Introduction to Fungi

A forest full of fungi

Fungi structureAutumn is the best time for fungus lovers to walk through a native pinewood — you are surrounded with them. Not because there are more fungi, but because many of the fungi that are there all year round become more conspicuous, sending forth their familiar reproductive mushrooms and toadstools. Since they depend on moist conditions to feed and grow, autumn is an ideal time for reproduction. The familiar smell associated with autumn woodlands is all due to fungi working their way through the soil.

Perhaps because they are so hard to see, fungi have been largely overlooked in spite of their importance — without these strange and fascinating life forms, neither we, nor the inhabitants of our native forests, would survive for long.. About 69,000 species of fungi have been discovered worldwide, but it is thought that as many as 1.6 million actually exist. So in spite of the fact that fungi surround us, there could be many more to discover, even on your own doorstep.

Common questions about fungi

Q. Can I eat it?
A. Probably not. Of the 69,000 species of fungi about 250 species are considered good delicious edibles. Another 250 species can kill you– or at least make you wish you were dead. Everything else is something in between– from some that are “sort of ok tasting if there’s nothing else to eat and you’re starving in the woods” to some that are “just too bitter or taste too bad to eat,” or some that are too small or too tough to eat or that have something else wrong with them.

Q. I have lots of mushrooms on my property. What can I do with them?

A. Some people do not like mushrooms, and even want to get rid of them, but you will not hear that from anyone who knows about them. Most mushrooms are good for our soil, degrading waste products and returning them to the ground. Even more important are the mushrooms that are associated with trees as mycorrhizae. Without this mutualistic association most trees would not survive. Killing these fungi would kill the trees.

Q. How about the fungi growing in my bark mulch or wood chips? Are those important as well?
A. Most of these fungi are near impossible to get rid of without completely replacing the mulch and paving over the yard. Find a way to enjoy the fungi in your yard. Show them off to your friends or cultivate a fungus garden. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to show off something unusual in your yard?

Fungal Hyphae

Fungal HyphaeQ. Everywhere I go now I see mushrooms and other fungi. And I’ve been hearing a lot about fungi on the news. How can fungi be so prevalent in the environment?
A. Fungi are very successful organisms because of their genetic plasticity and physiological versatility. Many produce large numbers of spores that can be spread everywhere through the air. Fungi can degrade just about anything we humans can make, with the exception of some plastics and some pesticides. Fungi can penetrate even the toughest substrates with the exoenzymes produced by their hyphae. Exoenzymes are found in fungi and some bacteria. They are digestive enzymes that are secreted into the environment, where they digest the food into small molecules that can be absorbed and used by the fungus.

Q. I’ve heard about a large fungus growing underground in Michigan and a couple other large fungi in western states. Can you tell me more about this?
A. The fungi are all members of the genus Armillaria, which has become famous for its large clonal size. The original “humongus fungus” was a 37 acre underground mycelium of Armillaria gallica found in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and was reported on the front page of the New York Times and most other papers in this country in April 1992. The furor was intensified when a few weeks later some other researchers claimed they had a 1500 acre mycelium of Armillaria ostoyae in Washington State. In summer of 2000 another set of researchers claimed they had a larger fungus (2500 acres) in the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon.

Q. While splitting some wood in the evening, a friend of mine found some bioluminescent fungi (of course, at the time he did not know what it was). We live on Long Island, NY, and would like to know more about this fungi, also known as ’foxfire’.
A. Most foxfire is caused by Armillaria species. Sometimes called ’fairy fire’, foxfire is the bioluminescence created by some species of Armillaria fungi present in decaying wood. The bluish-green glow is attributed to luciferase, an oxidative enzyme, which emits light as it reacts with the compound luciferin until it is fully oxidized. It is widely believed that the light attracts insects to spread spores, or acts as a warning to hungry animals, like the bright colors exhibited by some poisonous or unpalatable animal species. Although generally very dim, in some cases foxfire is bright enough to read by.

Fungal physiology

As recently as the 1960s, fungi were considered plants. In fact, at that time all organisms were classified into only two groups or kingdoms: plants and animals. In fact, however, fungi are more closely related to animals. But they have since been awarded a well-deserved kingdom of their own.

Unlike plants, fungi do not contain the green pigment chlorophyll and therefore are incapable of photosynthesis. That is, they cannot generate their own food — carbohydrates — by using energy from light. This makes them more like animals in terms of their food habits. Fungi need to absorb nutrition from organic substances: compounds that contain carbon, like carbohydrates, fats, or proteins.

In 1969 a new five-kingdom system of biological classification was proposed. The proposed kingdom of fungi included a vast array of species, among them mushrooms, yeast, molds, slime molds, water molds, puffballs and mildews. Since then, the system of classification and the fungal kingdom have been further refined, with slime molds and water molds shuttled off to a different kingdom. Today, the members of the kingdom Fungi are also known as the “true fungi.”

Characteristics of ‘true fungi’

Generalizations can be difficult. Nevertheless, there are a few key aspects common to all members of the fungal kingdom.

Body StructureCells: Fungi are eukaryotes, just like plants and animals. This means they have a well-organized cell, characteristic of all eukaryotes. Their DNA is encapsulated in a central structure called the nucleus (some cells can have multiple nuclei). They also have specialized cellular machinery called organelles that execute various dedicated functions such as energy production and protein transport.

Fungal cells are encased in two layers: an inner cell membrane and an outer cell wall. These two layers have more in common with animals than plants. Like animal cell membranes, those of fungi are made of proteins and fatty molecules called lipids.

Fungi can be made up of a single cell as in the case of yeasts, or multiple cells, as in the case of mushrooms. The cell walls of fungi are made out of a tough substance called chitin (pronounced ‘kytin’). While chitin is similar to cellulose, which helps form the cell walls of plants, it is a different substance and is actually the same material that makes up the hard external skeletons of insects.

Structure: With the exception of yeasts, the smallest units of fungi are tiny threads known as hyphae (singular ‘hypha’). Many of these can only be seen with a microscope. Most often, the individual cells in hyphae sit right next to each other in a continuous line but they can sometimes be separated into compartments by a cross wall (septate hyphae). Several hyphae mesh together to form the mycelium, which constitutes the fungal body.

A mycelium can be miniscule: spreading though the body of a dead fly; or it can rank among the largest, heaviest and oldest living things on the planet. Such is the one in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, between 2,400 and 8,650 years old!

It is said that “the fungi are the kings of surface area,” meaning that hyphae expand their surface area in order to take in food, facilitate digestion and also to reproduce. Astonishingly, while hyphae can be tiny, there can be 100 metres of them in a gram of soil, and in a hectare (2.5 acres) of British woodland, there may be well over three and a half tonnes of fungi! If you pick up a handful of leaf litter in the forest, you are likely to expose the slightly furry looking network of fungal mycelia. While the individual threads are microscopic, there are so many of them, often clustered together, they can become visible to the naked eye.

Feeding habits: Whereas plants get their energy directly from the sun and atmosphere using photosynthesis, fungi get theirs by digesting living or dead organic matter, as animals do. Fungi obviously have no mouths or stomachs and instead they work their way through or over their food, absorbing nutrients directly through their cell walls. Nutrients with simple molecules, such as sugars, can be absorbed fairly readily. Larger, more complex molecules, such as proteins, are harder to tackle, and the fungi must then make use of various enzymes so that they are easier to absorb.

fungal life cycle with reproductionThey find their food, dump their enzymes out onto the food, and digestion takes place outside their body. These specialized digestive enzymes are known as exoenzymes, and are secreted from the tips of growing hyphae onto their surroundings. These enzymes are the primary reason why fungi are able to thrive in diverse environments from woody surfaces to insides of our body.

As a result of exoenzyme activity, large food molecules are broken down into smaller ones, which are brought into the hyphae. Cellular respiration then takes place inside fungal cells. That is to say, organic molecules such as carbohydrates and fatty acids are broken down to generate energy in the form of ATP.

Fungi have multiple sources of food. Fungi that feed on dead organisms — and help in decomposition — are called saprophytes. If a fungus derives sustenance from a live host without harming it, then it is called a symbiont or a mutualist. Lichens — fungi and algae together — are an example of a mutualistic relationship. If a fungus feeds on a live host while harming it, then it is a parasite.

Reproduction: Reproduction is a complex business for fungi. The various fungi are capable of reproducing asexually or sexually. Both processes can generate spores which, when released into a suitable environment, can give rise to a new fungal body.

Asexual reproduction occurs through mitosis, when a fungal cell divides and produces identical genetic copies of itself. In simpler, single-celled fungi like yeast, this process is known as budding. In this case, a small offshoot or bud emerges from the parent cell, slowly growing in size. The nucleus divides into two and the bud splits off once it is the same size as the parent cell. Multicellular fungi such as molds also reproduce through the formation of asexual spores. Many fungi can reproduce sexually and asexually. Under certain conditions they can send up a fruiting body without interacting with another fungus. This is asexual reproduction and has the advantage that it can happen quickly, to make the best of a small window of good conditions. The fruiting body will release millions of its microscopic spores, a tiny proportion of which will germinate.

Sexual reproduction enables the next generation to benefit from the genetic material of both parents, allowing it to develop new adaptations. The duration and timing of certain steps of sexual reproduction vary quite a bit between fungal species. In general, sexual reproduction in fungi produces spores through meio-sis. Hyphae from two different fungi of the same species intertwine and then send up a fruiting body or mushroom, again releasing spores, but containing genes from both parents. As a result, these spores contain half the number of parental chromosomes. Once released, the spores germinate into tree-like mycelia and are ready to “mate.” In the case of mushrooms, puffballs and toadstools, the branched mycelium (also called primary mycelium) is divided into segments containing a single nucleus. Mating takes place when two primary mycelia come into contact with one another and form a secondary mycelium. Each segment of the secondary mycelium has two nuclei: one from each original segment. The individual nuclei still have half the number of chromosomes as the parent cell. In the course of several steps nuclei fuse, giving rise to cells with the original number of chromosomes.

The fruiting body is actually made up of a collection of the same hyphae that form the mycelium, just more densely-packed. Mushrooms have a seemingly miraculous ability to appear over night as they use hydraulics to ‘inflate’ the hyphae with fluid so that they grow rapidly, and can push their way up through some surprisingly hard surfaces. Inkcaps, for example can even push their way up through tarmac! Mushrooms and toadstools, as well as bracket fungi, can protect their spores from the elements with their waterproof caps.

Whether sexual or asexual, the result of fungal reproduction is that innumerable spores are released into the air. Some species can release tens of millions of spores in a single hour. Spores from the mushroom are then carried on the breeze, often many miles from their source.

Other kinds of dispersal are also found: puffballs eject a puff of spores when a drop of rain hits the surface of their fruiting bodies, while the stinkhorn smells of rotting flesh, attracting flies which unwittingly disperse the spores on their feet.


mycorrhizae on rootEspecially intriguing are the mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal relationships are fascinating partnerships that take place when the hyphae of certain fungi wrap around, or penetrate the roots of a plant, whereupon a mutually beneficial exchange takes place. The fungus, which cannot obtain energy directly from the sun itself (as it lacks the chlorophyll found in plants), is able to obtain sugars that the plant produces using photosynthesis. In return the fungus provides the plant with vital nutrients that it extracts and transports from the soil, and that would otherwise be unavailable to the plant. Surprisingly, most of plants in virtually all of the world’s terrestrial ecosystems rely on these relationships for their healthy growth. It gives some perspective on the importance of fungi when we consider that without them the world’s forest ecosystems would collapse. Among the mycorrhizal fungi in native pinewoods are species such as the chanterelle and various Boletus species, as well as the familiar red-with-white-spots fly agaric, that grows in mycorrhizal association with birch trees.

Ants are known to live symbiotically with fungi, particularly in the tropics, with leafcutter ants farming fungi for their own consumption. Recent observations in Glen Affric suggest that wood ants possibly have similar interactions with fungi, and further investigations are required to reveal the nature of this relationship.


Fungi that feed on living things are parasites. Some parasitic fungi simply weaken their hosts, while others kill them. Examples include the aspen bracket fungus, and honey fungus, with its thick, black, bootlace-like rhizomorphs, which are effectively giant hyphae. Many of these kinds of fungi dwell within their hosts for some time before attacking and killing them.

This in itself creates superb deadwood habitat for a host of other species, from beetles and flies (the larvae of many species feed on dead wood) to crested tits and ospreys, which nest in dead trees. When a tree is killed, it also provides an opening for young trees and other plants to grow, thus enriching the structural diversity of the forest.


fungus catches nematodeWithout fungi, the forest would pile up with layer upon layer of needles, leaves and other dead matter. The fungi that feed on dead organic matter are called saprophytes. The key role of these forest recyclers is to break down dead matter and return the nutrients to the soil to become available to plants once again. Leaf litter, dead animals, dead wood – in fact, anything that dies in the forest will be colonized by fungi (along with other decomposers) and eventually reduced to soil.

The role of fungi in breaking down dead wood is especially crucial. Lignin is the substance that makes wood stiff, and it is so tough that animals cannot digest it. However, certain fungi are able to biodegrade this substance using particular enzymes, thus allowing the vast amounts of dead wood in a natural forest to be broken down.

A forest feast

The fruiting bodies of fungi provide an abundance of food for the wildlife of the forest. Squirrels store fungi in the tops of trees to eat through the winter. Voles and other rodents also gnaw on this welcome feast: their teeth marks, and the marks of the rasping mouthparts of slugs, can often be seen on the caps of mushrooms.

Fungi can be filled with life. As any fungal forager will tell you, if you pick a fungus that’s past its best, the chances are it will soon be riddled with maggots. These are the larvae of various fungal gnats and other insects. Bracket fungi such as the hoof fungus are a haven for insects and can support a mini-ecosystem in their own right. A study of the hoof fungus in Swedish forests revealed 27 insect species that live within the brackets, including various fungivorous beetles and moths.

Fungal Friendly Farming?

Mycorrhizal root tipsMost of us have experienced the power of fungi! Unfortunately, this may be when they cause diseases in our crops like Alternaria (early blight), Erysiphales (powdery mildew), damping off (Pythium, Sclerotinia, Botrytis) and Phytophthora (late blight), among many others.

Yet increasingly science is establishing that soil microbes, with fungi at the head of the list, play a vital role in enabling strong, vibrant, healthy crops via their symbiotic relationship with plant roots. Rewarded by sugary exudates from the roots of healthy plants, microbes symbiotically ‘tend’ these crops and bring them mineral nutrients, water, and an assortment of biochemical ‘medicines’ synthesized on the spot in response to specific plant signals of stress.

Can you make them work for you?

In this issue we will reveal how to make fungi a partner in your success as a grower. We will show how tillage destroys their careful networks and providing them living roots throughout the season will reward you many times over –– with bumper harvests, crop longevity, soil resilience, water storage, and better availability of nutrients you already have.

