Harvest Moon hosts renown ‘Soil Doctor’ for soil sciences workshop
Reprinted with permission from
The Sentinel Courier, Pilot Mound MB
Vol. 123 No. 26, July 3, 2012
Don’t feed your plants, feed the soil. Rather, feed the soil microbiology. This is the prescription from the Soil Doctor, Doug Weatherbee, who was at the Harvest Moon Learning Centre in Clearwater MB June 23–25 teaching an intensive 3-day workshop on soil microbiology, his passion and expertise.
Weatherbee, a Canadian expat now living in Mexico, has worked and studied with the best in modern ecological design and science. His certification as a Soil Foodweb Advisor comes from the company begun by Dr. Elaine Ingham. Soil Foodweb Inc. champions a different style of farming being tested on large-scale farms in USA, Mexico and elsewhere, which is based on feeding the soil microbiology, not the plants being grown. Doing this cuts input costs by up to 90%, stops runoff completely, increases yields and can be made with materials on the farm, without synthetic chemicals.
The workshop had participants learning about the soil food web, the network of soil organisms starting with the photosynthesizing plant and via its roots into the microscopic underworld of soil biology, then back up to larger and larger ‘bugs’.
The group built two thermophilic (hot) compost piles, one using chicken manure collected from the Harvest Moon hens, another using cow manure from Keith Gardiner’s Clearwater farm; at the time of writing, both piles had achieved the required 55°C for killing weed seeds and plant pathogens.
The group built an aerobic compost tea extractor and studied compost tea brewer and sprayer equipment design examples, including large scale boom sprayers and precision seeder equipment retrofitted to leave a drop of compost tea in each planting hole. A look in the microscope revealed some of the microbiology present in the extract.
Deficiencies in soil microbiology, Weatherbee asserts, foster plant diseases and pathogens, and create favorable conditions for so-called weeds. By recognizing what different soil life needs as food, a farmer can formulate a soil type suited to the plants to be grown. e.g. create a more fungal environment for later succession grasses like rye and corn; at the same time, select against plant pathogens.
I spoke with Doug during the weekend to learn more about his experiences teaching others about the soil food web.
“I encounter people who say, ‘Prove it to me.’ Fair, fair question. The way I look at it, if I roll in and I’m working with someone on their farm or ranch, they have more than a right to ask me about that because it’s not my ranch or my farm that’s being bet on, here.
“So, I tend to be conservative in what I think we can achieve, and try to always have it backed up with at least a track record of similar type of situations so that we can make fairly educated guesses about [the expected benefits].
“I haven’t met a farmer yet, even one that leases, who doesn’t want to leave the soil better than when they arrived. I really haven’t. Where it gets all messy and yucky is when there is a polarization of strategies about how to fix those lands. The farmer and an environmentalist or whatever we want to call that other polarized viewpoint sort of dig in oppositional perspectives about how that should be dealt with.
“All I need to do is have a conversation that’s realistic with the farmer or rancher using their local, organic materials, where they can essentially start making their own inputs, or have that material turned into something or managed in the field in a way that creates their own fertility.
“Whether they use irrigation or they’re on dry land, just the fact that field or paddock actually becomes more of a sponge for nutrients, more of a sponge for water, is a little bit better at dealing with disease pressures that are microbial. Once that happens, there is an alignment of those so-called polarized strategies from earlier; ‘cause you’re actually dealing with ecological issues from an environmentalist perspective, let’s say, and you’re dealing with the economic issues that a farmer has.
“There is some perception of the big, bad agro-industrial complex, and it’s real, and it also has real people in it, people who I think are fundamentally afraid. I think we all are. At a certain level, we all know there’s shit coming down the line. Everyone knows that. I haven’t met anyone that doesn’t. Whenever you scrape away whatever polite conversation or giggling or whatever it is that keeps us from actually knowing that, people know that; I think we have to focus on that, whoever we are, and not get bogged down in how we think we can ‘fix’ that problem. We’ll figure that out as we go along. Right now we just need to get together and say we think things are heading down the wrong direction. We can agree on that. Now let’s have an actual conversation. It’s not an either/or. We’re trying to deal with something we all think we’re heading toward.
“I don’t need the farmers who do adopt [Holistic Management] and love doing that to think of it as an environmental issue, I just need them to do it. They may call that, today, better grass management, grass-fed beef, higher price… the way they talk about it may not be from an environmental perspective. And some day when the time is right, they’ll also talk about it that way. Because it’s embedded in the thing they’re doing. It’s already happened. The consciousness isn’t there yet.
“If I go work with a farmer and what it’s mostly about is cutting input costs and essentially getting a better net profit, if that’s the way in, we’re actually starting to do more ecological practices in the process, I don’t care if they don’t talk about it that way. I know the actual activity has embedded in it that consciousness.
“With some farmers, what’s amazing is, when you do that, then they allow themselves to actually have that consciousness. Before, what they were getting was, ‘some environmentalist, left-wing hippie-dippie coming at me telling me how to do my farming,’ and all that. Well, there’s the polarization. I’m saying, let’s try to cut your input costs, and then they’re like, ‘Wow, my soils are getting better.’ That’s a completely different process for that farmer.
“If a farmer comes to me who has a big system—some of these guys I work with have 200,000+ acres, big pivot circles—you just stand back, all I do is give them a little bit of knowledge, and they just take off. The impact they’re gonna have! I’m blown away at the scale that they work at. That’s incredible. You want to talk about hopeful? Once those guys turn onto stuff like this… And these are young guys in their 30’s, they’re just on fire about this, they’re going nuts. They go out and the first pile they compost is like 20,000 tons one time and 14,000 tons here. It’s amazing how these guys do things, they go for it, they really go for it.
“All I need is one farmer in a certain area to do it, the seed is planted. That’s all you need: for someone to do it successfully and become more profitable. Boom. It’s got a life of its own at that point, ‘cause every farmer looks over the fence.”