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Compost & Soil Fertility – A Shitty Topic

by Patrick Blampied

Wow, here’s a topic I could write more about than what I wrote in the About Me section! Now that must sound ludicrous to you because everyone knows how I like talking about me but we’ll see how I go since this is about the most important issue humanity is about to face.

Forget climate change (don’t do that but you get the point)…. Humanity’s number one environmental issue is poor soil and soil loss. It unpins all else and is therefore bigger than deforestation and pollution. But how is that, I hear you asking? Well, every living thing needs food and soil happens to be the food that feeds everything above it so before you can grow vegetables and fatten up beef to feed yourself and before you can plant a tree to clean the air you breath, you need healthy soil.

What’s wrong with the soil we’ve got? There is a mountain of evidence that poor soils have brought down advanced civilizations throughout history. Now speak to farmers worldwide and they’ll tell you it’s getting harder and harder each year to turn a profit as yields shrink and more and more chemical fertilizer and other noxious chemicals need to be purchased and applied to supplement the loss of soil quality and quantity over the years. It would appear we’re now at the point where the chemicals are propping us up to keep the food growing but if you’re well informed you’d know there is a growing worldwide food shortage that is set to get worse unless something is done. If you don’t know about this just think about the cost of fresh food in Australia, it’s nearly doubled in the last decade.

How did this happen? It’s a similar story across the world, we arrive and clear forest to grow crops and the yields are amazing! This is because the forest floor had lots and lots of soil life from all the cycling nutrients as organic matter from plants and animals decayed and fed the soil microbes. But with each year the soil is left open to the elements, some is blown away, the field is plowed and compacted which breaks down the soil structure and eventually you need to add chemical fertilizer. Over time weeds start popping up which is a function of nature trying to repair the soil. To get rid of the weeds chemical herbicide is added, damaging the soil. This perpetuates the damage and the crop starts being eaten by pests which are attracted to unhealthy mutant plants (another reparative function of nature) so a chemical pesticide is used to get rid of the pest. Then the damage is so bad the plants start getting fungal problems so a chemical fungicide is used and then you harvest, plow again and start all over again. In the end because the soil is so unhealthy you need to add more chemical fertilizer so the crop grows nice and big. But if you investigate further you’ll soon find the quality of the crop still isn’t quite right. Holy shit!

Now at this point I could stay on the negative and go into the effects of adding chemicals to the food chain but there is plenty of documentation that can be easily accessed on Google, plus you can guess it’s not the way nature intended. No, instead I’m going focus on what can save us. Did I mention holy shit?

Luckily there are ways to bring the soil back to life naturally. Holy manure is one way, holy worm poo & juice is another and holy compost, a combination of many waste products is another again but with where we’re at globally that’s only a start. The best way I’ve seen soil fertility restored quickly and naturally is Compost Tea application (PDF).

This is an amazing process at the cutting edge of biological farming. It’s virtually a silver bullet if it’s done right. To sum it up, you make the highest quality compost using a diverse set of inputs. Get it to the point where the beneficial aerobic bacteria and fungi are at their highest and then put some into a giant tea bag and drop it into a compost tea brewer along with a heap of bacteria and fungi food like molasses, liquid fish and humic acid. An air pump blows the compost and food around in water for 24 hours stimulating the life and sending it into reproductive overdrive. The end result is a natural liquid fertilizer that is full of an astonishing amount of good stuff. The finished tea is then applied to damaged land within 6 hours.

What the tea does is inoculate the soil with a lot of the stuff that a forest floor would naturally have in it. Then with the right care all this stuff multiplies and brings the soil back to where it was at and in turn you start getting big yields of healthy organically grown crops.

With ongoing sustainable land management practices such as those applied in Permaculture year after year soil will build and farming can go on without chemicals forever.

While it all sounds complex, it’s not and there are numerous sets of instructions on how achieve amazing results. Google ‘Compost Tea’ to find out how but a quick warning you do have to know what you’re doing because if you get it wrong you can produce an anaerobic brew that isn’t only dangerous to your soil, the dangerous bacteria can be airborne and harmful to you.

We’ve made a couple of brews so far on my internship here at Zaytuna Farm. They’ve been applied to the main crop that’s feeding us. The video below shows the soil and what’s growing.

YouTube Preview Image

Much Love! Pat

5 Comments

  1. Pat,

    Good stuff with the videos. I remember those beds very well from being there last year. They were works in progress then. I’m assuming you guys finally were able to build facilities to brew the compost tea (near the main water tank, across from the tool area/workshop)…

    Keep ’em coming.

  2. Nice article guys, I studied with Dr. Ingham a few months ago and she said she is no longer adding molasses in her new batches. I will be with her again in 10 days as we will be teaching at the same University so I will again press her on this issue of using molasses or not with her new trials. So maybe do some test runs yourself to see the qualitative difference.

