By JON FRANK
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who lived from 484-425 B.C. He is credited as one who helped compile the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were all man-made edifices located around the Mediterranean rim and in Mesopotamia. It appears the compiled list was funded and promoted by the Greek Tourism Board.
In my mind one of the greatest wonders of the world is right below our feet: soil.
• Soil is the Foundation of Society
• Soil is the Foundation of Health
• Soil is a Fascinating World with Much Yet to be Discovered
• Soil is a Teeming Metropolis with Vast Biodiversity
Soil is where life interacts with life and where life interacts with its environment. It is my sincere belief that we have not yet realized the full potential of soil. We are, in fact, still peeping through the keyhole. The best is yet to come. The world has yet to see a fully optimized soil and the tremendous yield and quality it can produce.
Soil is where biology interacts with chemistry and where chemistry interacts with physics, and where physics interacts with biology — all at the same time.
Most soil tests measure soil minerals using chemistry. Let’s take an example using calcium and magnesium. By measuring both the calcium and magnesium, a ratio between the two can be computed. Consider a soil with 1,400 lbs. of calcium and 70 lbs. of magnesium per acre. This soil would have a 20:1 calcium to magnesium ratio (1,400 / 70 = 20). If the magnesium was 700 lbs. per acre it would be a 2:1 ratio.
When these tests are performed using the Original Morgan test the ratios directly relate to soil physics, and soil physics directly relate to biology and the environment for biology. The desired ratio for calcium to magnesium is 7:1. A 20:1 ratio could be a soil with inadequate cohesion. It is too loose and can erode easily. On the other hand, a 2:1 Cal/Mag ratio indicates extremely tight and sticky soil. When this soil gets muddy walk on it at your own risk.
Because the soil is so tightly compacted there is very little room for air. The environment lacks oxygen and is detrimental to soil biology. The extreme tightness is also detrimental to plant roots. It is a struggle just to survive. To make matters worse the extreme level of magnesium dissipates soil nitrogen back into the atmosphere. The economics of growing a crop on this soil does not cash flow — especially with a nitrogen-loving crop.
Let’s recap. The calcium to magnesium levels are tested using chemistry. The ratio between both elements directly relate to physics and consequently impacts biology. In other words, biology, chemistry and physics are all intertwined.
The difficulty we face is that testing is done with chemistry while understanding biology and physics must be inferred from the soil test, i.e. chemistry. The good news is that the right soil test and theory make it much easier to understand biology and physics.
Here is a statement that is both obvious and profound: Biology thrives in the right environment. The implications are that we as farmers, consultants and growers need to create the right environment for biology.
Let me say it more boldly. As stewards of the land and soil, we have a moral imperative to create the right environment for biology. What biology you ask? All biology. From the microbe interacting with plant roots to downstream river biology to the ultimate consumers of the crops we raise. And this imperative leads us right back to soil testing.
By using the diagnostic tool of soil testing we analyze soil chemistry. But what we are really doing is assessing the environment of the biology. By acting on the information given on the soil test we are actively changing the environment for biology.
So, what is soil physically constructed from?
• Structural particles of sand, silt, and clay
• Environmental prerequisites of moisture and air
• Carbon compounds
• Soil biology ranging from bacteria to earthworms
• Plant roots
The goal with soil testing is to assess the environment for biology and then enhance it through the application of soil amendments and specific nutrients. After many years of reading the Original Morgan soil test on thousands of different soils, I observe that soils can be grouped into various patterns. As a consultant my goal is to change the pattern to a pattern that optimally supports roots and biology. Once in while I will see a soil that is already in the optimum pattern, but this is rare. In that case, the goal is to hold the soil in that pattern.
The optimum pattern will support an extensive network of roots and lots of plant carbohydrates feeding to soil microbes. It is also important that plenty of minerals are supplied ready to be digested and made available for plant uptake.
The key to achieving excellent quality crops with very high yield is to have a reserve of predigested minerals ready for plant uptake. These minerals have already gone through microbial digestion. Not only do you need the right quantity you also need the right spectrum. Plants and all biology do best when given full-spectrum nutrition. This means major minerals, secondary minerals, trace minerals and rare earth elements. To get full-spectrum nutrition requires various fertilizers, soil amendments and rock powders. This will be the subject of future articles.
Certain carbon compounds can also be added to soil to enhance the environment. Remember from my previous article that carbon compounds have the potential to hold heat energy. By adding needed minerals and carbon compounds, the pattern of soil changes. At the same time, minerals are removed from the soil primarily through crop removal but also through leaching.
Annual soil testing is a very important time to stop and ask “Where is the soil right now?” Minerals have been added, microbes have been digesting, and plants have been removing nutrients. Productive soil is most always in a state of flux — ever changing.
At this point, it is very important to ask what type of soil testing should be done. I suggest the Original Morgan and will explain why, but first an illustration.
My wife and I have coffee together every morning. I grind the coffee beans fresh and then blend in some grass-fed butter and a refined oil from coconuts to make a frothy cup of morning Java. And we always sprinkle the top with plenty of cinnamon. Since we really like our coffee, I also grind the cinnamon in batches to make our own cinnamon powder. Here is a picture of a recent batch. What starts as a stick of bark is first broken and then ground in a spice grinder. Then it needs to be sifted to get the fine powder. I don’t like to chew whole cinnamon sticks with my coffee nor do I prefer the coarse sifting. The best flavor comes from the fine powder.
Think of this as the process soil amendments and rock powders must go through. Let’s take calcium in the form of limestone. What starts out as calcium carbonate must be broken down into an available form of calcium for plants to pick up.
As limestone is broken down some becomes available calcium and some is in the soil but not yet available. Most soil tests answer the question: What nutrients are in the soil? This is similar to the cinnamon that comes out of the spice grinder. Some of it is powder and some of it is too coarse to use.
The Original Morgan test was patterned after root exudates and asks the question: What nutrients can plants get? This is similar to the fine cinnamon powder after the sifting. It is not the total in the soil but instead the fraction that is actually plant available after have gone through microbial digestion.
The clarity of knowing what nutrients are available to the plant paints a clear picture of the pattern of the soil.
If both the available and unavailable nutrients are measured together, you cannot tell which is which. Clarity is lost. This is very similar to a radio signal that has too much noise with it. The Original Morgan soil test is, in my opinion, the best test to sift out the noise and thus see the real pattern of the soil. This is why Dr. Carey Reams only promoted this soil test and why it became the premier diagnostic tool in Reams Agriculture.
I close this article with a toast to one of the true wonders of the world: Soil. I hope you get your hands in some this spring.
Jon Frank is the owner of International Ag Labs, based in southern Minnesota. He is a soil consultant with over 20 years of experience in his field. He is the founder of High Brix Gardens, the market garden/backyard garden division of IAL. Jon is fascinated with the correlation between minerally rich soil and nutrient-dense food and its subsequent impact on human health.
This article was previously published in the June 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
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