Starting with a little science about life forms and fungi, we discuss soil microbes: who they are, how they work, and how to harness them. (If you like this topic, be sure to read our book review about Lynn Margulis, the UMass researcher whose revolutionary work on bacteria and their abilities as biochemical engineers altered our understanding of all life on this planet.)

Other submissions detail ways to encourage more fungal presence on your farm, including making fungal composts and inoculants. An interview with a Massachusetts farming couple, who have raised soil microbial support to a high priority in their agricultural practices, discusses the realities of this approach in the Northeast. Other articles feature noted soil scientists, one explaining how fungi enhance human health by supplying crops with nutrients by way of intelligent membranes, another revealing new research showing the importance of no–till methods in maximizing the presence of vitamins and anti–oxidants in our crops.

We hope you are inspired by this issue to learn more about the fascinating world of soil and how we farmers, as the primary managers of so much of it, can bring its miracles more into harmony with the way humans use this planet.

The Role of Mycorrhizal Fungi in Regenerating Healthy Soils and Agricultural Productivity

Mycorrhizal Fungiexcerpted from an interview with Future Directions International

FDI: Why do we need to investigate and discuss these relationships?

The productivity of natural vegetation, particularly on old leached soils, is fundamentally dependant on a range of microbial symbioses between mycorrhizal fungi and the roots of plants. This enables flora to access limited essential nutrients from soils to sustain their productivity, diversity and resilience. Through years of industrial farming and fertilizer overuse we have impaired these symbioses and, with that, the ability of plants to sustain their nutrition and productivity.

Only by restoring these symbioses, specifically the mycorrhizal fungi that govern much of the availability of essential nutrients from soils, can we regenerate degraded agricultural soils and landscapes. Leading farmers are refining practical approaches to do this to improve yields, root growth, carbon and moisture retention and the nutritional integrity of their crops. These outcomes are being achieved without the need for expensive fertilizer inputs. The extension of such approaches through farmer groups will be critical to the regeneration of agricultural soils and landscapes and their capacity to produce food with nutritional integrity.

FDI: What are mycorrhizal fungi?

Mycorrhizal fungi proliferate throughout most natural soils and colonize the roots of most plants to form an extensive microbial interface. These fungal-plant-soil interfaces are often critical for the solubilization and uptake of essential, otherwise un-available, nutrients to aid the growth and health of that plant.

Although we cannot see them directly, we have identified two main types: ecto-mycorrhizae, common on some trees, and endo-mycorrhizae or arbuscular mycorrhizae (AM), common on 98% of all other plants.

FDI: Do these fungi have a history of being used or applied by man to regenerate soils?

Until recently, we have not had to do this as they were naturally and nearly universally present. We took them and their critical role in supplying nutrients for our food and bio-systems for granted.

Their essential need and role, however, became apparent when, for example, we sought to introduce exotics such as pine trees into new lands and could not do so unless we also introduced their essential mycorrhizal symbionts. The same applies for most introduced fruit trees and crops.

Introduced grain crops mostly relied on forming mycorrhizas from the native grass AM fungi. While some crops do not rely on, and may suppress these mycorrhizal fungi, the nutrition and growth of 98% of plants and bio-systems in nature depend on these fungal symbiotic associations.

The extension of industrial agriculture over the past 60 years, however, has significantly impaired the level and activity of these fungal symbioses. This was because of high inputs and soil disturbance through cultivation, soil carbon oxidation, excessive fertilizer use, biocides, fallows and irrigation.

This loss accentuated our dependence on high fertilizer inputs to sustain agricultural productivity. The degradation of our soil structures, their productivity and soil and plant health has, in turn, accelerated. We are now losing over 10 million hectares of critical crop soils globally, per year, to erosion and degradation.

We need to regenerate these soils urgently if we are to provide food for a growing world population and reverse the ongoing serious degradation of most of our 1.5 billion hectares of cropping soils. We can do this, but only as nature did, by restoring these natural processes that govern the formation, nutrition and productivity of these soils. Restoring these fungal symbioses is central to achieving this.

FDI: Does the average farmer accept that their soil and farm productivities are declining?

Absolutely. Most know this, and many are desperate as they often do not know what they can do. While the conventional response has been to add more inputs, this has accelerated degradation and threatens the viability of many farms.

An innovative minority, however, is quietly refining local solutions out of necessity and passion, which challenge this status quo. These solutions need to be documented so they can contribute, where relevant, to other local groups so they, too, can plan strategies to regenerate their soils and landscapes and revitalize our farming communities.

These innovative farmers are demonstrating that they can markedly enhance their resilience and thus lower inputs and financial risks. These efforts secure their viability both on-farm and regionally. The outcomes speak for themselves and hopefully will catalyze a tipping point for regenerative change.

FDI: What advantages and significance does it have for agriculture?

The restoration of the natural mycorrhizal symbioses can deliver major benefits to agricultural land and the societies that depend on them. They still underpin the health of most of the natural bio-systems.

Soils, agriculture or their dependent civilizations could not have evolved or have been sustained without these natural fungal symbioses; neither could soils have sequestered nor stored their vast quantities of stable carbon that they did up to the start of industrial agriculture.

This carbon ‘sponge’ was fundamental in the ability of soils to retain rainfall and sustain green plant growth over much of the land surface. Much of the planet’s hydrological dynamics would be impaired without this sponge, compromising their critical natural function in cooling the planet.

While we take them for granted, our food and existence relies absolutely on these fungal symbioses. Hence, our recent impairment of them due to industrial agriculture has serious consequences including:
• The degradation of our soils and their productivity.
• The oxidation of vast quantities of soil organic matter as CO2 emissions.
• The impairment of local hydrological cycles and the desertification of over 30% of the former vegetated land surface.
• The marked decline in the nutritional integrity of our food and thus the health of the animals and humans that depend on that food.
• The impaired resilience of our agricultural systems to stress and diseases, requiring farmers to apply ever more expensive and degrading inputs to try to sustain yields.

As climate extremes and limits in oil and inputs intensify, these mycorrhizal symbioses will be fundamental in re-designing a viable agricultural outcome for food production, nutritional integrity and health, social stability and our future.

FDI: How are these fungi introduced into field soils? Can these fungi be applied to all farms and products?

As indicated, most natural soils and plants rely on and thus have relevant natural mycorrhizas. In new or heavily degraded soils, however, they may need to be introduced. We can do this readily and safely by taking soil or plants from areas with healthy mycorrhizal fungi to inoculate degraded or virgin soils.

It is important to note that the success of introduced mycorrhizas becoming established and active in that soil or plant often depends on how conducive or suppressive that soil is to the establishment of the fungus. Removing the suppressive soil conditions may be essential to enable either the natural or introduced mycorrhizas to be active and effective in such soils.

While mycorrhizas are critical for the natural nutrition and growth of most plants on most soils, and thus their production of plant products, a small number of plants do not form mycorrhizal symbioses with such fungi, relying instead on other organisms or root chemistries for their competitive growth.

FDI: Why do fertilizers not work on some crops? How do mycorrhizas alter this?

Fertilisers are applied to aid the nutrition and thus the growth of crops. Their effectiveness, however, relies on whether the required nutrients are available to the plant in the forms, concentrations and times when they are needed. Added nutrients may leach rapidly, vaporize or be fixed to the soil surface, making these nutrients unavailable to that plant. While some soils may contain adequate nutrients, the plants often cannot access them; their roots can only passively take up the soluble nutrients within and from the soil solution and not those on the soil surface.

Mycorrhizal plants operate through fundamentally different nutrient uptake processes. In these plants, mycorrhizal hyphae (microscopic fungi fibres) proliferate through large volumes of soil. Through this process, fungi actively dissolve and selectively absorb the nutrients that they and the plant need in exchange for sugars from the plant. The mycorrhizal hyphae can also take up water and soluble nutrients from the soil solution at levels that are well beyond those possible by non-mycorrhizal plants, even under arid conditions.

These selective uptake processes enable mycorrhizal plants to colonize and grow in soils that would be too toxic, saline or dry for the same plant without this selective nutrient uptake capacity.

FDI: What results have you seen in the application of mycorrhizal fungi in farm trials so far?

Farmers have recorded many important benefits from the application of mycorrhizal fungi. Through improving plant growth, carbon sequestration and the proliferation of roots and hyphae, the soil surrounding mycorrhizal plants often contains far more moisture to depth than in non-mycorrhizal plants. This increase in the infiltration and retention of rainfall often aids the longevity of green growth in mycorrhizal plants and thus their productivity and resilience to stress.

These growth responses in mycorrhizal plants often result despite the plants receiving far lower or no nutrient additions i.e. fertilizer inputs. These enhanced natural nutrient uptake processes ensure that mycorrhizal plants mostly contain the full range of essential nutrients, at optimal levels, from the soils. Fertilized plants, by contrast, frequently have excess levels of the few added nutrients but very low levels of the over 30 macro and micronutrients essential for the health of that plant, our food and our health.

Individual farmers have saved up to 70% of their former nutrient input costs through these practices. Mycorrhizal plants can also grow on soils with levels of, for example, aluminum toxicity that would kill non-mycorrhizal plants.

Yield data also confirm that the mycorrhizal plants, due to their enhanced longevity of green growth, consistently filled more seeds in the heads of wheat than non-mycorrhizal plants. These seeds also showed improved levels of starch, protein and other nutrients.

FDI: When can farmers expect to see benefits from mycorrhizal fungal applications?

Farmers can expect to see benefits from the mycorrhizal treatments within days through the improved emergence of healthier seedlings and subsequent enhancements in the growth of these plants.

Mycorrhizal plants without fertilizer may not grow as fast as heavily fertilized control crops as they are initially investing more of their sugars in their extensive root and soil interface. They are, however, far less prone to frost, drought, disease and stress, sustaining their longevity of green growth to produce higher quality with often greater yields.

Improvements in soil structure, carbon, moisture and stability can often be observed as a result.

Industry factors, such as marketing and financial pressures, currently sustain high input farming systems. As leader farmers use and observe the performance outcomes of natural regenerative systems, others will adopt these practices.

FDI: Can we apply this on a broad scale to regenerate soil health across, for example, an area like Western Australia? What and how long would it take?

WJ & PL: The issue is not can we, but that we must urgently and extensively restore such natural soil ecologies. This is integral if we are to regenerate healthy soils and bio-systems and sustain agricultural outputs in the face of increasing land degradation, climate extremes, demand and input stresses. Just as lead farmers are doing, we need to extend the adoption of such profitable innovative approaches, with their lower inputs and risks to their peers, through local regeneration groups throughout Australian agriculture.

Making these changes, however, requires more than simple textbook prescriptions. Farmers and groups need to diagnose what are the key limiting factors in their soil-plant interface and viability and plan how to use relevant natural processes to help overcome them through practical, commercial strategies. They may need access to local mentors and relevant specialists to help refine and implement them.

Some 50 to 100 relevant skilled specialists could fundamentally and rapidly introduce such changes. The savings in input costs, reduced risks of crop failures, increased resilience and natural soil capital improvements would more than offset the cost of such specialist soil health and mentoring support.

FDI: How can we spread this knowledge among farmers?

We have an urgent challenge not just to re-inform farmers of these soil health issues but to help refine and implement practical regeneration strategies relevant to local conditions. Local regeneration groups, case studies, relevant specialist scientific and mentor support and supportive financial and market conditions are all important to effect the critical urgent changes.

By documenting these processes and their outcomes, it should be possible to encourage other farmer groups and innovative regeneration strategies. We have the science, the skills, the successful processes and the imperative to regenerate our soils. While there will always be more to know, we can learn and advance this best through local farmer groups who can identify, implement and document practical commercial solutions to specific soil and land regeneration challenges.

Most of all, the wider community needs to understand what leading farmers know: nature is clearly telling us that our current industrial agricultural system is unsustainable and is degrading our soils. We need to change. Our unique natural landscape can show us highly effective, profitable and safe ways to make this change, including the use of mycorrhizal fungi as outlined above. We can and must face these realities and act through sustainable options. The question is: will we have time?

Key Points

• A type of fungi known as ‘mycorrhizal fungi’ forms an integral link between 98 per cent of the world’s flora and their soils, which assist plants in accessing limited essential nutrients.

• Over the past 60 years industrial agricultural practices, such as the overuse of agricultural inputs, have significantly impaired these natural processes, contributing to widespread degradation of global cropping soils and a decline in the nutritional integrity of our food.

• These practices are unsustainable; high inputs, combined with the effects of climate change, threaten the financial viability of many farms.

• An innovative minority of farmers in Australia are applying mycorrhizal fungi into their soils with minimal inputs, and are witnessing encouraging results in improved crop yields, nutritional density and longevity of green growth.

• Mycorrhizal fungi will be fundamental in re-designing a viable agricultural outcome for the future of food production and our health and social stability.

Walter Jehne is a retired scientist with a specialist background in soil microbiology and plant ecology who has worked in Australia and overseas, including for CSIRO. He is now part of two not-for-profit groups, Soils for Life and Future Directions International, which foster solutions for the regeneration of Australia’s landscape and the development of the agricultural and pastoral sectors of Australia

Phil Lee has many years working experience on his family farm in Southern WA. He began developing an interest in soil microbiology in the early 1990s and is now helping farmers to improve the soil quality of their farms across the state.

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd. www.futuredirections.org.au

How to Make Bokashi, a Nutrient-rich Fertilizer

Bokashi is a traditional agroecological technique first developed in East Asia and now utilized extensively across Asia and Latin America. Like compost, bokashi is the product of microbial breakdown of organic matter from waste. The main components of bokashi include manure, soil, and carbon-rich agricultural byproducts, such as rice hulls and bran. Unlike compost, bokashi processing makes use of anaerobic microbial processes, in addition to those that are aerobic. These partially anaerobic conditions coupled with energy-rich organic matter allow for the accelerated breakdown of organic matter in bokashi. While composting often requires extended maturation times, frequent aeration and hydration, and large spaces, bokashi matures in approximately two weeks and is made in smaller piles for simpler management. The maturation stage of bokashi fosters beneficial microbial growth, breaks down nutrients to bioaccessible forms, and processes materials so that they no longer attract pests

Several studies support the benefits of bokashi on soil fertility and plant growth, including my own research on the efficacy and nutrient composition of different types of bokashi. In line with other studies, I have observed heightened crop growth of cucumber and kale plants and I have quantified increased amounts of ammonium—a plant-available form of nitrogen—over the bokashi maturation process (Figure 1). Moreover, I experimented with different ingredients and found no significant differences in bokashi quality made with variable starting ingredients. These findings reaffirm not only bokashi’s prowess and sustainability as a fertilizer that diverts waste streams, but also its flexibility as a product. In other words, bokashi can be made from a variety of ingredients that may be adapted to what is available and accessible, without compromising its efficacy as a fertilizer.

