soil type, soil organisms constitute about 8 percent, the remains of plants and animals about 5 percent, and air and water around 15 percent.

The remaining 70 percent of soil mass is thus of purely mineral origin. The mineral part of the soil results from decomposition and the erosion of rock. The dissolution of these components is carried out by the lithobionts, which can be seen as the mediators between stone and life. It was, once again, Francé who coined the term “lithobiont,” which means “those who live on stone.” The lithobionts are the group of microbes that begin the formation of humus. They produce a life-giving substance from the nonliving mineral. On the basis of this process, living matter, earth, plants, animals, and human beings can begin, step by step, to build.

Only soils with an optimal structural state of tilth have a humus content of 8–10 percent. Untouched soils in primeval forests can, at best, reach 20 percent. A tropical jungle can’t use up all its organic waste, so humus can be stored. All forests accumulate humus, but real humus stores only emerge over the course of millenniums. Once upon a time accumulations of humus known as chernozem (Russian for black earth) could be found in the Ukraine.

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Book of the Week: How to Grow Top Quality Corn, by Dr. Harold Willis

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Acres U.S.A. original book, How to Grow Top Quality Corn, written by Dr. Harold Willis. Copyright 1984, 2009, softcover, 58 pages. BOTW price: $8.00 ($12.00 regularly priced.)

By Dr. Harold Willis

So you want to grow top quality corn. Where do you begin?

Soil. The very most basic thing for growing really good crops is good soil. Soil that is not only high in fertility, but is alive with beneficial organisms. The ideal soil for growing corn is deep (six or more feet), medium-textured and loose, well-drained, high in water-holding capacity and organic matter, and able to supply all the nutrients the plant needs. Of course, not everyone has the perfect soil, and corn isn’t so fussy that it can’t do well on less than ideal soil. But I will show you how to build up your soil so that you can grow much better corn.

How to Grow Top Quality Corn

How to Grow Top Quality Corn, by Dr. Harold Willis

Climate. Corn does best with warm, sunny growing weather (75–86° F), well-distributed intermittent moderate rains, or irrigation (15 or more inches during the growing season), and 130 or more frost-free days. The U.S. corn belt has these soil and climatic conditions.

Humus. Even if the weather isn’t ideal, a good, living soil with high humus content will often make the difference between a good crop and disaster, for humus allows soil to soak up considerable moisture and hold it for dry periods. It is often the case that one farmer who has been building up his soil will have lush, green crops in a drought year, while his neighbor’s crops have burned up.

Soil parts. An average, good soil should contain nearly one-half mineral particles, one-fourth water, one-fourth air, and a few percent organic matter. The minerals supply and hold some nutrients and give bulk to the soil. Water is necessary for plant growth and for the soil organisms, but not too much or too little. Air (oxygen) is needed by roots and beneficial soil organisms. Organic matter (humus and the living organisms that produce it) is a storehouse of certain nutrients, holds water, gives soil a loose crumbly texture, reduces erosion, buffers and detoxifies soil, and even helps protect plants from diseases and pests because of antibiotics and inhibitors produced by beneficial bacteria and fungi. Some of these friendly microbes also produce plant growth stimulators, others help feed nutrients directly to roots, and others trap (fix) nitrogen from the air—free fertilizer. Continue Reading →

Supplying Nitrogen: Tap into Nature

Human activity is affecting planet Earth to such an extent that natural scientists are naming this time the beginning of a new geological age/epoch called Anthropocene (the recent age of man) and ending what was the Holocene epoch (about 17,000 years ago to present).

We are no longer observers of nature, but significant influencers of what is happening to nature. The sheer weight of humans and their livestock is now bigger than the Earth’s wild animal population. Our activities are rapidly increasing the amount of CO2 in the air. That is an established fact, the effect of which is the only thing in dispute, i.e. will it get warmer or cooler and will we be wetter or dryer?

The temporary warmth is obvious in the Arctic. Although growers usually help to absorb CO2 by growing crops, their improper handling of crop residue or improper feeding of livestock can add the CO2 back into the air. However, farming’s bigger polluting effect concerns nitrogen.

Plants have always used N from the air by a variety of natural methods. Now the rate we are taking N out of the air is 50 percent higher than what nature has done for millions of years. Most of this industrially created N is now used for fertilizer. This industrial process was originally used to make munitions prior to World War I.

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