  3. Hi Doug,

    You’re right that Dr. Elaine Ingham (and Matt Slaughter Director of the Oregon Soil Foodweb Lab) are not recommending molasses in areated compost tea brewing. I hope its OK to write slightly long post to explain why no molasses in teas. While the results of compost tea around the world are incredible, and the general idea of making tea is accessible, like a lot of things the details, the details, the details…

    One of THE KEY things to understand about the soil food web is its relation/impact to the above/below ground ecology succession pattern. From a microbiological standpoint, there are a wide range of soils and each type of soil supports or favors certain plant groupings. This is so very vital in understanding how to work with soil microbes. The succession pattern is primarily based on the mixture or ratio of bacterial biomass to fungal biomass in any given soil. The succession pattern is visualized as a continuum: on the far left you have disturbed desert like weedy soils and on the far right you have an intact healthy old growth forest. In between these outer edges you have starting from the left side a continual increase in biological complexity and diversity moving from annuals to perennials.

    So, on the far left side of the succession pattern in a dry desert soil you’ll have a hard time finding visible fungi as fruiting mushrooms. These soils will typically have 8:1 bacteria to fungal ratios. Heavily bacterial dominated soils, alkaline (from bacterial secreted alkaline saccharides called slime) and Nitrogen cycled to plants in the form of Nitrate (NO3). “Weeds”, from a biological science perspective of pioneering annuals with mass seed production, love Nitrate. Now Move to the far right into the old growth conifer forest and you have a 1:100-1000 bacteria to fungal ratio. Fungi absolutely dominate in biomass in an old growth forest (think of Fungi guy Paul Stamets and where he lives in the old growth forest of the Pacific Northwet USA). The soil is slightly acid as fungi secrete acids during their externalized metabolic eating processes and the form of Nitrogen cycling in those soils is Ammonium (NH4). Trees like Nitrogen as NH4. Think of the continuum bacteria:fungi ratio looking like: 8:1______1:1________1:100-1000.

    This succession pattern can evolve “forward” from left (degraded soils) to the right (ever increasing plant complexity, annual to perennials). ANything we want to grow exists somewhere along the succession pattern continum: (following the left to right succession pattern) our broccoli and cauliflower Brassicaceae; then our tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and rice; then small herbaceous plants; then vines like grapes; then fruit and nut trees; then conifers. As you move from the broccoli towards the tomotes and so on you get an EVER increasing amount of fungi biomass in the soil. If we walk away from a patch of soil and let nature grow what it wants, whatever the bacteria:fungi ratio is will favor certain groups of plants somewhere along the succession pattern continum. Dr. Ingham’s and the group of Soil Foodweb Labs around the world have amassed a lot of growing data over 20 years where they can pin point the ideal bacteria:fungi ratio of just about any plant we want to grow.

    Disturbances drive the soil “backwards” or from right to left on the succession pattern. You get less fungal biomass, less perennials until it favors annuals, less humus and organic matter, less biological complexity above and below ground. Disturbances are: drought, flooding, fire, deforestation, overgrazing, compaction, inorganic fertilizers, fungicides, pesticides, plowing and tillage, (new research coming out showing) GMO plant and pesticide regimes, etc. I think its safe to say that most conventional industrial (and I would say a lot of ‘conventional organic’) agriculture is one big giant disturbance knocking the fungi out of the soil, pushing it “backwards” along the succession continuum and favoring plants that we might not want to grow.

    Before brewing compost tea, the trick is to know what your current soil state is in terms of bacteria:fungi ratio and its relation to what plant groups you want to grow and then use actively aerated compost tea with either a bacterial dominance or fungal dominance to “nudge” the soil in the right direction. Bacterial or Fungal dominated tea??? Yes, in any biological system when a food for one organism is present that organism tends to do well. Molasses is bacterial food: anything that is a simple sugar like molasses, fruit juice, maple syrup, glucose, fructose bacteria LOVE. Also, high nitrogen content stuff like manure or legumes. Bacteria will thrive. Fungi, on the other hand, are made to digest complex carbon chains like cellulose or lignin (think woody material). Fungi can eat things like humid acid, kelp. Feed the tea these things and fungi generally thrive (depending on a bunch of other conditions but this gives us an idea).

    So in our gardens or agricultural fields, yes even our ‘organic’ gardens (think putting natural non-chemical fungicide sulphur to control a powdery mildew outbreak doesn’t kill the good fungi as well? – all (in)organic fungicides kill both the good and the bad fungi but the bad guys repopulate typically more quickly) we tend to have degraded bacteria soil (not always but mostly). Because almost all cultivated soil that the Soil Foodweb Labs test is bacterial dominted (I’ve had a lot of agricultural soil here in Mexico tested and it confirms typical bacterial dominance) unless you want to grow Nitrate loving weeds you usually have to “nudge” the soil to more Fungal dominance. So you don’t put molasses in your teas because your soil usually already has enough bacteria – you want to focus on getting the fungi #s up.

  4. South pole magnetism increases the growth of not only many species of plants, but microbes as well. So you can devise a way to increase the growth of your tea microbes using South pole magnetism. You might magnetize your compost by placing it next to a powerful magnet for a few days and/or magnetize the water that you place the compost bag in. To learn more about this read the books written by Albert Roy Davis and Walter C. Rawls, Jr.

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