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Interview: Putting Biology to the Test

Lance Gunderson of Regen Ag Labs is making soil health testing practical.

Interview by Paul Meyer

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an interview with in the March 2023 issue of AcresUSA magazine

THE STANDARD SOIL TEST has been in widespread use for decades. In recent years, though, many growers, agronomists and researchers have started to realize that there are better ways to measure soil health and potential. Lance Gunderson founded Regen Ag Labs in 2019 to provide “accurate, reliable and impactful analytical testing services surrounding the principles of soil health and regenerative agriculture.” He is an expert in the PLFA and Haney tests, and in addition to these and other standard soil tests, the Nebraska-based lab offers total nutrient digest, water holding capacity, soil enzyme and aggregate stability tests.

Acres U.S.A. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got here and why you founded Regen Ag Labs?

Lance Gunderson. Sure. My background is actually a little different. I’m not a soil scientist. I’m a biologist and a chemist, and I started working at a soils lab when I was in college at the University of Nebraska. I was running a lot of conventional soil tests — the things that everyone was familiar with.

In 2008, I decided to go back to school and pursue a master’s degree. The economy, of course, took a dive, so I stayed in Kearney and created the first commercial soil health testing division in the country — a for-profit lab that focused on soil biology. I was kind of a one-man show for three or four years. We offered the PLFA test (phospholipid fatty acid) and introduced the Haney test in 2012.

That really gave me an opportunity to work with farmers. I had originally wanted to go work with marine biology. But what kept me in ag was talking to farmers. I love education and learning, and I learned a lot from these growers and their struggles — what they were going through, yield, commodity prices, weather, crop insurance and ag lending and all these different issues —- they wanted to do something a little different. They just didn’t know how.

So, we started working with these growers. And in 2019, I decided, let’s create a lab that is dedicated purely to soil health. We do run conventional soil tests — it’s the same equipment —but the clientele that we work with are interested in doing something different, and the lab is there to help bridge the gap and show them the full current status of their soil.

I tell people it’s like having a medical physical. You wake up one day and realize that you don’t feel that great. You go to the doctor and you get a physical — they take all these measurements and they identify problem areas and things that are good, and then they give you general recommendations. Exercise, more sleep, try to reduce your stress, etc.

But how you do that is really up to you. We work with a lot of consultants as well as with farmers that are doing this themselves. That’s what Regen Ag Lab is really working toward — how can we figure out where you need to go; what direction should you go? And how you choose to get there is up to you.

Here at the end of 2022 we’re looking at expansion. Things are going really well. Obviously there’s a lot of interest out there.

Acres U.S.A. Earlier, when you said you developed a soil health division, I think you meant that it was a lab that focused on incorporating the element of biology into the conversation — whereas traditional soil testing only looks at physics and chemistry; is that what you mean?

closeup of petri dish

Gunderson. Absolutely. And I would say physics is in really small font there. Chemistry was always the big one in bold, right? A lot of labs have the ability to run some physical measures. But where I started was with biological measures — phospholipid fatty acids for community analysis, and then the Haney test, which couples biology and chemistry together. We also run things like water-holding capacity, which is mostly driven by physics, soil texture, and carbon content, but soil texture — especially aggregate stability, which of course is a physical measure — is driven by biology. So, they’re all tied together.

We try to provide a larger picture. I’m an analogy person — imagine you’re sitting there trying to build a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but you’re only looking at 13 of the pieces. Do you know what that picture is? Unless you’ve got the box in front of you, you have no idea what it is. I’m not saying that we’re able to measure all the pieces, because soil is a giant black box; but pulling in more of these pieces allows us to see more of the picture. And then you can start to use that to guide your management. 

Acres U.S.A. Historically, this magazine has provided an alternative view to conventional NPK-type agriculture. Even though right from the first issues there was a discussion of soil biology, it was very chemistry focused — albeit a different type of chemistry — balancing calcium and magnesium levels and considering other elements that mainstream farmers didn’t. Legend has it that at some point in the ‘90s, Elaine Ingham came to the Acres U.S.A. conference and got booed out of the room for talking so much about biology.

I think it’s possible that at that early stage of our understanding of soil biology — you know, when people come up with something new, they often go to one extreme. It may have come over as “You don’t need to worry about chemistry at all — all you need is biology.” But I think we’ve come to a point now where we’re realizing that we really need to focus on all three equally: chemistry, physics and biology.

Related to that, can you talk about microscope testing methods for soil biology — like Elaine Ingham teaches? Is that something you’ve used or that you provide? What are the possibilities and limitations of that type of testing?

Gunderson. That’s a great question. To reiterate your point, I often caution people — this is just human nature, in my opinion — that we like the extremes. I mean, look at our current political situation! We’re always pulled all one way or the other.

I often try to remind people that regenerative agriculture is not about going from one extreme to the other. It’s not about eliminating all the technologies that we’ve developed — fertilizers and herbicides and all those tools. Yes, that can be a goal, and yes, there are people that have done that very successfully. But if that is your reason for doing this, and you’re gonna do it come hell or high water, that’s not necessarily setting you up for success.

Everybody in this country 100 years ago was an organic producer — and that didn’t work well for our production systems. Now, obviously, there are some things that we could do better within that system. But at the same time, we’ve gone completely to this other extreme, where we produce a huge amount of food — calories, really — but there’s all these questions about dumbing the diet down to nothing but corn and beans.

How can we get back to the middle somewhere? The middle always scares people, for some reason, but that’s where I’m most comfortable. The middle is going to be a little different for everybody. But when I talk to people, that’s my word of caution. We don’t have to go clear back to one extreme.

