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Farmers get introduction to soil biology at conference
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
WEYERS CAVE, Va. (Dec. 16, 2014) — Dr. Elaine Ingham didn’t pull any punches when speaking to an overflowing auditorium of farmers and food enthusiasts at the 2014 Virginia Farm to Table Conference on Dec. 2-4.
She started off with the basics — “soil is living” — and quickly ventured into the controversial.
Soon, she was telling the farmers that the chemical inputs and soil tests they’ve been using for years to improve and measure the health of what’s underfoot — are basically useless.
“I really have come to doubt that (soil tests) are useful at all,” Ingham said, noting that labs can use hundreds of different extracting agents and get varied results.
A woman in the audience gasped and said loud enough for others to hear, “She just trashed the whole soil industry.”
Chris Lawrence, cropland agronomist with USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, warned that Ingham’s in-depth, daylong presentation on soil biology might come across as controversial — even revolutionary — to this mixed audience of farmers mostly from Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.
“Some of you are going to pick up on things that are very different from what you had in mind.”
“This is from a soil biologist’s perspective,” he said as he introduced the world-renowned speaker on soil health, whom he described as “a genius” in her field.
Producers attending day two of the three-day conference had to choose between Ingham’s full day of instruction on soil health and the more traditional conference offerings taking place across the hall at the Robert E. Plecker Workforce Center at Blue Ridge Community College.
While representatives from food-oriented nonprofits and businesses attended panel discussions on scaling up the local food movement and succeeding in value-added agricultural businesses, the majority of farmers packed into an auditorium to take a closer look at their soils.
This wasn’t the first time farmers had been challenged to reconsider their practices as they relate to the soil. NRCS launched a national initiative two years ago to sharpen its focus on soil health by encouraging broader uptake of practices like no-till and cover crop farming.
But Ingham’s presentation seemed to up the ante, daring farmers to eschew traditional soil tests, buy their own microscopes and participate in creating better soils (mostly by adding organic compost).
Anthony Beery, who manages 475 acres of crops for a dairy and poultry operation in Rockingham County, Va., said during the presentation that the practices Ingham was espousing would constitute an entirely new approach on his farm.
“The farm-to-table people are probably right on board with it. But, for commercial farmers, it doesn’t really fit our paradigm,” said Beery, whom NRCS has held up as an example of a farmer who’s improving his soils with a dozen years of no-till and, more recently, cover crops.
But Ingham’s suggestion that farmers could wean themselves off of chemical inputs entirely by studying their soils, adding compost at the right moments and improving the soil biology — versus adding nutrients like nitrogen she says are already present in abundance — constitutes a quantum leap for many farmers like him.
“I don’t disagree that all the nutrients are in the soil. But how do you get them plant-available at the appropriate time?” Beery asked after the first half of Ingham’s course that day.
That afternoon, Ingham explained how farmers could transition their practices over the course of a year or two by slowly “putting the biology back.”
She suggested they take their own soil samples, add water and study them under a microscope.
She said these practices helped achieve annual improvements in yield while continuously growing corn on acreage in Colorado.
Showing PowerPoint slides soils under microscope, Ingham primed the audience on what to look for, pointing out the thread-like fungi and dot-like bacteria that must be present to combat disease and make nutrients available to the plants.
Many of the farmers took handwritten notes and took down the contact information for local advisers who work with Ingham and can help them conduct these tests at their operations.
The daylong soil course was interspersed with short presentations from local farmers who have seen what improved soil health can accomplish at their operations.
Daniel Austin with Green Sprig Ag in Franklin County, Va., shared about seeing corn and silage production nearly double after using several rounds of cover crops to “supercharge the soil” as a consultant.
“I’m just a farmer, but what we’re seeing is improved soil health,” he said.
Beery said after the conference that Ingham’s presentation was the first he’d heard detailing the “life in the soil” in quantifiable terms and specific microorganisms. Though still skeptical, he plans to follow up by using her practices on a test plot and reaching out to a local consultant.
More information on Ingham’s work can be found at www.soilfoodweb.com.