Make Bokashi

Figure 1: Visual comparison of plant growth across treatments. (a) Kale and (b) cucumber plants following three weeks of growth in soils amended with (1) bokashi-charcoal, (2) compost, (3) no amendment

Here, I present best practices for making bokashi based on my research and experiences.

How to make bokashi

Step 1: Find a space — You will need to find some space that is sheltered from rain, but also well aerated to prevent buildup of smells and heat during the bokashi maturation processes. Moreover, you should have sufficient room to mix your pile. You can control the size of your piles, recognizing that larger piles retain more heat but require more effort to turn and homogenize. I have made bokashi on concrete flooring in a shed, as well as on a tarp upon a table-top in a greenhouse.

Step 2: Gather ingredients and materials — While the amounts and identities of the ingredients that go into bokashi are adjustable and may vary, the types of ingredients and process for making the fertilizer remain relatively consistent. You will need manure, carbohydrate, soil, and added microbes. Manure provides a rich source of nitrogen and phosphorus, as well as other nutrients, and you can use virtually any animal manure. Chicken manure typically contains the most nitrogen. The carbohydrate serves as a food source for the microbes that breakdown the ingredients, releasing bioavailable nutrients. Examples of carbohydrate sources include rice bran, corn flour, and potato bran, but you can experiment here!

Moreover, it is common to add dry rice hulls as a medium for microbial growth as well as to control moisture. The rice hulls can also be smoked into charcoal (similar to biochar), to further improve aeration and potentially also increase soil pH, if needed. Rice hulls may be smoked by building a simple smoker from a metal pipe with holes on the side, starting a fire inside the chimney, and surrounding the sides of the metal with rice hulls (Figure 2). Any type of soil can be used for making bokashi. The soil contains nutrients, provides a pH buffer, and gives bokashi a soil-like structure that makes it easy to apply.

Finally, you should add some sort of microbe starter culture. This starter could be baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) mixed in molasses for an immediate food source, or you could collect a diverse body of indigenous microorganisms (IMOs). IMOs are collected from soil—and it is recommended you use soil from forest understory because they will likely contain a wide range of decomposing microbes, especially fungi—and then cultivated before adding as an ingredient for bokashi.

To collect and cultivate IMOs, put balls of cooked rice into a plastic bag with soil, and leave the bag opened in a warm, shaded place. Alternatively, you could bury a wooden box with rice in it under ground. After a few days, you will observe growth on the rice. It is recommended that you collect the white/yellow colonies, and avoid any blue/green growth, which could be signs of unfavorable putrefaction. Put these microbe-covered rice chunks into a glass jar with some crude sugar, shake and close the jar. After a few days, you will see liquid produced. Transfer the concoction to a pile of equal parts soil and carbohydrate, and mix the pile. Next, add just enough water to be able to make a ball of the material in your hand without too much water dripping off, but enough water to hold the ball. This technique is an approximation for about 60% moisture, and is the same to be used for adding water to the bokashi piles. Lastly, cover the pile and mix it daily for about a week. Then uncover the pile and mix it daily until it dries. Store the IMO product in an open bag and add a few handfuls to your bokashi ingredients.

Figure 2: (A) Rice husk smoker and (B) smoked rice husks.

Figure 2: (A) Rice husk smoker and (B) smoked rice husks.

Between all the ingredients you use—particularly the manure and soil—you will likely already have collected a diverse selection of microbes, but intentionally adding some will better guarantee that you have included microbes that can work in anaerobic environments. Ash, lime, and compost have also been added as ingredients in bokashi to increase soil pH or add more organic matter.

You can decide the ratio of your ingredients. I have made bokashi with an 8:3:1:1 ratio of manure to soil to bran to rice hulls, but I have also made bokashi with a 2:2:1:1 ratio of those ingredients. When deciding the ratio you want to use, consider how much of these ingredients you have available and the fact that the more manure may carry more nitrogen into your finished fertilizer. Also, you will also need a tarp, blanket, or some type of cover to keep your pile covered and promote partially anaerobic conditions.

Step 3: Combine ingredients — Combine each of your ingredients and mix to homogenize as much as possible. You may want to sieve the manure first to break it down into smaller chunks. Add just enough water to be able to make a ball of the ingredients in a tightly closed fist, without excessive water dripping from between your fingers. If it is too wet, add some more soil, bran, or other ingredients that would soak up some water. Only add water upon first combining the ingredients; do not add any more water at any other point in the bokashi maturation process.

Maturing pile of bokashi

Figure 3: Maturing pile of bokashi

Step 4: Turning and uncovering — Mix your bokashi pile twice in the morning (a few hours apart) for the first three days, and then mix the piles once daily for the following 10 or more days. It is important to aerate the piles so that the temperature does not exceed 60˚C and consequently selects for only thermophilic bacteria. Aerating also further homogenizes ingredients, distributes moisture, and physically breaks down bokashi ingredients. If you find that your pile is too hot, you can give it another turning. Keep the piles covered—only uncovering for mixing—for the first seven days or so, as the temperature starts to drop back down to ambient temperatures. Continue to mix the pile daily. When the pile is dry, the bokashi is complete and ready for use!

You will notice microbial growth on your bokashi, most likely after the second or third day. White growth is a good sign of thriving microbial communities. When the bokashi is ready, it should smell “earthy” and appear grayish in color. Store the bokashi in aerated bags, and keep in a cool dry place. Bokashi is best when used within a year of making.

How to use bokashi

Use approximately one handful of bokashi upon transplanting seedlings, but be sure to separate seedling roots and the nutrient-rich bokashi with a layer of soil to avoid “nutrient burn” from overwhelming the plants with high nutrient concentrations. Alternatively, you can dig a line in the ground next to plants or seedlings, fill the line with bokashi, and cap with soil. Moisture should carry the nutrients from the bokashi to the plants.

Farmers in various parts of the world laud bokashi as a low-cost, nutrient-rich, and sustainable soil amendment. I may have been the first to make bokashi in Massachusetts, as I turned steaming piles of the fertilizer in a greenhouse on a college campus in the winter, so it can be done. All you need is a few ingredients, a dry spot, and a bit of creativity.

Mycorrhizae-Compatible Plants

Approximately 95% of the world’s plant species form mycorrhiza and require the association for maximum performance in the field.

Endomycorrhizae—also referred to as Vesicular Arbuscular Mycorrhizae (VAM)—symbiotically associate with about 90% of the plant kingdom. Their origins date back 350–460 million years and were important in the colonization of land by vascular plants. Endomycorrhizae form an intercellular attachment by penetrating the cell wall of plant roots and forming branched structures called arbuscules within the root cells. These arbuscules provide an extensive surface area for the exchange of nutrients through the cell membrane. Mycelia from endomycorrhizae extend from the plant roots into the surrounding soil, gathering nutrients and water bringing them back to the plant’s roots.

Crop Tillage, Microbes, and Their Impact on Human Health

Dr. Kris Nichols

Dr. Kris Nichols, previously at Rodale, is principal of KRIS (Knowledge for Regeneration and Innovation in Soil) Systems, an education and consulting company focused on regenerating soil as a foundation to an agrosystems approach toward resilience. It is devoted to healthy crops, food, animals, and a vital planet.

Everyone has heard the Hippocrates quote: ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.’ Most people nod sagely at such advice, as if it reflects some inner wisdom. Did we not, after all, evolve eating simple foods from nature and did we not have adequate eons to adapt our metabolisms to natural food — incorporating the means of creating key nutrients that were not available to us in our food (humans synthesize 11 of the 20 standard amino acids and get the rest in our foods), and losing the capability of creating others because they were so prevalent in our foods (our human ancestors lost the ability to synthesize Vitamin C, as can dogs and cats, because — so theorizes Linus Pauling –we outlived the need to do so by spending tens of thousands of years eating Vitamin C-rich fruits in trees, before being driven by drought to make a new living on the now treeless African veldt.)


Yet the more scientists research food-borne nutrients, the clearer it becomes that while plants and animals are their bearers, such organisms are not their creators. The B vitamins, for which your mother told you to eat certain foods, are a case in point. For vitamin B12, for instance, we are told to eat meat, milk, eggs and fish. Yet the only organisms to produce vitamin B12 are certain bacteria, and archaea (single celled organisms without even a nucleus). Some of these are found in the soil around the grasses and other plants that animals eat; they are taken into the animal, proliferate, form part of their gut flora, and continue to produce vitamin B12. Just a little more than ten years ago the final pathways of this synthesis were found by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Still unclear are the reasons B12 is made. Soil microorganisms don’t require B12 to survive, and the plants they attach themselves to don’t need it either. More than 30 genes are involved in vitamin B12 synthesis, and “that’s a lot [for bacteria, and archaea] to carry around if you don’t need to make it,” said Graham Walker, MIT professor of biology and senior author of the 2007 research paper exploring the B12 pathway. The same for vitamin B6. It is a potent anti-oxidant involved in more bodily functions than any other nutrient. Animals have lost the ability to make it, yet it is synthesized by many soil bacteria, such as Rhizobium leguminosarum, and fungi, such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae and Candida utilis.

Another interesting vitamin is Ergothioneine, a uniquely powerful and versatile antioxidant. The fact that humans have a transporter for it (a membrane protein involved in moving it across a biological membrane) in the key cells and tissues that are highly sensitive to the forces of aging — principally inflammation and free radical damage — indicates that ergothioneine protection in those cells is important to their survival. Over sixty years ago Cornell researcher Donald Melville found that ergothioneine was synthesized by fungi and transferred to oats grown in soil associated with those fungi.

Dr. Emmanuel Omondi

Dr. Emmanuel Omondi trims oat plants serving as control weeds in Shade Avoidance study at Rodale Institute greenhouse in summer 2016.

Now researchers Kris Nichols and Emmanuel Omondi, when they were working at Rodale Institute, have found that the level of ergothioneine in crops is dependent on the farming practices, particularly tillage, used to grow them. Excerpts from their 2017 Farming Systems Trial (FST) Project Report tell the story:

For the last 38 years, Rodale Institute has been conducting a side-by-side analysis of organically versus conventionally grown grains in their FST. Data on soil health parameters, yields, profit, energy input, and carbon sequestration have revealed organic agriculture to have a higher profit, lower energy input, better soil health, and less carbon emissions overall when compared to conventional farming methods.

During the 2016 growing season, research on the Farming Systems Trial (FST) was expanded beyond annual crop production to identify new techniques for managing weed pests, include an in-depth analysis of nutrient density in oats grown in 2014 and examine the links between soil health and human health.

In 2016, a new objective, to evaluate the impacts of management practices on the nutritive quality of food, was pursued. This was made possible by a decision in 2014 to plant all 72 plots of the FST to oats in order to reset the trial and update upcoming rotations to reflect current agricultural trends to address pest, disease and fertility issues. This provided an excellent opportunity to compare nutrient quality between the organic and conventional grain cropping systems in the same crop without confounding variables from different rotational crops. The project examined nutrient density measured as antioxidant content, vitamins, proteins, and minerals and linked this to farm management practices and their influence on the health of the soil.

Studies have shown that nutrient density of crop produce has been declining at rates between 10 and 50% over the last several decades. The decline has been attributed to modern agricultural technologies that have tended to focus on productivity in terms of crop yield at the expense of nutrient quality. The decline has also been attributed to degradation of soil from which crops are grown, mostly due to agro-chemical based conventional farming methods that are associated with decline in soil quality, decrease in water infiltration, increase in nitrogen leaching and ground water contamination, and depletion of soil nutrients. Reduction in nutrient availability in food crops calls for increased consumption of plant produce to obtain adequate nutrition, often leading to nutritional disorders.

Rodale’s research work on evaluating food nutrient density differences between different agricultural practices led to the establishment of a partnership be-tween research scientists at Rodale Institute with those from Penn State University Medical School and Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Penn State scientists have been undertaking extensive research on the naturally occurring amino acid ergothioneine (ERGO), a strong antioxidant capable of mitigating oxidative stress and chronic inflammatory diseases. ERGO is acquired exclusively through the diet and has been shown to accumulate in various cells and tis-sues of the human body such as red blood cells, bone marrow, liver, kidney, seminal fluid and the lens and cornea of eyes. Although ERGO has not yet been classified as an essential dietary component, its role as a strong antioxidant and potential for decelerating the aging process and mitigating advanced age-related ailments has recently gained great interest in medical science. According to Penn State medical scientists, ERGO protects developing red blood cells against auto-catalytic oxidation, suggesting that absence of ERGO in the diet may precipitate the genesis of chronic inflammatory diseases, or ERGO sup-plementation may mitigate the disease.

Recent research has revealed that ERGO is exclusively biosynthesized by fungi and mycobacteria and captured by plants through their roots. Based on previous studies showing that agricultural practices such as reduced tillage can increase microbial biomass, diversity, and activities, oat samples collected from the FST in 2014 were analyzed for ERGO concentration to test the potential role of different grain cropping systems and tillage practices on ERGO concentration. (Six systems were compared: conventional till and no-till, organic till and no-till using manure, and organic till and no-till using legumes). Results from this analysis found that tillage had a significant effect on ERGO concentration.

ERGO concentration was higher in conventional no-till and organic manure no-till systems compared to the other systems. No-till treatment in each cropping system (conventional, organic manure, and organic legume) led to consistently higher ERGO concentration than corresponding tilled treatments.

Results from this study also found very similar results with Vitamin B6 and Beta Glucans (Beta-glucans are naturally occurring polysaccharides that are constituents of the cell wall of certain pathogenic bacteria and fungi. They increase host immune defense and enhance macrophages and natural killer cell function.)

There were no statistical differences between organic and conventional systems for most of the vitamins measured. However, Vitamin B6 concentration was higher in the conventional no-till and organic manure no-till systems in a similar manner to ERGO concentration discussed above. While oat ERGO and Vitamin B6 concentration in the no-till conventional system were not statistically different from the no-till organic manure system or tilled conventional system, and while there were no statistical differences in Beta Glucans between treatments, these results indicate a trend showing reduction in these three important nutrients with tillage.

Use of herbicides to control weeds ensured that conventional no-till plots remained untilled since reduced tillage practices were introduced in FST research design in 2008. Rotational organic “no-till” on the other hand were tilled at least once every two years beginning 2008. In spite of this, however, ERGO, Vitamin B6, and Beta glucan concentration in conventional no-till plots were comparable to (not statistically different than) organic manure rotational no-till plots. This suggests that, had there been less tillage in organic no-till plots, the results may have been a lot more different.

This project has also inspired the establishment of a preliminary study to explore the potential for enriching crop produce with ERGO through fungal-crop cultures and interactions. The goal of this project is to determine mechanisms for ERGO enrichment in the soil and crops and to develop strategies to increase ERGO levels in crops to improve soil and human health outcomes. Recognizing that mushrooms are the leading sources of ERGO, tomato seedlings were transplanted into plots inoculated with mushroom spawn to test the hypothesis that mushroom culture would enrich tomato fruits with ERGO. A separate control treatment was maintained in which tomatoes were grown in non-inoculated plots. Tomatoes are being periodically harvested to determine both yield data and ERGO concentration. This project aims to determine the association between soil microbiology and soil and crop concentrations of ERGO, investigate the role of soil microbiology on ERGO production and plant uptake, and evaluate cultural methods that promote healthy soil microbiology.