On the measurement side, there are three major techniques to measure soil biology. First there’s microscopy, or direct-light culture plating. When people think of microbiology, this is what they usually think of. The advantage to this method is that if you know what you’re looking for, and you’re looking for something very specific, it’s a great way of trying to find it. Nematology is still done this way. That work has been established.

The disadvantages to this method, in my opinion, are first that it’s relatively costly — not because the equipment’s that expensive but because of the training and level of expertise required to understand what you’re looking at. You have to have a lot of really well-paid, well-trained individuals to do that kind of work. And it’s tedious.

Acres U.S.A. Do you think that in the future, AI can start to take over some of this work?

Gunderson. I think so. But the other disadvantage to microscopy is that in conventional microbiology, the way you identify species and learn about them is that you have to grow them in isolation. That works really well for human disease, or disease organisms in general — we can replicate a controlled environment. We know what the human body’s made of — the temperature, etc. — we can replicate that. We can grow organisms and can isolate them to study them.

Soil organisms are highly integrated into an ecosystem, though. If you pull one of them out and try to grow it in isolation, it doesn’t grow. We all know that old adage — one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Well, in the world of microbes, that couldn’t be more true. They all rely on each other in some way, even if they’re killing each other. So isolating them is difficult.

That’s a limitation of microscopy — you can put something under a microscope and you can see all kinds of bacteria, but unless you isolate them or can identify them in some other way, you have no idea what they are. And not only that — if you don’t know what they are, there’s no way you can figure out what they do.

The second way of measuring soil biology is molecular techniques. This is where you are focusing on a specific molecule, or a specific process that an organism carries out, that is relatively unique. So, for example, if I held up a leaf and I asked a room of people, “Where did this leaf come from? Did it come from a tree? Did it come from a dog? Did it come from a cow?” Everyone knows that a leaf is a feature that only a tree has. Now, somebody really smart in the room might be able to identify the leaf as a red oak.

When we use molecular techniques, that’s the issue. All trees have leaves. But if you’re only looking at the leaf, it’s more difficult to identify exactly what type of tree it came from. That’s the limitation of molecular techniques — you’re not going to be able to be incredibly specific. You’re not going to identify species, because, for example, fungi tend to have a lot of the same processes or same molecules within them that bacteria do.

Sometimes you’re looking for a metabolite — something that’s created from a certain pathway that only those organisms create. For example, going back to human disease, Clostridium botulinum can produce a toxin called botulism. If you can identify that toxin, then you know those organisms have to be present. You don’t actually have to see or measure the organisms.

This is what we do with the PLFA test — we look for phospholipid fatty acids. Nearly all organisms contain phospholipids, but bacteria have a different class of phospholipids than fungi do. Yes, there is some overlap there, but they have certain biomarkers that you can look for. If we find a certain marker, that means we have bacteria. But again, which bacteria? We don’t always know that. 

The power of a molecular technique is that it’s relatively inexpensive. Yes, it’s expensive relative to a conventional soil test. It does require some technical training and specialized equipment. But it’s all inclusive. It includes all the bacteria in the soil that are alive and all the fungi in the soil that are alive. Ten years ago, we thought we knew about 10 percent of the soil organisms. Today I would say we think we know less than 1 percent. Every time we learn about one, we discover 10 more we don’t know about. If you’re using microscopy to do a community analysis, that’s not your best bet; but like I said, if you’re want to find something very specific that’s already known to science, microscopy can work very well.

The third technique is genomics — metagenomic analysis. Genomics has been around a long time, but it hasn’t really been used in the context of soil. It’s primarily been used for human disease — for categorizing organisms through their DNA. This technology was first used to detect soilborne disease — that was the gateway. People began testing the soil for certain strains of E. coli or listeria that cause human disease.

Today this has progressed into a community analysis. Genomics is all inclusive, for the most part. We still have to know the organisms or sequence the DNA and have that in a database, if we’re going to identify them, but the genomic background of a bacteria cell is different than for a fungal cell, so we can differentiate them. 

But we’re also able to look at genomic sequences related to known organisms and identify thousand and thousands of organisms to the species level. I always tell people, “If you really want a report with thousands of Latin names on it, that’s fine.” That’s not really useful to farmers. But what’s neat is that we’re able to categorize these organisms by function. We know certain organisms are responsible for nitrogen fixation, or carbon mineralization, or phosphorus mobility — and we can start to identify those. And from a nutrient standpoint — we can also identify them from a plant-disease standpoint, or a plant-disease-suppression standpoint.

Genomics is a technology I’ve been following for eight to 10 years. I held off on it, because it was just a little too cutting edge. The interpretations weren’t there yet. And some could argue they’re still not there; it’s a constant work in progress. But we recently partnered with BiomeMakers in California to offer this type of analysis, and we’ve coupled it with chemistry, to really start to evaluate the system. That’s what’s really exciting about it.

It’s relatively expensive. It’s incredibly technical. But the price of these tests has been cut in half from three years ago, and the technology gets better. Throughput is a big issue right now, but we’re trying to increase throughput, which should hopefully start to help with cost. I believe genomics is going to be that big frontier, to measure the gap between supply of nutrients — which we measure in the soil really well — and output of the factory, which is the crop….

To read the full interview, purchase a digital or print copy of the March 2023 issue, or subscribe to Acres U.S.A. magazine  for monthly coverage of similar in-depth interviews and educational articles on eco-farming.