As a farmer who likes to read a little too much, I get things stuck in my craw from time to time. The problem, you see, is that I prefer to follow issues and events from a much broader spectrum than simply that of the conventional ag press and all of its discussions about corn and soy seeding rates, fertilizer-application wizardry, and new equipment advances.
All of this reading makes good mental material for the long and monotonous hoeing and/or weed pulling and/or irrigating sessions that come with growing vegetables.
One of the topics I return to often, both in terms of reading and of arguing with myself about what I’ve read, is the subject of microorganisms. I’m infatuated with the unseen life that makes soil happen: fungi, protozoa, earthworms, bacteria, bugs, and more.
The unseen world is an interesting place to spend your time, whether you’re asking questions about God or plate tectonics or the soil foodweb. My conversion experience, if you want to think of it that way, came in 2004. I was trying to build healthy soil on a farm that had been “farmed out” for far too long. I came across a great little article that I’ve returned to many times since on the Rodale Institute’s New Farm blog. The article was about brewing your own microorganisms. It’s worth a read for anyone interested in farming, gardening, or building a better soil ecosystem.
The article featured a Filipino farmer, Gil Carandang, who urged others farmers to mind and enhance soil life through home-brewed microbes. The basics are these: Find a place on your land where the soil is healthy, maybe a corner of the pasture that hasn’t been farmed or a spot in the forest. Dig a couple of shovelfuls of the healthy soil and put that in a container that can hold water. I use an old plastic mineral tub that holds probably 20 gallons of liquids. Add some kind of carbohydrate (rice, bread, old hay, etc.) that the microbial life can feed on. I tend to use partially composted wood and hay and rice. Add water. Add a form of sugar to help boost the microbial activity. Here, I’ve tried plain sugar, honey, and molasses. All of them seem to work great. Brew for a while (I usually go a week or so), bottle up, and then dilute with water before spreading on the soil.
Carandang also mentioned the immense power of lactobacteria. That usually comes from dairy products. I’ve added raw milk and yogurt to the above process. I have also added compost from time to time. It all seems to work wonders.
I have to say that I have tried all kinds of organic fertilizers and soil amendments: kelp, bone meal, blood meal, green sand, purchased soil conditioners, etc. They are all pricey and do the job. But this year, I had virtually no money to purchase veggie inputs. So I went with the farm-generated program only: composted manure and wood ashes, topped with the above-mentioned microbe brew every ten to 14 days. And I can now say with absolute confidence that the microbe brew works.
My plants have deep and well-developed root systems. My yields have been much higher than normal. The bug and worm populations, both beneficiala and pests, have boomed.
Now, I haven’t run much of a science experiment here to measure the success. I don’t know if it’s a particular mineral or nutrient that’s making the difference. The only real test I’ve done is to leave some leafy greens, the crops I tend to focus on, untreated: no microbe brew, though they still get the compost. The plots without the microbe brew were less healthy, smaller, and slower growing. I found the untreated lettuces to be ready for harvest two to three weeks after the microbe-added patches.
I have also used the microbe brew on sections of pasture. There I tend to get bigger and thicker stands that bounce back significantly more quickly after harvest, whether through haying or being eaten by herbivore.
I haven’t weighed up the outputs to find out how much of a yield increase I’ve had, but moving forward, I’d like to work with other farmers on actually measuring the benefits of this kind of farm-generated fertility. In the meantime, I’m not that worried about it. I know it works, and it doesn’t cost much, other than the purchase of some occasional molasses or sugar. It takes some time, yes, but not that much. The way I see it, anything you do to feed the soil microbial ecosystem is great. (One downside: I have had some booms in dung beetles attacking Bright Lights chard in very damp conditions; for some reason, the beetles don’t attack the green chard in the same beds.)
So, get out there and improve your soil, in one way or another. Embrace the bug and the fungi we can’t see with the human eye. Then share your stories with the rest of us who are infatuated with the unseen. Even the science-minded among us like to muse about the miracle of life.
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
Photos by (SOIL IN HAND) NRCS SOIL HEALTH, COURTESY OF CREATIVE COMMONS ON FLICKR