Although I was convinced by the project that no-till practices, which allow fungal soil populations to thrive, can result in crops with higher levels of the beneficial antioxidant ergothioneine, I was confused about one point. I asked Dr. Nichols:

The report suggests that compounds with value in human nutrition are synthesized by soil microbes like fungi. Yet nowhere have I seen any discussion of what value those compounds bring to the microbes. Do you have any information about why the microbes might be doing this? Might the compounds work at a level so basic that any life can benefit from them, even microbial creatures? Or is there perhaps some symbiotic role they play as part of the fungal mycorrhizal relationship with plants? Or something else?

She replied:

Microbes make compounds, like ergothioneine, hydrophobins, biofilms, and glomalin, to protect themselves — particularly because they are often growing in environments in which there are many changing conditions including pressure, temperature and moisture conditions. In the soil, in the small, microsite environments where these organisms grow, there are frequent changes in water and gas concentrations. Fungi, in particular, make these different compounds because they have to grow through these differing environments simultaneously. For example, mushroom-producing fungi frequently grow in an aquatic environment below ground, but then grow into an aerial environment aboveground. Just like ergothioneine acts in animals, in fungi ergothioneine helps to protect against stressors, particularly oxidative stress, and provide cell wall integrity. It is important to note that although organisms differ in shapes, sizes and activities, their biochemical reactions and patterns are surprisingly similar.

I asked her for other examples of soil microbes performing complex chemical activities. She replied with this fascinating example of different soil organisms cooperating in a five-part arrangement to benefit them all:

Like with my answer above, research that I have conducted and studies that I have read about that others have performed have highlighted such elegantly complex, but simply repeated patterns of chemical and energy flow. One of my favorite examples of chemical wizardry and complexity involves five types of organisms: two plants – legume and non-legume, two bacteria – nitrogen-fixing rhizobium and phosphate-solubilizing bacteria; and arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. The AM fungi connect the roots of both plants and allow for mineral nutrients, water and defense responses to flow between them. The rhizobium bacteria fix nitrogen for the legume plant and some of this nitrogen can also be transferred through the AM fungi to the non-legume plant. The AM fungi will trade this nitrogen for carbon (i.e. food). This process requires the rhizobium to fix more nitrogen because it now needs to satisfy the needs of two plants.

But this process of nitrogen fixation is very energy-intensive and requires the rhizobium bacteria to run the TCA (tricarboxylic acid) Cycle thirty-two times to ‘fix’ or convert one molecule of nitrogen (N2) gas into a form usable by plants. (The TCA Cycle is a cycle where a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosphate) is converted to ADP (adenosine diphosphate) by breaking the bond between one of the phosphate groups and carbon in adenosine, which releases electrons. These electrons then provide the energy needed for nitrogen fixation.)

To keep this cycle going, new phosphate groups need to be ‘fed’ into it. Therefore, to meet the increased nitrogen demand, the rhizobium has an increased phosphate demand that it passes on to the legume. The legume then increases the phosphate demanded from the AM fungi. To help address this demand, as well as the normal demand for phosphorus, the phosphate-solubilizing bacteria colonizing or living on the hyphae of the AM fungi produce enzymes to make normally unavailable phosphate (from nearby rocks or mineral deposits) available just outside of the AM hyphal wall, where it may be easily absorbed by the fungi and rapidly transported to the plant roots.

Frankly impressed with such a level of communication and cooperation, enabling all five types of organisms to get their mutual needs met, I asked Dr. Nichols:

In reviewing some examples of other microbially-created human nutrients, like vitamins, I’ve see how commonly these products are synthesized in labs and introduced into foods to ‘enrich’ or ‘fortify’ them. Do you think such man-made nutrients are identical with the biologically created ones?

She replied:

Once the chemical structure of any molecule is known, scientists typically can find a way to chemically (or in some cases biochemically) synthesize these molecules. However, some of the things researchers are learning are how the gut microbiome processes these molecules. This research is indicating that there may be other co-factors or biomolecules that are provided in our food (when this food is naturally ‘fortified’ by being grown in regenerated soil with an active, diverse microbial community) to assist the gut microbiome in making these nutrients bioavailable to the human body. In the case of commercially synthesized human nutrients, however, these co-factors or other biomolecules may not be present, making it more difficult for the gut microbiome to provide these nutrients to the human body.

The Role of Fungi in Plant Establishment and Growth

Figure 1: an electron micrograph of a mycorrhiza on an evergreen seedling. Mycorrhizal filaments radiate into the soil from the mycorrhiza root tip. Estimates of amounts of mycorrhizal filaments present in healthy soil are astonishing. Several miles of filaments can be present in less than a thimbleful of soil associated with vigorously growing plants. The relationship is beneficial because the plant enjoys improved nutrient and water uptake, disease resistance and superior survival and growth.

Little things run the world. This is especially true when it comes to getting plants established. Under natural conditions plants live in close association with soil organisms called mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi colonize plant roots and extend the root system into the surrounding soil.

Nearly all commercially produced plants form mycorrhizae and require the association for maximum performance in out-planted environments.

Depending on the environment in which they are growing, plants may divert up to 80% or more of the net energy fixed as sunlight to below-ground processes. Some of this energy goes into root growth; but a high proportion may be used to feed mycorrhizal fungi and other soil organisms. This is not energy that is lost to the plant. On the contrary, soil organisms living in the root zone greatly influence the ability of plants to establish through effects on nutrient cycling, pathogens, soil aeration, and soil water uptake. Of the various soil organisms that benefit plant establishment, the most is known about mycorrhizal fungi. Roughly 90% of plant species are thought to form mycorrhizae: the combination of fungal and root tissue is called the mycorrhiza and the fungal partner is termed a mycorrhizal fungus. (A list of common plant species and their compatibility with mycorrhizal fungi follows this article.)

Commercial production of mycorrhizal fungi for practical use has been available in the last decade. The importance of mycorrhizal fungi, however, has been evident for some 400 million years. The earliest fossil records of the roots of land plants contain evidence of the fossil remains of mycorrhizal fungi. Scientists now believe that the “marriage” of mycorrhizal fungus and plant played an essential role in the evolutionary step that brought aquatic plants from sea to land. At some point in the evolutionary process, a filament penetrated into the outer cells of a primitive plant root. Once there, it accommodated itself so nicely that a new, more complex entity emerged, the mycorrhiza. The increased absorbing area provided by an elaborate system of fungal filaments allowed aquatic plants to leave the marine environment and exploit a relatively harsh soil environment.

In today’s man-made environments plants can be greatly stressed and the relationship between fungus and root is critical. Unnatural conditions such as concrete, asphalt, roadsides, sidewalk cut outs, trenching, drain fields, air pollution, shopping malls, business districts, and suburban developments adversely effect the presence and abundance of mycorrhizal fungi.

Man-made environments often suffer from compaction, topsoil loss, and the absence of quality organic matter, conditions which reduce the habitat necessary for the mycorrhizal fungus to survive and thrive. Artificial landscapes affect the mycorrhizal relationship in two fundamental ways. First, they isolate the plant from beneficial mycorrhizal fungi available in natural settings and, secondly, they increase plant stress and the need for water, nutrients, and soil structure mediated by their below-ground “partners”.

How do mycorrhizal fungi work?

Mycorrhizal root systems increase the absorptive capacity of the absorbing area of roots 10 to 1000 times, thereby greatly improving the ability of the plants to utilize the soil resource. Mycorrhizal fungi release powerful chemicals (enzymes) into the soil that dissolve hard to capture nutrients such as phosphorous, iron and other “tightly bound” soil nutrients. This extraction process is particularly important in plant nutrition and explains why non mycorrhizal plants require high levels of fertility to maintain their health. Mycorrhizal fungi form an intricate web that captures and assimilates nutrients conserving the nutrient capital in soils. In non mycorrhizal conditions much of this fertility is wasted or lost from the system.

Mycorrhizal fungi are involved with a wide variety of other activities that benefit plant establishment and growth. The same extensive network of fungal filaments important to nutrient uptake are also important in water uptake and storage. In non-irrigated conditions, mycorrhizal plants are under far less drought stress compared to non mycorrhizal plants.

Disease and pathogen suppression is another benefit for a mycorrhizal plant. Mycorrhizal roots have a mantle (a tight, interwoven sock-like covering of dense filaments) that acts as a physical barrier against the invasion of root diseases. In addition, mycorrhizal fungi attack pathogen or disease organisms entering the root zone. Excretions of specific antibiotics produced by mycorrhizal fungi immobilize and kill disease organisms: for example some mycorrhizal fungi protect pine trees from Phytophora, Fusarium and Rhizoctonia diseases. In a recent University study, pine trees were purposefully inoculated with the common disease organism – Fusarium. Over 90% of the pine trees died. Only the pine trees inoculated with the mycorrhizal fungus Rhizopogon survived. Survival rates for Rhizopogon treated pines exceeded 95%.

Mycorrhizal fungi also improve soil structure. Mycorrhizal filaments produce humic compounds and organic “glues” (extracellular polysaccharides) that bind soils into aggregates and improve soil porosity. Soil porosity and soil structure positively influence the growth of plants by promoting aeration, water movement into soil, root growth, and distribution. In sandy or compacted soils the ability of mycorrhizal fungi to promote soil structure may be more important than the seeking out of nutrients.

seedling root systems

Figure 2: Maple (Acer spp.) seedling root systems. The seedling on the right was treated with a mycorrhizal root dip gel. The maple seedling on the left was an untreated control.

Does my soil already contain mycorrhizal fungi?

Soils in natural settings are full of beneficial soil organisms including mycorrhizal fungi. Research indicates, however, that many common practices can degrade the mycorrhiza-forming potential of soil.

Tillage, fertilization, removal of topsoil, erosion, site preparation, road and home construction, fumigation, invasion of non native plants, and leaving soils bare are some of the activities that can reduce or eliminate these beneficial soil fungi. In many man-made landscapes we have reduced or eliminated the soil organisms necessary for plants to function without high levels of maintenance.

Nursery grown plants available to landscape contractors are often deficient in mycorrhizae. Plants raised in most nurseries receive intensive care and feeding. The artificial conditions, high levels of water and nutrients and sterile soils at the nursery keep certain soil born diseases to a minimum and produce vast quantities of plants for sale. Unfortunately, the high levels of water and nutrients and the lack of mycorrhizae discourage the plant from producing the extensive root system it will need for successful transplantation.

The result is plants, poorly adapted to the eventual out-planted condition, that must be weaned from intensive care systems and begin to fend for themselves. Application of mycorrhizal inoculum during transplanting can encourage plant establishment and set the plant on track to feed for itself. Research studies document the need of plants to generate a mycorrhizal roots system in order to become established. Maintaining intensive inputs is necessary until the extensive root system is achieved. There are practical solutions to some of the mycorrhizal deficiencies in man-made environments and reintroducing mycorrhizal fungi in areas where they have been depleted can dramatically improve plant establishment and growth.

 root ststructure of conifer seedlings

Figure 3: ’cut-away’ view of the root structure of conifer seedlings, enhanced and extended by a network of mycorrhizal filaments. Mycorrhizal fungi are able to absorb and transfer all of the 15 major macro and micro nutrients necessary for plant growth.

A farmer, gardener or landscaper can enhance plant root growth and transplant success and ameliorate many problems that result from intensive care practices at the nursery. Plants grew and thrived on this planet for millions of years without intensive care. Nature provides the template.

A more sustainable approach to plant establishment and growth includes using mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal inoculant can be sprinkled onto roots during transplanting, worked into seed beds, blended into potting soil, watered in via existing irrigation systems, applied as a root dip gel or probed into the root zone of existing plants. The type of application depends upon the conditions and needs of the applicator. Generally, mycorrhizal application is easy, inexpensive and requires no special equipment. Typically for small plants the cost ranges from less than a penny to a few cents per seedling. For larger plants more inoculum is needed and costs are higher.

Mycorrhizal inoculants often contain other ingredients designed to increase the effectiveness of the mycorrhizal spores. For example, organic matter is often added to encourage microbial activity, soil structure and root growth. Stress vitamins improve nutrient uptake and builds root biomass. Water absorbing gels help “plaster” beneficial mycorrhizal spores in close proximity to feeder roots and encourage favorable soil moisture conditions for mycorrhizae to form and grow. Organic biostimulants, in general are effective ingredients in mycorrhizal products. By promoting field competitiveness, stress resistance and nutrient efficiency biostimulants reduce barriers to rapid mycorrhizal formation especially during the critical period following transplanting.

Mycorrhizal diversity is important

Natural areas generally contain an array of mycorrhizal fungal species. The proportions and abundance of mycorrhizal species often shifts following any disturbance. Not all mycorrhizal fungi have the same capacities and tolerances. Some are better at imparting drought resistance while others may be more effective in protecting against pathogens or have more tolerance to soil temperature extremes. Because of the wide variety of soil, climatic, and biotic conditions characterizing man-made environments, it is improbable that a single mycorrhizal fungus could benefit all host species and adapt to all conditions. For example, the types and activities of mycorrhizal fungi associated with young plants may be quite different from those associated with mature plants. Likewise, mycorrhizal fungi needed to help seedlings establish themselves on difficult sites may differ from those which sustain productivity over a long-lived plant.

Diversity likely provides a buffering capacity not found on sites with only one or few species. The diversity of mycorrhizal fungi formed by a given plant may increase its ability to occupy diverse below-ground niches and survive a range of chemical and physical conditions.

Rhizopogo mycorrhizae.

Figure 4: A cluster of Rhizopogo mycorrhizae. A single root tip colonized by the Rhizopogon mycorrhizal fungus will branch into a densely packed coral-like accumulation of many root tips. Numerous studies have shown Rhizopogon spp. is an aggressive colonizer in non-irrigated and harsh field conditions.


The lack of mycorrhizal fungi on plant root systems is a leading cause of poor plant establishment and growth in a variety of forest, restoration, agricultural, suburban and urban landscapes. As we develop holistic approaches to understanding man-made environments we must factor in the inseparable connections to soil organisms. Mycorrhizal fungi are one of the more important groups of soil organisms and play a critical role in nutrient cycling, mediating plant stress and protecting against pathogens. They are also cornerstones in the ability of plants to survive transplant shock. Plants have co-evolved mutualistic relationships with symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi such that their fitness (and sometimes survival) depends upon the healthy functioning of these fungi and vice versa. Just as plants invest tremendous capital in the form of energy to fuel below-ground soil organisms, so too we must “look below the surface “ to understand and utilize these beneficial fungi.

