Written by Doug Crouch
Soil Food Web: The Pattern Approach
A diverse and complete soil food web where soils are well structured and fertile through an increasing organic mater percentage is the goal of modern-day regenerative agriculture, organic gardening and Permaculture design systems. A healthy food web ensures that nutrient cycling speeds along giving the plants exactly what they need and through symbiosis the plant is providing the soil food web the food resources and overall niche for their proliferation.
Adding water into the equation is essential for any discussion of biologically driven systems which forms a trinity of interaction known since antiquity for their interdependence. As more water cycles through the system, it can be either a detrimental erosive force or a building block depending on factors like organic mater percentage, soil structure and land management regime. Disturbance is sure to happen at some point but any time we aid the in the process of slowing, spreading and sinking water through regenerative earthworks, the proliferation of the microbes below our feet, unseen to us unless under a microscope, benefit greatly. It is our duty on planet earth now to have creative human interaction with nature which this whole soil building process hinges upon. Whether that is managing animals holistically in the rotational pattern based grazing system, chop and drop of legumes and other biomass crops, or building a hot compost to spread a tea or extract, we humans play a large role in accelerating succession and evolution of soil life. It is this upwelling of life in the soil that ultimately brings resilience to the ecosystem to mitigate the extremes that are inherent in our modern-day climate and cascading social and economic repercussions of centuries of poor land management decisions.
A Human Analogy
Diverse microbial communities are present not only in soils but also in human beings. Gut flora is becoming a bigger topic of discussion in our modern-day medicine as the approach to antibiotics, steroids, and other pharmaceuticals is completely analogous to industrial agriculture. Oddly enough, companies, which create GMO seeds and produce synthetic fertilizers and the toxic cocktail of pesticides, also make pharmaceuticals. When we “nuke” our gut flora through antibiotics for treatment of human ailments, we do a detriment to the good flora in our stomachs not just the pathogens. This is the same as in the soil and plant health suffers when we are working against nature to suppress. Furthermore, if a healthy gut flora is present, nutrient cycling in humans occurs and releases the nutrients
and minerals we need to stay healthy. Basic building blocks of cells like calcium are unlocked. Calcium literally gives us strength in our cells and has a cascading effect in our bodies for all sorts of cellular functions which ensures our vital organs keep ticking away. Plants also require calcium which fungi greatly aid in our soil systems to unlock. Unfortunately they are broken easily through tillage, dehydrated by the synthetic fertilizers applied which are essentially salts, and annihilated by common pesticides like copper sulfate which is even permitted in organic systems like viticulture (grape production). Thus plant health depends on a complete and diverse soil food web and as one soil scientist once said, “Insects only attack sick plants”. Parasites, fungal and bacterial infections afflict humans and plants alike when they are weakened by deficiencies. Cancer rates are skyrocketing these days and correlations between land and water use must be also viewed holistically towards human health. It is well documented that a broccoli of the modern age compared to when the rise of Industrial ag took place in the 50’s, is far less dense in nutrients and minerals including of course calcium.
Just as people are starting to realize the importance of probiotics in their diets or in supplements, so to are we in agriculture. When I lived in New Zealand working on various Permaculture projects for 18 months in 2006-07, if you went into a Pharmacy
on each counter was a clear and bold statement saying that if you were taking an antibiotic it should be followed by a probiotic. State sponsored health care was on point there. Unfortunately when you walked into the ag stores of this “clean and green” country, you did not see the same statement to follow-up the application of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides or the practice of tillage. In humans, ferments are making a huge cultural comeback in the form of kefir, sauerkraut, beet kvass, and komboucha. Local foods is meeting local microbes and these fermentation companies like Fab Ferments in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA are a wonderful addition to the community and local foods scene. These help to seed lactobacillus in our stomach, which is integral for our nutrient cycling, and preserve food thus extending the edge of local food purchases after the growing season has long ended. Thus in the soil we have the following common organic and Permaculture methods to stimulate the soil food web:
- Vermicompost (worm farming)
- Cold compost
- Hot compost
- Teas and extracts derived from these compost sources
- Plant ferments such as comfrey tea or nettle tea
- Bokashi, EM or other inoculants compost and sprays
- Mychrorhyzal inoculants (fungi)
- Rhizobium Innculants (nitrogen fixing bacteria)
- Cover cropping
- Chop and drop of trees and biomass plants
- Mulch and sheet mulch
- Infiltration earthworks, which stabilize soil systems
- Low or no till gardening after initial set up
- Diverse plantings of multistoried perennial systems including tree crops
- Rotational Grazing and general animal integration
- growth of plants in multilayered, biodiverse plantings
This is a long list and easily seen as a reflection of how nature inherently works which Bill Mollison of course patterned after in his work on principles of design. We can build redundancy into our system so that the important function of soil food web stimulation is done by multiple elements. Those elements like a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) should be managed so they not only build soil through their nitrogen-fixing qualities and rough mulch produced by chop and drop, but also possibly serve as animal fodder, fence post and firewood to name a few; each element performs many functions.
A Brief Look at the Web
While interdependent, diverse and complex it is a simple pattern much like how other food webs exist in nature. There are the basic building blocks and those who feed off of those blocks; in short the lion and gazelle or predator-prey relationships. Yes even in the soil there are voracious eaters, grazers and predators, and the microscope is our lens for this perspective. You wouldn’t watch a herd of cows from a mile distance, rather getting close to them, examining their state of being, their wastes, their moods, their pastures and other tell-tale signs allow us to alter management schemes to benefit their health. Sometimes we understand the need for immediate intervention while other signs indicate small tweaks to long-term systems. Thus here is the major players in the soil food web below in graph from which my mentor Dr Elaine Ingham helped to produce through her groundbreaking yes, very revolutionary work on soil biology:
As you can see there are many arrows and interconnections just how Permaculture systems are developed since they are modeled after ecological systems. In the pages to follow we will look more at the soil food web itself and those techniques on how to stimulate the soil food web. The characters involved are quite dynamic and still largely unexplored as this is the great frontier of biological science and its understanding and spread will help to revolutionize agriculture. Our conversion from destructive agriculture to one of regeneration hinges upon this fulcrum of technology, one that can rehabilitate on a grand and minuet scale.
Written by Doug Crouch
Header art by Sien Verpoest