There is more life under our feet than we can even imagine. In fact, there’s a whole party going on there with a lot of eating and a whole lot of pooping. It’s the eating and pooping that makes for healthy soils.
So says Mike Dorion, owner of Living Soil, and the featured speaker at Grey Bruce Farmer’s Week Ecological Day. He seems fascinated with poop in the soil which may partly explain why he is also known as The Compost ‘Kid’.
Parties in the soil, storing carbon in soil and OMAFRA’s new grand plan for soil health made up a comprehensive look at soil health at Ecological Day.
It began with Dorion whose entertaining approach made soil health fun, easy to understand and invited listeners to join the bandwagon toward preserving, protecting and even regenerating this most necessary of earth’s structures.
There’s a complex symbiotic relationship going on between plants and the microorganisms in the soil.
Protozoa seemed to be a favourite with Dorion saying these cellular beings are pooping predators. Bacteria and fungi are critical to soil health. The bacteria decompose nutrients, the fungi absorb nutrients but it’s the protozoa eating both and releasing this energy via soluble poop that allows plants to access this energy.
“We need predators for this release. Protozoa can eat five to 10 thousand bacteria a day. They take what they need and when they are full what do they do? They poop! And they poop in a form that is soluble,” says Dorion who runs his Living Soil business in Alberta.
Add in nematodes to the soil party. They are microscopic worms that cruise around and nibble on bacteria, fungi and protozoa. What do they do? They poop! This adds more soluble material for plant roots to absorb.
Just as live plants need the microorganism, these organisms need plants. When we harvest those plants or they go into dormancy during winter, the organisms need another food source and that’s where organic matter comes into play, says Dorion.
“Organic matter becomes their condos, their homes, their malls. That’s where they hang out!”
Also hanging out at the soil party are earthworms.
“These guys are powerful. They pull up mass from below to bring up, and then take from above to bring below,” says Dorion. Great aerators, earthworms create tunnels that roots can follow to get deeper into the soil. These same tunnels allow the soil to absorb more water while the worm castings are rich in nutrients.
“They take one unit of calcium and poop out seven,” says Dorion. “They are incredible alchemists.”
He asked the audience to remember when farmers would till their fields with great flocks of birds following the tractor.
“You don’t see that now because the birds know there isn’t a food source there anymore,” said Dorion.
From earthworms, Dorion moved to insects such as ground beetles, sow bugs, oratid beetles, ants and millipedes.
These insects do fine work transforming organic matter into natural plant fertilizer. They make excellent “employees” said Dorion.
“Insects don’t sleep. They don’t take days off. They don’t take smoke breaks. They are excellent employees,” he said.
When plants join the party, the more diverse the crowd, the better.
“Every time we bring in a different plant it increases the diversity of the soil microorganisms and the more diversity, the larger numbers, the more energy is created to feed the plants,” said Dorion.
Next, he says it’s time people join the party. “Ever dig a hole in your field? You should. If you buy land, dig a hole and look at the layers. See what you are working with,” said Dorion. “I think it should be a monthly event. Dig a hole, invite your friends, have a beer and take a good look at that soil.”
For those who like to use tools, a penetrometer is a tool used to penetrate the soil and measure soil compaction.
The undies project is a fun way to get kids involved. Bury a pair of tightie whities and pull it out at the end of the season to see how much microbial action has taken place.
The goal is to encourage the natural symbiotic relationship that occurs in healthy soils.
“In its natural state, soil is full of life, from the wee guys like bacteria, fungi, and the protozoa to the larger arthropods and worms. They work in harmony with everything that grows in that soil, helping to nurture, and protect it. There is always a symbiotic relationship. When we disturb the soil this balance is broken and both plants, and microorganisms suffer,” Dorion states on his website.
He is clearly the life of the party when it comes to encouraging soil health.
Sarah Hargreaves got a bit more serious when she addressed strategies for on-farm carbon storage.
She said farmers need to farm microbes which are the key components to trapping carbon deep in our soils.
“We need to think like a microbe,” said Hargreaves. “Farmers need to feed their below-ground herd and feed them all year long.”
Hargreaves is the Farmer-led Research Program Manager for Ecological Farmer’s Association of Ontario and said farmers could be forerunners in offsetting concentrations of atmospheric CO2.
The way to do this is by trapping carbon deep in the ground via soil regeneration.
“We have come out of a time of soil conservation and data has shown that has largely failed,” said Hargreaves. “We have actually degraded our soil and now we need to regenerate it.”
The exciting part is that 1.5 to 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon can be saved in the soil globally.
The time to act is now, because soil is actually like a “leaky sink.” As carbon dioxide rises in the atmosphere, the soil becomes less efficient at storing carbon.
Plants play a role. Crop residues play a role and microbes play a role.
Scientists used to believe plants played a primary role but there’s been a paradigm shift as the relationship between plants and microbes is revealed.
“Plants use carbon to grow but the majority of the carbon is being sent down into the soil for the microbes. Fungi trade nutrients for carbon,” explained Hargreaves.
When they receive the carbon and do their work with litter, decaying leaves, crop residues and detritus, the microbes make soil compounds themselves. They leave residues which form stable compounds of organic matter.
“Microbes can even change sand into something with structure and life in it,” said Hargreaves. “The ability of microbes to create soil themselves is very exciting.”
Moreover, the microbes stabilize the carbon in soil aggregates. Meanwhile, the aggregates they have created give good soil structure, aeration, water infiltration and resistance to erosion.
Understanding this, farmers can educate themselves about the plant/microbe interaction because it’s the key to locking in carbon on their farms.
To get that carbon stored, or sequestered deep in the soils, farmers need to actually farm the soil. By that, Hargreaves means farming to feed microbes.
This involves some standard ecological practices that most farmers are already familiar with:
• keep the soil covered at all times
• maximize crop diversity
• keep live roots in the ground
• minimize soil disturbance
• use organic inputs
• capture, sink and store water
“We need to capitalize on the exudites. We need to create a buffer of plants for the microbes to feed on,” said Hargreaves. This can include perennial crops, perennial strips, alleycropping and multi-species cover crops.
“We don’t want to farm naked. No bare fields at any time of the year,” she said.
The government is jumping on board with a new Agriculture Soil Health and Conservation Strategy called New Horizons.
Andrew Barrie, Environmental Specialist with OMAFRA, said his ministry “got our butts kicked a few years ago by the environment minister. He said we were not doing enough research on soil health and he was right.”
Since then, the province created the comprehensive New Horizons document which has been circulating to agricultural agencies for input. Ideas generated from the feedback are being edited into the strategy and Barrie expects it will be released this Spring.
Four key areas to soil health are being addressed:
1) Soil Management which includes overcoming barriers to better management practices, improved tools and incentives, erosion assessments and compaction solutions.
2) Soil Data and Mapping: Barrie pulled out a soil map from the 1950s and said it’s been a long time since a comprehensive testing of soils was done in the province.
3) Evaluation and Monitoring: How healthy is our soil? How do we measure it? The strategy will pinpoint organic matter targets, farmer -based targets and create permanent soil crops across Ontario.
4) Soil Health Knowledge and Integration: This involves establishing long-term research programs, research facilities and building soil expertise among service providers.
“The changing landscape is putting tremendous pressure on our soils,” said Barrie. Back in 1955, one farm had 20 fields. Jump ahead to 1978 and it had 10 fields. In 2006, that same farm had one small pasture and those 10 fields had been combined into one big field. “That was over 50 years but that’s a dramatic change.”
As this strategy is implemented among farmers, another goal will be to partner with business, communities and any person who recognizes that healthy soil is the foundation of our planet. ◊