Dr. Mike Amaranthus spent 20 years with Oregon State University and the USDA Forest Service where he authored over 50 research papers on mycorrhizae. He is a recipient of the USDA Department of Agriculture Highest Honors Award for scientific achievement.

Pedogenesis, Soil Cathedrals, Living Membranes and Industrial Hydroponics

transcribed and edited by Jack Kittredge and Didi Pershouse, from a talk on May 12, 2018

Walter presenting at Victorian Tree Industry Organization in AustraliaPedogenesis

How did nature create Earth’s biologial system? To find out, we just go back into nature and look at all of the evidence, which is very clear. And the answer is all about pedogenesis, which means soil formation.

The Earth is basically made of “stardust.” Four and a half billion years ago, you had a supernova exploding. That dust condensed down, drawn by its own gravity, and formed into rock: our planet, with 96 natural elements that we can see on the periodic table. About 3.8 billion years ago, the first living cell arrived, probably activated by chemical and heat energy. Then 3.5 billion years ago, we think, that photosynthesis evolved. It came to life in organisms in the oceans at first, but was limited by the meager availability of nutrients dissolved in water and the more diffuse sunlight reaching life there.

Four hundred and twenty million years ago there was still no life on land, and no soil. We had oceans, and we had rock. Dry, arid, hard rock, (slowly degrading by the weathering process of wind and water, which takes 1000 years to form an inch of loose particles.) There was complex multi-cellular life in the oceans, but that life depended on nutrients leaching from the rock into the oceans. And that was the limiting factor for ocean life. Life is pretty competitive, and pretty aggressive, so straight away life said “Hey, if I can get onto that rock to solubilize nutrients, I’ll have a competitive advantage.”

So fungi, which are good at dissolving things, grew tubes of cytoplasm that reached up onto the rock from estuarine edges to solubilize nutrients. But they couldn’t really go very far, because, like us, they can’t fix their own sugars, they can’t make their own energy (only plants and algae can do that and some bacteria.) Basically the fungi needed to form a relationship, a symbiosis with something that could give them sugars to feed them while they went exploring. Of course in the ocean there were plenty of blue green algae. So these fungi and these algae got together, made a deal, and basically said “let’s form a lichen.”

(We can still see those lichens all over this planet dissolving rocks, dissolving our concrete, our wood, our cars, you name it, lichens are eating it up, biodegrading it, having lunch.)

As those lichens grew and moved across rocks, they solubilized the top layer of the rocks, and also left behind their dead cell walls. That organic detritus could hold water, so now we had the beginnings of a soil carbon sponge–mineral particles held together in a matrix with organic matter–and that made all the difference.

Because of that new spongy structure, which continued to deepen, plant life could evolve very rapidly from lichens to mosses to ferns to cycads to gymnosperms to angiosperms and–about 50 million years ago–grasses. Parallel with that plant evolution of course we had the herbivores, the insects, and everything that was feeding on those bio systems. And all of those contribute to soil formation–until you have soils that are meters deep in the prairies. Very rapidly that process of pedogenesis enabled life to extend right across the 13 billion hectares of ice-free land on this planet, and within a hundred million years we had lush deep forests, and deep organic soils, teeming with life.

Whenever we have bare mineral particles, life tries to start that whole process again, and she will, if we let her.

Making Cathedrals

ock versus soil with bedsprings

Photo by Jack Kittredge Walter illustrates his talk with wonderful evolving drawings on large note pads. Here he shows rock, on the left, composed of tightly packed minerals like phosphorus, calcium, zinc and magnesium, which weigh between 2.6 and 3.5 grams per cubic centimeter. When water (blue rainrops) met that rock it just ran off (blue arrows), with no effect, except for physical erosion – which happened at a glacial pace over geological time periods. So these nutrients were almost completely locked up and not able to support life. But as life evolved, lichens (associations between fungi and algae) began solubilizing rock minerals and the interaction between water, inorganic materials, and biological organisms was dramatically transformed. This eating away at the rock created gaps in the structure of the surface ground material. The gaps were occupied by the organic detritus left behind when lichens moved on. Jehne suggests we picture the organic detritus as “carbon bed springs” connecting the rock particles, but also preventing them from clumping back together. Instead of once again running off, the blue raindrops now penetrate. You can see that healthy soil is made up largely of voids – of nothing but air. Nature has simply taken sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water, created carbon chains and added them to the matrix, creating soil with a density of about 1.2 grams per cubic centimeter, only a little heavier than water.

So we started off with just the planet earth as a rock, and just by adding life, and its leftover organic matter, that allowed all of life on land to evolve– and in the process life created deep functional soils. How is that possible? Let’s look at what happens to the structure and function of mineral particles when life adds organic matter to it.

Without organic matter, mineral particles are packed closely together, very dense, with little or no space in between. Now life comes along, actively breaks the rock down, feeds the soil biology, and leaves organic detritus in there, and we can think of that detritus as little bedsprings between the mineral particles: they act as cements and glues, so it gives them structural integrity, but it also creates a sponge, because as those bedsprings push the particles apart, suddenly there are spaces, in the soil, full of air, and the soil grows upwards as it expands. (We know that from archeology because you have to dig down to enter the past.)

By making this change, nature has had a profound effect on that soil. By adding nothing, it has created this matrix of surfaces and voids. It is a bit like a cathedral. By having lots of bricks, and the cements or glues that can hold them together, we can make a cathedral. Now, you don’t go to a cathedral to look at the bricks, you go there to get in awe about the spaces, the voids, the nothing.

More Water Holding Capacity
This is profound. If 60% of healthy soil is voids, that soil can hold enormous amounts of water. And when it holds more water, it can extend the longevity of green growth because you have created an in-soil reservoir. Rock has a bulk density of 2.6 to 3.5 grams per cc, but a healthy soil has a density closer to 1.2 grams per cc: the same amount of minerals, but much lighter and more porous, and all those pores can fill with water when it rains.

More Nutrient Availability
We have also changed the nutrition or the fertility of that soil. Remember, the mineral portion of soil is made up of stardust: 96 natural elements. But those minerals are effectively unavailable while they are in this compact, concrete form. Things can’t get to them. As the soil expands, with more spaces in between, these surfaces open up.

Cation Exchange

Cation Exchange Cations are positively charged ions (an ion is an atom or molecule which has gained or lost one or more of its valence electrons, giving it a negative or positive charge) of certain mineral nutrients, including calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, iron and zinc. Cations tend to cling to soil particles because they are held by the difference in charge. Soils with large particles, like sand, do not have a large surface area, cannot hold many cations, and tend to have low CECs (Cation Exchange Capacities). Soils with small particles, like clay, have more surface area and thus higher CECs. When you increase the voids in soil, you give it more surface area and thus more capacity to hold cations and provide them to plant roots.

As these surfaces open up, all the nutrients become available on the surfaces. So now we have vastly increased the availability of existing nutrients. even though we haven’t changed the total nutrients at all. Eighty percent of the fertility of your soil isn’t about how many nutrients you have in it, nor about the fertilizers you add to it. It is about the availability of the nutrients you already have there. By increasing the voids in your soil, you are actually making it more fertile!

We are increasing the cation exchange capacity (CEC) of our soil, which means it can hold more of the nutrients that are held by electrostatic charges to your soil surfaces. Think of your soil as Velcro. As you increase the surface area you create more hooks to hang the nutrients on. You are retaining them in a safe way so they don’t leach out of the soil, but in a way the plants and fungi can take them off the hooks and use them.

More Space for Roots to Grow
So by creating voids in your soil you have increased its ability to hold water and to deliver nutrients to your plants. Also, you have massively increased the rootability of that soil – the capacity for roots to proliferate and grow successfully there. We have seen soils that are so compacted that roots can only grow a few inches down in them, but we have also seen prairie soils where roots can grow 10 or 15 meters deep. So now, instead of 15 centimeters of rootability, you have 15 meters – 100 fold as much. When you think of how much additional soil moisture and minerals your plant can reach, it is exponential. The productivity of the prairies grew exponentially like that for 9,000 years, since the last ice age, until we started to undo that with human management.

More Microbial Activity
By increasing the voids and the surfaces in your soil, you also massively increase the microbial activity in your soil. Microbes are living on all those surfaces, on all those roots, feeding off of all those root exudates that are available because your soil has been opened up and there are far more roots growing in it. In a healthy soil, the whole zoo of fungi, bacteria, actinomycetes, protozoa, nematodes, collembola, the whole network of organisms living below the ground is ten times the total mass of life that there is above the ground. If you think there is a cow in that pasture, look below because there are ten more there!

All that life in the soil is turning over nutrients and driving the biosystem there.

It is these four things that govern the productivity and resilience of our landscapes:
• the water stored in the soil
• the availability of the nutrients there
• the amount of roots growing through it
• and the presence of microbial life.

They enable the landscape to buffer climate extremes such as flooding, drought, heat, and winds. You don’t need a lot of carbon in the soil. Two to three per cent is enough. It is not the carbon that counts, but the cathedral that the carbon builds – that matrix, the surface area, those voids that are created.

Living Membranes

without mycorrhizal

Here a plant root is shown, on the left without mycorrhizal hyphae surrounding it. On the right, however, the hyphae are shown, illustrating the dense proliferation of this living nutrient uptake and transport system. In a healthy, living soil this system provides as much as 25,000 kilometers of hyphae in every cubic meter of soil.

Let’s talk about health.

The crucial thing about life, which goes back to the first cell some 3.8 billion years ago, is the concept of a membrane, which is the most basic form of intelligence. The first cell had an oily, filmy membrane around it, that distinguished the cell from its surroundings. We talked about stardust, the 96 natural elements that make up stardust. We’re just made up of solar energy and stardust. Every living thing on earth is made up of those, and we need most of those elements (nutrients) for our biochemistry. Scientists don’t know exactly how many nutrients we need (they add more every few years) but let’s say 50 plus is about right. We also know that there is a whole group of elements that are toxic to life.

So, back to the first cell: what was unique was the capacity of this membrane to concentrate essential nutrients. There might have been 20 parts per million (ppm) phosphorus out there, but life wanted 200 ppm inside. These cell membranes had the ability to take that phosphorus in from the primordial soup and concentrate it inside the cell. At the same time, these membranes could exclude toxic nutrients from coming into the cell. If we had 200 ppm of aluminum, cadmium, or mercury in the external environment, and only needed 20 ppm, they could do that as well. A critical aspect of life is such an ability to distinguish itself from the environment and create an internal environment conducive to its own biochemistry.

Our health is totally dependent on this biochemistry of our internal cells, which is possible because of these intelligent membranes that can concentrate or exclude elements.

Some nutrients are only needed in parts per billion, and would be toxic in higher amount, but are still vital to have. For example selenium is essential to life. If we don’t have enough, we can’t make peroxidase enzymes, and without those enzymes, we can’t kill cancer cells in our bodies. But in excess, selenium is toxic for us.

So it is these selective interface mechanisms that govern life.

living membranes

photo by Jack Kittredge At the top of the illustration a living membrane filters the primordial soup, concentrating essential nutrients and excluding toxic ones, performing a fundamental function for evolving life: letting it distinguish itself from the outside environment and create an internal one in which its chemical reactions can function. Before World War Two, Walter suggests in the lower part of his drawing, this role was taken by Nature using mycorrhizal hyphae, selecting and excluding elements to be taken up by plant roots. Since World War Two, however, industrial hydroponic methods using agricultural chemicals and fertilizers have created a soil solution which plant roots take up passively, without an intelligent biochemical interface. This enables toxins like glyphosate to enter our food.

All through the evolution of life there have been two key processes through which plants have taken up nutrients. In nature 98% of plants depend on mycorrhizal hyphae – which interface with plant roots and proliferate throughout the soil – to create a whole matrix of those sort of selective membrane interfaces. These hyphae, interfacing with the soil, are involved in the selective uptake of essential nutrients and the exclusion of toxic elements. That selective interface is a quality control system between the toxic environment and the living cytoplasm of the cells.

This hyphal interface, in a natural soil and plant biosystem is absolutely extensive. There are up to 25,000 kilometers of fungal hyphae per cubic meter of healthy soil. That is over 15,000 miles–almost twice the diameter of the Earth!! Not all soils have this. That only happens in a healthy soil.

Where you have a zinc deficient soil the mycorrhizae will be concentrating the level of zinc to give themselves–and thus the plants they are relating to–an optimum level of zinc. But if you have the same mycorrhizae and plants in a high zinc soil, they will be taking up enough but preventing any more being taken in. They are intelligently regulating those 50 plus nutrients to get the optimum amounts they need

Plants colonizing toxic soil require mycorrhizae because they have that intelligent exclusion capacity. Plants without that mycorrhizal interface will not survive the toxins. CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization: an independent Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research) did the work in the 1970s to show this. In these circumstances, natural selection will select for particular mycorrhizal fungi which can exclude those particular toxic substances. The ones which cannot do this do not survive contact with the toxins.

So nature has depended on this soil/microbial/root interface for the last 420 million years to grow plants on this planet. It is that interface that we have depended upon, up until World War II for the nutritional integrity of all our food.

Industrial Hydroponics

But if we go post World War II, we get into a totally different form of nutrient uptake. In industrial agriculture, instead of depending on these mycorrhizal hyphae as the basis of agriculture, we have used massive amounts of clearing, burning, over-fertilization, and biocide treatment (including the whole range of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, and of course bare fallow – which is like growing plants in a concentration camp). All of these things absolutely wipe out this mycorrhizal interface. If you cultivate, ultraviolet radiation will also kill these fungi. Excess fertilizers will kill them. Biocides will interfere with them, and bare fallow will starve them because there are no plants to give them sugar via root exudates.

We can call this new system “industrial hydroponics” even though we are talking about plants growing in soil. In an industrial system the soil has lost its health and these mycorrhizal interfaces are lost so we have a completely different nutrient uptake situation. We still have mineral particles, but the carbon is largely oxidized. And these mineral particles still hold our calcium and zinc and selenium by their cation exchange capacity on their Velcro hooks. But there is no longer anything to concentrate them, or regulate the quantity needed. The plant is in a totally new environment because all it can do is take up nutrients passively from the soil solution. That’s why I say this is essentially the same as hydroponics. The plant can only operate as we would if we were drinking water with a straw. It takes them up as part of a transpiration stream without any quality control whatsoever. Whatever is in the primordial soil soup goes into that plant. Plants are operating blindly, without an intelligent selective interface.

The roots are there and perform a certain function, but not in selective, intelligent uptake. The hyphae take up things through a semi-permeable membrane, actively whereas the roots are just doing so passively. When roots take up nutrients they don’t go into the cytoplasm of each cell, but just go directly into the xylem vessels in the roots as a transpiration stream.

So the soil solution doesn’t get taken up across the cytoplasmic membrane from one cell to the next to the next. There is simply a straw that is taking up volumes of water without that biochemical interface. The nutrients are still available on the CEC surfaces, but there is nothing to take them off.

Now, instead of the proper balance and ratio of nutrients, we have whatever is in the soil solution. We have our nitrates, our sulfates, our sodium, chlorine, aluminum, lead, cadmium, etc. We get all these anions and cations that don’t exist so much on the cation exchange level but are in the soil solution.

If you have toxins or manmade biocides in your soil solution, like glyphosate, then you have totally new, unnatural molecules from their breakdown products in your soil solution. In the absence of the living mycorrhizal interface these can also get taken up and absorbed by the plant. These molecules then can transfer to the animals that eat the plants and cause changes to the microbiome in those animals.

In the Chesapeake Bay you have breakdown products of toxins and genetically engineered plants and all of a sudden the shellfish are getting cancers and growth deformities from trying to filter feed biomolecules that they are just not able to handle.

Nature has evolved for 3.8 billion years breaking down chemicals and we have evolved the biochemical capacity to live off those breakdown products. The microbiome that exists in the soil, we have something like that in our own guts. It too operates as a breakdown system and a selective intelligent interface between our gut and the foods we take into our body or the ones we reject and expel. It is really a second layer of quality control which we can disturb by taking antibiotics and drugs and what have you.

We grossly disturb that biochemistry when we add novel biomolecules there that our whole system has never adapted to. We quite frankly don’t know what the consequences of these novel compounds are. They have never been identified, never been tested. It is a big question mark, and we are seeing major consequences in organisms in our environment and humans as well.

Of course we had some of these toxins and biocides before World War II, but after the war there was a massive increase in the use of agricultural chemicals, fossil fuel use for power instead of draft animals, plastics and petrochemicals.

It was only after World War II that we had the horsepower, and the whole massive mechanization of farming at that scale. We had tractors before, and soil degradation, but nothing at this sort of global scale. It was at World War II that we had the energy, the fossil fuels to put into agriculture, we had the equipment from that whole industrial effort, we had the fertilizers from the munitions industry and of course the nerve agents that we turned into biocides.

We now have 270% of the natural nitrogen fixation of this planet that we are annually putting onto our soils because of the Haber-Bosch process of making nitrogen fertilizer from natural gas. We all need nitrogen to sustain life, but do we need it at such a level? It’s a bit like heroin, isn’t it? Lead, cadmium, other elements we don’t need for life but our industrial system has unleashed and much of it is now in our soil – leaded gas is a perfect example.

We have killed that intelligent selective quality control system both in our soils and increasingly in our own microbiomes.

Human Nutrition

This is quite fundamental because it makes the point: what is the difference between food grown in these natural microbial based processes compared to the “industrial hydroponics” that most large scale food production is now driven by? The nutritional integrity of the food grown in the first process is fundamentally different from that of the food grown under industrial agriculture.

What matters is not how many milligrams of nitrogen or sulfur are in the soil and can we measure that, but can we have confidence in how our food was grown. Do we know that our food was grown in this natural way, relying on these processes that our great, great grandmothers counted on – the fungal selection and intelligent uptake. When it is grown industrially in this hydroponic-like soil solution, we get none of the essential micronutrients we need because they are locked up on soil surfaces and can only be made available by these mycorrhizal processes. That whole story of the sponge, nutritional integrity, the quality of our food, and our health is of profound significance.

If we degrade these natural microbial ecologies we are compromising the integrity of that food. Food now, according to the USDA, the CSIRO in Australia, and the UK Ministry of Health contains less than a third of the nutrients per gram of food it did pre World War II. You have to eat about three times the bulk of food you did before to get the same nutrition. Your body gives you subliminal signals and we end up eating, eating, eating, and get plenty of starch, salt and fat, but not the nutrition we need.

If we want to be sure how our food was grown, we need to know what level of localization is needed in our food production to give us that assurance. If you are importing stuff from China, for example, how would you know?

This is pretty important because it relates directly to our food. According to Linus Pauling 90% of our health is directly related to what we put into our faces: our food. We have created this pandemic of self-induced food and diet-related diseases. It is growing exponentially and driving a $4 trillion disease industry in the United States, growing at 6 to 9 percent, depending on what category you are in. That is totally unsustainable over the next ten years. We just won’t have enough health insurance money to pay for it. But you won’t be here, so don’t worry about it!

We need to get this message to every parent and grandparent that yes, the quality of the food we eat matters, and here are the criteria by which we can assure that nutritional integrity. Not reading a package like an encyclopedia to see how many milligrams of what are in it, but: has this food been grown naturally? Of course we can do nutritional analyses on representative samples, and we have bioassays that can tell us if these soils have mycorrhizal activities that can give us that assurance.

There is 270% of natural nitrogen now being used in agriculture. Nature used to fix 100% of its needs through rhizobia, actinomyces, blue green algae, and other microbial nitrogen fixation. We are adding another 170% of that natural level as fertilizer.

All nature’s processes are critically important. Nature doesn’t have winners. These processes are all part of the jungle. Nitrogen fixation is just as important as phosphorus uptake, as selenium solubilization, as toxic exclusion because if any of these processes are failing or not optimal it can limit life. Nature runs at optimum. Most vegetation needs 20 to 30 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per annum to be at that sweet spot. Nature can readily provide that through microbial fixation. The fact that we are adding, in some countries, 200 kilograms of nitrogen, not 20 or 30, means that we are running at this toxic level.

The roots of plants don’t select nutrients in the same way mycorrhizae do because the roots are taking up nutrients in their water stream. Also, the surface area of root hairs compared to membrane interfaces is like one in a million. They just don’t have that capacity to interface and selectively take up what they want.

Brassicas don’t relate to mycorrhizal fungi directly. They put out a lot of sulfur compounds and organic acids that are then involved in solubilizing nutrients directly. They are very important pioneer plants colonizing primary soils. They actually inhibit fungi, not by killing them but by sort of fungistasis, just putting them into hibernation.

If you have a brassica field that is a monoculture, after several years it will put the mycorrhizal fungi there into hibernation. Some will survive, but they might be operating at 1% or less of their natural activity. Of course the sweet spot, as in nature, would not be a monoculture but brassicas in microsites solubilizing and having grasses and other plants growing with it. But if you have a bare moonscape where you just need plants, Brassica have an important pioneer role to play.

Of course there are no ‘bad’ plants in nature. We just have to read her and learn how to move forward using what she gives us.

Walter Jehne is a retired scientist with a specialist background in soil microbiology and plant ecology who has worked in Australia and overseas, including for CSIRO. He is now part of two not-for-profit groups, Soils for Life and Future Directions International, which foster solutions for the regeneration of Australia’s landscape and the development of the agricultural and pastoral sectors of Australia
To watch a Walter Jehne talk at Harvard on Water Cycles and the Soil Carbon Sponge, go to https://bio4climate.org/blog/walter-jehne-april-26-2018/

Making Fungal Compost

Last fall Julie and I were lucky enough to host David Johnson and his wife Hui-Chan Su Johnson overnight when David was in the area for a speaking engagement. He explained to us his remarkable success growing crops in New Mexico using a fungal compost or inoculant of his own devising. The key to making it is to aerate the compost without turning it, since turning destroys the fungal hyphae. His process allows the fungi to grow undisturbed throughout the compost so that, when it is done, it can be spread thinly on soil with every portion inoculating the soil with viable fungal life.

This spring we used David’s plans (slightly revised) to make a fungal reactor. After David’s descriptions of his process, I have added some notes and pictures of our modifications.


David’s Composter

This below account is excerpted from a manual of best practices by David Johnson and Patrick DeSimio, New Mexico State University, developed in tandem with a workshop on composting practices in Las Cruces, NM on June 28, 2017.


Benefits of Composting
Most composts are viewed as nutrient sources, and the recommendations for applying them are based on the composts’ nitrogen and phosphorus content. In addition to composts’ roles as nutrient sources, however, a growing body of research suggests that certain composts can provide soil microbial communities that bring many benefits for plants and soils. In these processes, fungi play an especially important role.

The compost produced in the Johnson-Su composting bioreactor provides nutrients and, more importantly, results in a microbially diverse and fungal-dominant soil microbiome that can be applied at concentrations as low as 1/2 lb per acre, a concentration at which it operates more as a microbial inoculation for soils than as a soil amendment. In other words, the compost introduces beneficial microbes to the soil like a baker introduces yeast to bread dough. The increased presence of fungi appears to be a key indicator for soil quality in the compost produced in the Johnson-Su bioreactor.

Benefits of the Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor
Most composting methodologies require building a pile and turning it at regular intervals. In contrast, when built and maintained correctly, the static pile Johnson-Su bioreactor never needs turning, never has smells, and does not attract flies. This reactor design allows the material to be composted aerobically, allowing complete biological breakdown of compost materials and resulting in a microbially diverse, fungal-dominant compost product. The compost end product has the consistency of clay when mature (you can squeeze the end-product between your fingers and it oozes out like clay). The mature compost can be applied as an extract, mixed as a slurry to coat seeds that you intend to plant, or be applied directly as a soil amendment. The compost from Johnson-Su composting bioreactors improves seed germination rates when used to coat seeds, improves soil water infiltration and water retention by helping to increase soil carbon content, and increases plant health, plant growth rates, and crop production.

In his research plots, Johnson has been adding his BEAM (Biologically Enhanced Agricultural Management) compost at a rate of about 400-500 pounds per acre and then measuring the grams of dry above ground biomass/sq meter/year that is produced. He notes that normal cultivated fields yield about 650 grams. A transitional BEAM field, however, will yield 1980 grams and an advanced BEAM field will yield as much as 4279 grams. He says he has been getting equivalent large crop yields.

How to Build a Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor

A Johnson-Su bioreactor can be built in 4-5 hours by one person using simple tools and about $40 of readily available materials. The design is scalable for home, farm, or commercial settings. Just be sure that all of the compost in the bioreactor is within 12” of ambient air.

Required Materials and Tools
To build a Johnson-Su bioreactor, you’ll need some readily available materials and a few tools.

Materials consist of
• Landscape cloth (woven, minimum 5 oz.):
• Piece One: 13’ x 6’
• Piece Two: 6’ x 6’
• Piece Three: 6’ x 6’
• One standard, sturdy shipping pallet with dimensions of approximately 40” x 48”

• Wire re-mesh (10-gauge wire with 6” x 6” square holes), used to create a 5’ tall x 12’ 6” in circumference supporting wire cage. This type of re-mesh is nor-mally used for reinforcing concrete. Be sure to use re-mesh as horse fencing or other similar wire fence products have insufficient vertical strength to hold the cage in position as you fill it.

Four 10’ lengths of perforated, bell-end, 4” septic system drain field piping

• PVC glue

• Tie wire (normally used to tie rebar together)

• Approximately 13’ of 1/2” landscape water hose for the drip irrigation system

• Optional: A rebar jig (Figure 1) to hold the drain field pipes in place as you fill the Johnson-Su bioreactor. If you have helpers or if you are willing to adjust the pipes as you fill the bioreactor, you will not need the jig.

Tools required are

• Small bolt cutters or heavy pliers for cutting the wire re-mesh


• Linesman’s pliers to cut and tie the tie wire for assembling the cage

• Circular saw

• Jigsaw for cutting the holes in the pallet

• Scissors for cutting the landscape cloth

• Tape measure

• Pen or pencil to mark places that will be cut

After you build a Johnson-Su bioreactor (Figure 2), you can reuse it many times.

Building the Bioreactor
A YouTube video (https://youtu.be/DxUGk161Ly8) demonstrates the proper construction of the Johnson-Su bioreactor. Do not substitute other materials when building this system because some substitutions may undermine the integrity of the reactor, requiring it to be disassembled and rebuilt.

figure 2. A Johnson-Su composting bioreactor

Building the Cloth and Re-mesh Cage
With scissors, cut a piece of landscape cloth to 13’ in length and 6’ in height.

Using bolt cutters or pliers, cut the re-mesh to 12’6” in length and 5’ in height. Temporarily tie the wire cage ends together and stand the cage up like a cylinder.

Position the 13’ x 6’ piece of landscape cloth along the interior of the re-mesh cage and sew it into place using a long piece of tie wire with a sharpened point (cut at an angle using the pliers). Pierce the landscaping cloth very close to the top of the re-mesh cage, and sew the tie wire through the cloth and the re-mesh wire in an alternating pattern (in and out, close to the top of the wire cage) to the end of the 12’6” re-mesh. Repeat this step for the bottom of the cage and cloth.

After you have sewn the fabric to the wire mesh cage and before you get ready to fill the reactor, securely tie the ends of the re-mesh together at the 6” intervals using tie wire and pliers. Be sure to place a secure tie every 6”. Otherwise, the pressure that builds up when you fill the bioreactor can push this joint apart.

Preparing the Base

figure 3. Positioning of holes in pallet

The pallet serves as the base for the Johnson-Su bioreactor, and it supports both the remesh/groundcloth cylinder and the septic system drain field pipes. To let the pallet hold the pipes in place, you’ll use a jigsaw to cut six 4 ⅜” holes in the top of the pallet (as shown in Figure 3).
To explore different hole placements and see how you can best avoid cutting completely through the pallet’s planks, you can pivot a jig (Figure 4) around the center point of the pallet. If you’ll be cutting a plank completely, try to place bricks or wooden blocks under the cut ends of the plank to support them as you fill the bioreactor.

So that the bioreactor will not lean as you fill it, place the pallet on leveled ground or block it up with bricks to make sure that the pallet is well supported and level. Place a 6’ x 6’ piece of landscape cloth over the pallet, leaving plenty of cloth overlapping each edge of the pallet. Use scissors or a mini torch to cut holes in the cloth to match the holes in the pallet (refer to Figure 2).

figure 4. Jig for holes in pallet and ground cloth

Now, place the re-mesh/groundcloth cage on top of the pallet/groundcloth base. The wire cage is 4’ in diameter and will overlap the pallet. Don’t worry about this, since the bottom 6’ x 6’ piece of landscape cloth can be temporarily tucked in between the wire mesh cage and landscape cloth, keeping the fill material from falling through.

The cage itself is light and may shift in the wind or as you fill the bioreactor with compost, so to temporarily hold the cage in place, you may want to loosely screw the base of the cage to the planks of the pallet (Figure 5).

Preparing and Placing the Pipes
The pipes are only in place temporarily and are a form to ensure that six columns are formed to allow air flow up through the bioreactor. These pipes should be removed approximately 24 hours after finishing the filling of the bioreactor.

Using a circular saw, cut the 10’ pipes so that you have four 4’ pieces of pipe left with bell ends. Glue two of these 4’ pipes together, and then cut them to 6’ so that you have six 6’ pipes.

figure 5. Screwing the base of the cage to the pallet

Place the 6’ septic system drain field pipes into the holes in the bottom pallet. If you are using a metal jig (Figure 1), secure the pipes to the metal jig with tie wire. The jig is not necessary, since you can have assistants hold the pipes upright; alternatively, the feed materials for the bioreactor can hold the pipes upright if you adjust the pipes as you fill the bioreactor.

After you fill the bioreactor, you can remove the pipes after one day and reuse them in another bioreactor. Fungal hyphae in the bioreactor will hold open the channels where the pipes were, leaving open columns that let air flow from the bottom of the pallet up through the compost. The spacing on these open columns provides adequate aeration for the pile to stay aerobic (the compost is never more than one foot from ambient air).

The reactor is now ready for filling.

Tip: It is best to fill the bioractor all at once and may take several hours, so plan accordingly.

How to Fill a Johnson-Su Bioreactor

figure 6. Setup for wetting feed materials

Feed materials for Johnson-Su bioreactors can vary widely. The first mixes I used in this bioreactor were one-third by volume each of dairy manure, yard waste/leaves, and wood chips (smaller than 3/8” x 3/8”). You can use entirely leaves if you like, or you can add other materials that you may have available.

You can fit approximately 1,800 pounds of wetted material into one of these reactors, and it’s best to fill the reactor in one day if at all possible so that you can achieve thermophilic temperatures (140-165 °F) for the first 4-5 days of operation. Before starting the filling process, make sure that you have enough feed materials, plenty of energy, and several hours.

It is best to run all material through a chipper/shredder to ensure that all material is broken to make compost material accessible to microbes. It is also best to have the feed materials as clean as possible (no plastics, trash, etc.) so that you do not need to screen the product after composting.

Preparing Feed Materials

For some materials, pre-treatments are necessary. Manure should be dried. Similarly, wet or soggy food scraps (e.g., orange peels, juicing waste, fresh-cut grass) are not recommended unless you have first dried them. Otherwise, these materials pack very tightly and provide

figure 7. Filling the bioreactor

locations in the compost pile that can go anaerobic and begin to putrefy, attracting pests. These materials can be composted, but I recommend air drying them first by spreading them out on the ground in the sun. Then, put the materials through a chipper shredder to open their structure for microbial degradation.

Tropical plant leaves, pine needles, pine cones, and heavy seed pods should all be run through a chipper shredder. Unless you create openings in the surfaces of these materials, they are so well protected with natural waxes and microbe-resistant structures that they can go through a composting process and decompose very little.

Try to prepare all of the material you need before you fill the bioreactor, since it is best to completely fill the bioreactor in one day.

Filling the Johnson-Su bioreactor described in this manual will require approximately 3 pick-up truckloads of material, or more than 75 five-gallon buckets of prepared and wetted material. This may seem like a lot of material, but you’ll find that you can never have enough of the resulting compost product.

Tip: If you don’t want a full-size bioreactor, you can scale the design down. Just remember that every part of the compost should be within 12” of ambient air. This is the distance that oxygen can penetrate into the compost, keeping the pile aerobic and preventing it from smelling and attracting flies.

figure 8. Irrigation system for a Johnson-Su composting bioreactor

Wetting the Feed Materials
Before beginning to fill the bioreactor, it is crucial that you completely wet the feed materials. You have one chance to build this reactor, and thorough wetting is important so that you do not have to take the reactor apart and build it again. I suggest immersing the feed materials in a water bath, using one of the inex-pensive plastic trays used for mixing small batches of concrete or mortar. I usually fill the tray with water and place 4-5 pitchforks of material into it. I then use a pitchfork to press the materials below the surface of the water and/or spray the material to ensure sufficient water penetration. It only takes about 60 seconds of immersion to wet the materials properly.

Once the feed materials are thoroughly wet, I use a pitchfork to lift them into a wheelbarrow that is braced into a tilted position (Figure 6) so that water can drain off of the feed material and back into the water-bath tray. This uses the water efficiently.

Tip: If you have mature compost from a Johnson-Su bioreactor, you can inoculate your water bath with desirable microbes by tossing in occasional handfuls of mature compost.

figure 9. Fitting for the irrigation system

From the wheelbarrow, I transfer the wetted feed materials to 5-gallon buckets and use these buckets to fill the bioreactor (Figure 7). You can see the wetting process from time markers 00:06:00 to 00:07:30 in the video at <https://youtu.be/DxUGk161Ly8>.

Filling the Bioreactor
To make it easier and safer to lift and dump the 5-gallon buckets, I like to build a little scaffolding around the reactor. Stepladders work well, too.

Typically, I fill 6-9 buckets with wetted compost, dump each of these buckets into the bioreactor, then fill another 6-9 buckets and repeat the process.

If the substrates for composting are lightweight, like leaves that you have wetted, you can press or tamp these down as you fill the reactor so that you can get more into the bioreactor. If the substrates are heavy, you may want to allow the weight of the substrate to settle the pile. You want to avoid any heavy packing because this might lead to anaerobic spots that can cause unwanted odors and flies. You will gain experience as you build these piles as to how much you can compact the pile.

After you have filled the bioreactor, use the second 6’ x 6’ piece of groundcloth to cover the top of the bioreactor. This will help to keep the compost moist. To keep the groundcloth from blowing away, tuck the corners into re-mesh of the cage.

Tip: If you have several different feed materials, you can fill 3 buckets with one material, another 3 buckets with another material, another 3 buckets with another material, etc., and unload the buckets into the reactor in shifts. This effectively mixes multiple different components, giving you a more homogenous compost end product.

How to Operate a Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor

figure 10. Mature compost from a Johnson-Su bioreactor. See also the video at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2fhy9zex8f3345i/P1040302.MOV?dl=0.

To operate a Johnson-Su composting bioreactor, keep the compost moist and add worms after the thermophilic phase has ended.

Once you have built the pile, you will need to install an irrigation system that will water the pile for one minute each day. It is very important to keep the pile adequately damp—not oozing out the bottom, but wet enough for the microbes to be happy (greater than 70% moisture content). The material should glisten when you grab a sample out of the reactor, and you should almost be able to squeeze a drop of water out of the material. If you have a soil moisture gauge, you can test different parts of the pile to make sure there is adequate water.

To irrigate the system, I use a circular piece of 1/2” landscape hose that snakes around the top perimeter of the bioreactor (Figure 8). I drill 1/16” holes into the bottom of the hose every 4-5”, and also I drill some holes horizontally in the hose about every 6”. The horizontal holes spray towards the center of the bioreactor to thoroughly wet all the material. I connect the ends of this hose with a plastic landscape T-hose fitting that has two 1/2” female push-compression fittings and a female hose-bib thread (Figure 9). Once the water has been sprayed onto the top of the compost substrate, gravity will pull the water from the top of the pile into the rest of the compost substrate.

The irrigation system adds sufficient water to the bioreactor when attached to a garden hose or typical 1/2” landscape irrigation hose with water pressure between 30-50 psi. It is best to hook this hose up to a timed sprinkler system (timed to irrigate the reactor 1 minute/day, or 2 minutes/day in temperatures above 100 °F) to ensure that the pile has adequate water and is not allowed to dry out.

Check your pile frequently to ensure that you are maintaining sufficient water for the material to compost effectively. Piles that dry out will have to be disassembled and rebuilt, because it is impossible to rewet the ingredients once they have dried out.

Once the pile temperature drops below 80 °F, worms can be added to augment the composting process.  Feed materials should be composted in the bioreactor for at least nine months, and a one-year composting period is recommended since microbial populations and species richness increase significantly at about the one year threshold.

How to Use Compost from a Johnson-Su Composting Bioreactor
After a composting period of 9 months to a year, the compost product from a Johnson-Su bioreactor (Figure 10) can be used as it is, made into a slurry to coat seeds, or used to make an extract that can be sprayed on a field or into the furrow as you plant seeds.

Direct Application
Without any further treatment after the composting period, the compost product from the Johnson-Su bioreactor can be used as a growing media, spread onto soils at any desired rate, or used as a soil substitute. Mix in some native soil, about 1/3 by volume, to offer additional material from which the microbes can extract macro and micro-nutrients that are needed for plant growth.

Compost product from a Johnson-Su bioreactor can also be used to create liquid extracts that contain a rich and diverse community of soil microbes, especially fungi. The compost extracts are especially useful for inoculating large areas with beneficial soil microbial communities.

An extract, or inoculum, can be made from this compost by vigorously mixing the compost with water. The extract can then be applied as a spray.

To produce the extract, add 2-3 heaping handfuls of mature compost to 5 gallons of water, and stir the mixture vigorously. I use a hand drill with a large paddle blade mixer for 4-5 minutes. The goal is to dislodge as many microbes as possible from the organic matter.

After vigorously mixing the compost and water solution, pour the mixture through a paint screen (such as a 5-gallon mesh bag from your local hardware store) into another container. After straining, the extract is ready to be sprayed through a sprayer or sprinkler onto the leaves of plants or onto soil plots. After spraying the extract, water it into the soil with a garden hose sprayer or sprinkler to ensure that the microbes have filtered down into the soil. On large acreages, the extract can provide very beneficial results when applied directly into the furrow while planting, a process which ensures that microbes are right next to germinating seeds. Through the spray method, application rates of 1 kg of compost/hectare (1 pound/acre) have been implemented with success.

Beneficial microbes from the mature compost can also be applied directly to seeds before they are planted. To inoculate seeds, create a slurry with the following ingredients:
• About 1/2 cup of a milk/molasses mixture (8 parts milk to 1 part molasses)
• About a liter (or quart) of compost
• Water (amount varies – add the water while stirring until the compost slurry has a viscosity similar to pancake batter)

One liter (approximately a quart) of the resulting slurry can then be poured into a cement mixer with 50 pounds of seed and tumbled until the seeds are thoroughly coated. Smaller batches can be done by hand in a 5 gallon bucket. The coating process takes approximately 1-2 minutes, and then the seed can be air dried by spreading the seed out on a tarp in the shade and allowing it to dry, with occasional raking to expose wet areas. After drying, the seeds can be planted. Alternatively, if the seeds are large, they can be planted wet because the seed will flow well through a planter.

The compost from the Johnson-Su bioreactor can be used on organic farms. It complies with NOP 5021 Effective Date: July 22, 2011.

Additional Resources
For more information about Johnson-Su composting bioreactors, contact Dr. David Johnson at davidcjohnson@nmsu.edu.

The Many Hands Organic Farm Composter

Now that you have read David’s description, you might be interested in our adaptation of the idea to New England.

First, we decided to build our composter in a hoophouse, to extend the season of fungal activity. This entailed modifications to the pipes so that they could be withdrawn inside a structure that was not twice as tall as the reactor.

Second, we determined to irrigate the reactor daily by hand, rather than by a drip system, since we did not have a frost-free water supply to the hoophouse yet wanted to reactor to be functional in early spring and late fall.

The following pictures show our construction progress.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Tracing the location of the pipe holes onto the pallet. The large ring is composed of 5 pieces of ½ inch PVC pipe, each about 16 ½ inch long, joined by 5 T-joints. The joints locate the sites for the 5 pipe holes, along with one in the center. The small ring is sliced from a quart yogurt container, enabling the tracing of holes about 4 3/8 wide for the pipes.

photo by Jack Kittredge The pipe holes have now been cut in the pallet. Notice how their placement has avoided totally bisecting the center 4x4 supporting the boards forming the top of the pallet.

photo by Jack Kittredge
The pipe holes have now been cut in the pallet. Notice how their placement has avoided totally bisecting the center 4×4 supporting the boards forming the top of the pallet.

Cutting the pipes to length with a hacksaw

photo by Jack Kittredge
Cutting the pipes to length with a hacksaw. Each pipe was formed of three shorter pieces joined by unions. That way each pipe could be removed in pieces without having to lift the whole pipe out of the reactor at once, which the hoophouse wasn’t tall enough to allow.

Close-up of the sewn fabric covering

photo by Jack Kittredge
Close-up of the sewn fabric covering the re-mesh fencing.

Building out the PVC ring

photo by Jack Kittredge
Building out the PVC ring to the full diameter of the reactor. This ring will now help stabilize the pipes during the filling of the reactor.

The pallet is covered with landscape fabric

photo by Jack Kittredge
The pallet is covered with landscape fabric with holes
for the ventilation pipes.

Wetting the leaves before filling buckets

photo by Jack Kittredge
Wetting the leaves before filling buckets with them to be dumped into the reactor.

Joining lengths of wire re-mesh together

photo by Jack Kittredge
Joining lengths of wire re-mesh together to get a piece long enough to wrap into a circular cage 12 ½ feet in circumference.

Sewing the landscape fabric

photo by Jack Kittredge
Sewing the landscape fabric onto one side of the fencing.

top edge of the fabric has been folded

photo by Jack Kittredge
The top edge of the fabric has been folded over the fencing
and sewn onto it.

Pipe on end in the hoophouse.

photo by Jack Kittredge
Pipe on end in the hoophouse. Note that it is formed of three pieces, enabling withdrawal from the reactor despite the low hoophouse ceiling. Below the lowest joint you can see cord protruding from pipe holes on both sides of the pipe. This cord extends to the top of the pipe on both sides and enables the whole pipe to be pulled up from the top within the filled reactor.

Filling the buckets

photo by Jack Kittredge
Filling the buckets.

Reactor has been almost totally filled with wet compost

photo by Jack Kittredge
Reactor has been almost totally filled with wet compost.

The reactor has been filled.

photo by Jack Kittredge
The reactor has been filled.
In a day or two the pipes will be withdrawn because fungal networks will have grown enough to stabilize the ventilation holes which will remain.

Fungal Compost Pointers

reprinted with permission from Mycorrhizal Planet

Compost is not “any ol’ heap of organic matter” when you have biological perspective.

Bacterial compost results from a thermal process featuring a higher nitrogen charge and several turnings of the pile to aerate the microbe scene. Both of these actions rouse bacteria into action. The thermophilic phase in particular gets the pile cooking, thereby cleaning house of potential pathogens and weed seeds. The whole process generally takes six to ten weeks from start to finish. Commercial compost operations make this sort of “garden compost” for certified organic growers (adhering to federal restrictions) and home gardeners purchasing compost by the bag.

The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of the materials to be composted expresses how nitrogen stands in relation to carbon content. Keeping the C:N ratio closer to 25:1 promotes rapid decomposition. A simple recipe for bacterial compost involves alternating layers of green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) materials in equal proportion. Adding a charge of fresh manure from livestock or poultry to these piles ensures the proper nitrogen fix. Turning the pile weekly—as many as five times—allows bacteria to stay the course in all that biomass. Bacterial compost is just the ticket to help annual vegetables and flowers thrive.

Every compost pile of mine brings in a fungal element from the get-go. This “partial static approach” to thermal composting involves but one round of turning, and several months down the road at that. I steer the same course to start, layering nitrogen sources with carbon sources, and include dustings of kelp meal and Azomite for minerals. The inner core of a diligently made static pile heats up, while the outer edges take on a fungal imperative. Leaf litter from the forest floor brings a diverse fungal prospectus, in addition to making nice wadding to fill in against the stacked logs that enclose each pile. Fatty acid sprays (made whenever passing by to use the sprays on orchard runs) add a lipid boost for the decomposers working the periphery.

I typically start a new pile every spring, another by midsummer, and at least one fall pile that will carry through the winter months. The fixings come as we do garden work, mow grass, put up produce, rake leaves, press cider (thus creating pomace), and muck out animal bedding. Four to six months later comes reckoning time. This somewhat immature compost can be moved in one of two directions after taking away the stacked logs to provide access. Compost for garden use most often gets piled close to where a cover crop rotation is on deck or where garlic will be going in late fall. Bucket loading by tractor provides a rough-and-tumble mixing of the works. Give these field piles a few weeks to settle and cure. The resulting organism-rich compost is ready at that point to spread across field stubble.

Compost destined for orchard use faces another leg on its journey to application. Orchard piles consist of one part “rough-and-tumble compost” mixed throughout with one part ramial chipped wood, thereby upping the carbon-to-nitrogen ratio to more like 40:1. This is fungal sweet spot territory. Black gold. Texas tea. This woodsier pile will require another four to six months to come into its own . . . as the spot-on fungal compost craved by fruit trees and berries alike.

Stacked-log composting

Stacked-log composting works well for building up green and brown layers over the course of a few months. These “bins” can readily be disassembled when the time comes to move compost onward.

A few important distinctions should be made about what’s taking place at this juncture on the biological timeline. Fungi thrive on nondisturbance. Orchard compost will not be turned going forward in order to allow white mycelia to develop and spread throughout the bulked-up pile. That partial static variation on thermal composting makes possible a wider diversity of beneficial fungi than might otherwise occur. The ramial chipped wood helps create air passages that provide even more oxygen for those aerobic fungi to flourish. Soluble lignins in hardwood chips will begin the journey toward humification, ultimately forming macroaggregates. Conversely, using somewhat-aged softwood chips to create an orchard pile puts white rots at the helm in reclaiming more carbon than not. All organic matter has value in some form or another.

The passage of time is what’s key. Protozoa and nematodes reactivate during this maturation period. Microarthropods increase in number. In fact, once the pile has cooled down, diversity actually will continue to improve for the next six months. Orchard piles made in spring have additional potential if positioned along the forest edge. Tree roots reaching into the pile will leave behind mycorrhizal hyphae and spores by the time of late fall application.

Why fall? Compost applied toward the end of leaf abscission (detachment) furthers two orchard aims. The fall root flush continues to be at full bore—along with mycorrhizal outreach—and thus it is perfect timing for bioavailable nutrients from fungal compost to hit the ground running. Enhancing leaf decomposition ties in here as well. Compost anchoring down the fungal duff zone as the trees head into winter introduces yet more diversity. And should winter come early, take heart. Spreading fungal compost in the orchard and around berry plantings in early spring has virtue, too.

Fungal Friendly Farming at Freedom Food Farm

Farm Stand

photo by Jack Kittredge
The Freedom Food Farm’s store is open 32 hours per week.

Raynham, a town of some 13,000 people, was originally part of what is now the City of Taunton in Southeastern Massachusetts, settled as early as 1639 by Elizabeth Pole, the first woman to found a town in America. Three years earlier Roger Williams had fled to that area in a January blizzard to escape a conviction for sedition and heresy in Salem. Williams had earned the enmity of many English settlers for his beliefs in paying the Native Americans for their land and opposing slavery. The Wampanoag Sachem Massasoit hosted and protected the fugitive Williams for three months until Spring came. The Sachem’s son, Metacom, in 1675 agreed to spare Raynham from destruction in King Philip’s War in return for the local iron forge maintaining his troops’ weapons.

In 1731 the eastern end of Taunton was incorporated as Raynham, where folks abandoned efforts to affect history and settled down to building ship hulls which were floated down the Taunton River to Fall River and Narragansett Bay for final fitting, as well as some small manufacturing and farming the sandy loam soil. Closeness to Boston (32 miles) and Providence (22 miles) has slowly increased land values there as city workers seek to live in nearby bedroom suburbs. These increasing land values are part of the problem for Chuck Currie and Marie Kaziunas at Freedom Food Farm.

“I grew up in the suburbs just north of Boston,” Currie relates. “My parents had a garden but I wasn’t focused on ag at all. It wasn’t a career choice presented to kids where I was. I went to school for chemistry and biochemistry at UMass in Amherst. But I got sick of being in labs and realized I didn’t want to do that my whole life. So I switched to plant and soil science.”

Chuck still wasn’t thinking about agriculture, but his advisor told him to take a sustainable ag course from John Gerber. That’s when he found out what he wanted to do.

10 ½ foot roller crimper

photo by Jack Kittredge
This 10 ½ foot roller crimper should help the pair be able to terminate cover crops in a manner which will let them plant crops right into the crimped residue, without tillage.

“I finished my degree there,” he says, “then worked at Red Fire Farm a few years, then started my own farm on leased land in Vermont. I was there for four years until 2010. But it was clear that the farm wouldn’t be for sale for a long time, and I wanted to own somewhere.”

So Currie moved to Rhode Island to farm, once again on leased land, and when it seemed that too would never be available to own, came to Raynham in 2014.

Marie’s background is in public health work, but she has always had an interest in food and food–based communities. She came into farming, she says, mostly because she met Chuck:

“I was feeling that a lot of the public health work I was doing was not as impactful as it could have been. There was a lot of red tape, domestically and internationally, working with governments to get people the quality of life and care that they deserve. I met Chuck and started volunteering at the farm. It became more and more apparent that we could grow really good food and that could make an immediate impact on the health of families of all economic statuses in our community. It wasn’t something like what I was doing in public health, that might be implemented 10 or 15 years later (laughs). This is the answer to a lot of major public health crises and struggles in this country, and everywhere.”

The couple met in 2011, when Chuck was moving back from Vermont and brought some of his produce to sell at the Pawtucket winter market.

Solarizing area

photo by Jack Kittredge
Currie and Kaziunas tried solarization early in the season on this 60 by 60 foot square area, but it didn’t get hot enough to work.
So the plastic is still there, in late July. By late July, however, when Chuck looked again, everything was dead except some purslane!

“My goal in farming,” he states, “was always to make the world a better place. I’m not into running a business or, clearly, making money (laughs). I’ve always thought raising vegetables is pretty destructive to soil. That comes partly from my background in soils –– soil microbiology, soil structure. When I started working on commercial farms I saw how much we were beating the crap out of the soil. It’s bare much of the year, fields were starting to erode. The more I learned about ecology it just didn’t make sense. But farmers have to make a living so they do that. It’s just a reality. Farmers want to farm another way, but they don’t see how they can pay the bills. Especially a farm this size. All those no–till, hand labor farms are a lot smaller.”

It is great to farm to build up the soil if you have a small farm or a second income, Currie believes, or if you have land you can get for free, but his goal has been to achieve permanent land ownership. To do that one has to have enough of an income to support a mortgage. So he has always looked to larger scale agriculture because that was the only way to generate enough income to buy a farm.

The land in Raynham that the couple found in 2014 was actually the last farm in town. The reason it hasn’t been developed was that it was Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) land. That is land on which the state of Massachusetts had purchased a right restricting its use to agriculture. That was good and bad for the couple, actually. It was great that the land existed and was protected. But it was an older APR from the time before the program put price restrictions on what the land could sell for. (In the 1990s the state started requiring the right to determine the price at which it could be sold.) Without a cap it becomes unaffordable for farmers eventually.

Additionally, the land didn’t have to be in agricultural use. So it could be used for a person with a couple of horses who just wanted a nice spread for personal use. It had been a working farm in dairy and beef, but it had evolved into more a hobby farm for the previous owner, which was just a side business among several others he had. The current owner was, however, willing to sell it.

Marie and Chuck

photo by Jack Kittredge
Marie and Chuck stand in their store.

“We originally started with a lease to buy the land,” Currie explains, “thinking that we could come up with enough money in a couple of years. We fell drastically short! So we put our feelers out and talked to some land trusts. We were hoping they could use an Option to Purchase the Agricultural Value (OPAV). A number of land trusts will do that. It means that if the agricultural value of this farm is $400,000 but the owner wants $800,000 for the property, the land trust would come in and offer them $400,000 for the agricultural value and then the owner couldn’t sell the property for more than the remaining $400,000. So someone like us could then save up and buy the property at $400,000, and farm it.”

“But the issue was,” he continues, “ that when we went to some of the land trusts to talk to them about an OPAV, nobody was interested in working with us because the development rights were already preserved –– so the property wasn’t going to be developed. They didn’t want to put in additional money to make sure it was a working farm when their money could be used to prevent development on other properties. Their priority was open space, not agriculture.”

“We were using it in a way that other people could visit and enjoy,” Marie adds, “as opposed to someone who just lived here and didn’t develop it. But that wasn’t enough to change their minds.”

The couple was finally able to find some CSA members who were willing to buy the land as an investment, and it now looks like they will be able to get a 4 year lease from the new owners. But it is an investment, and the owners ultimately want to sell and recoup their money.

individual seed hopper

photo by Jack Kittredge
The drill’s seed hoppers aren’t really designed to plant large seeded vegetable crops like squash or corn. There is not much regulation on it, just a paddle that opens where the seed comes out. It would be hard to get the right seeding density with larger seed. It seems mostly to be designed for grains and grasses and cover crops. Perhaps it could handle radishes, pelleted carrots, brassicas and lettuces. But it is a lot of work to get a perfect seedbed without tillage, so the drill could be quite valuable if it could plant vegetables into residue. Chuck thinks he could adapt the drill for that task, but it would take some work.

“I think it was partly that they knew us and wanted us to stay on,” Marie says. “If we left, they might not be as committed to keeping the place in farming. They would like to give us enough time to find a way to purchase the land. But it is very difficult to raise that kind of money from farming. Land down here is just very high. Unless you have some backing or are a non–profit, it is just very hard to imagine a farmer being able to buy land to farm. Our options if we want to own land seem to be either to move farther north in New England, or to a place which is much more rural, where there are even less people to be customers.”

Freedom Food Farm is 90 acres, total. The farm is separated by a stream, with about 50 acres in the back and 40 in the front. The soil is very sandy. There is some silt loam on the property, but most of it is loamy sand. The organic matter, however, because of the presence of so many animals in its history, ranges from a low of 2.8% to a high of 7%, and in one of the pastures in the back it is actually at 8.2%!

The back half is not tilled at all but is permanent pasture and woods, just for animals. The couple no longer grows vegetables there at all. About 25 acres of the front land is tillable, with about half in vegetable production and half in cover crops and grain. They are rotated every two or three years.

“This year we have 11 or 12 acres in vegetables,” Currie explains. “The biggest thing we are doing to promote soil health is we have been taking some of our land out of production for vegetables. We’ll go even further next year, down to 5 to 7 acres.”

For animals, the farm keeps sheep, goats, beef, pigs and chickens.

“We use paddocks to divide each pasture,” says Kaziunas, “and enable intensive grazing. Some are better for sheep and goats, some better for cattle. And we try to bring the poultry behind the ruminants for fly control, spreading the fertility, and cleaning up remaining green matter.

“We are also bringing the pigs and chickens to graze on the crop land after harvest,” she continues. “That will get all the green matter out, they enjoy what food is left, and the pigs will do some tillage for us. They are less intense than a tractor would be. The pigs go first and then chickens come through later and clean it up more.”

photo courtesy Freedom Food Farm Cattle graze the grass and cover crop paddocks, followed by chickens.

photo courtesy Freedom Food Farm
Cattle graze the grass and cover crop paddocks, followed by chickens.

“When the animals are out on pasture,” Currie adds, “their manure is the fertilizer for it. They are inside for three and a half to four months a year and then we are using wood chips or hay as bedding and that gets mixed in with the manure and turned into compost.”

For the monogastric pigs and chickens, who can’t eat grass, Chuck and Marie try to grow feed such as barley and peas. They usually graze the animals right onto them rather than harvesting, but recently bought a combine at auction for $1200 and are planning to grow more grain and harvest it to reduce chicken feed costs. Chuck is enough of a mechanic to take care of repairs and maintenance. They also give all the veggie scraps to the pigs, which definitely saves on feed expenses.

“We have about twelve heads of beef and slaughter 4 to 6 beef per year,” relates Marie. “We keep one boar and one sow for breeding, and do two litters a year –– one batch goes to harvest in August, the other around January.”

They sell the meat through the on–farm store and also at a couple of farmers markets –– Somerville Union Square and Attleboro. They also go to winter markets in Rhode Island and Somerville.

“Our meat and produce is all certified organic,” Currie says, “which isn’t that important here but was an aid in getting into farmers markets. In one of them the only way we could sell meat was because it was certified organic and thus didn’t compete with a couple of other meat vendors.”

About half the farm’s vegetable production is winter storage crops. Farm sales are pretty even, year round. About half the produce is sold through the farm store and the CSA, the rest through the farmer’s markets. To pick up your CSA share you just come to the store, so about 75% of the traffic there is for the shares. Chuck and Marie don’t buy stuff in, except perhaps for maple syrup.

“We do sell some grain as berries and ground as flour,” Marie reveals. “It sells well here. We could sell it all year –– people like local flour. So much of what you normally buy is treated and often sprayed with glyphosate before harvest. People are looking for alternatives to that. It is part of our intention to do more raising for a full diet, and this would be part of that.”

Freedom Food Farm’s gross income is about 30% from animals, maybe 15% from value added like kimchi, sauerkraut or hot sauce, and the rest from produce. So far Currie and Kaziunas don’t take anything from the farm financially, reinvesting whatever they make.

“We don’t have many expenses,” Chuck says, philosophically. “We don’t have time for a private life, live simply and eat pretty much what we grow. We don’t have kids. Eventually we may have some and things may change. But we’re trying to find a way to make this farming thing work.”

Because of the sandy soil, irrigation is an issue on the farm. For everything under black plastic they use drip irrigation and town water.

Kale growing up with cover

photo by Jack Kittredge
This is where Chuck sowed Sorghum Sudan and sunn hemp right into kale. There are still weeds there and if he had planted it right after mowing it would probably be in better shape. (Sunn hemp is a summer legume, a tropical crop, and doesn’t make viable seed this far north, but can make 200 lbs. of nitrogen per acre in 45 days just in the top, not including anything in the roots.)

“We run it through a chlorine filter,” Currie explains. “Most of the bare ground crops don’t have any irrigation. We do have a traveling irrigation gun, but we’ve never had it hooked up. We don’t have a pump yet. And now there is the issue of water testing. We back up to the Taunton River, for which the farm has water rights, but we’d have to test that under the new produce safety laws. And it is a full time job moving irrigation equipment from field to field!”

Freedom Food Farm had real labor problems this year. They started the season two people short out of a staff of about 10, and then had a series of illnesses and deaths in the family that made them three people short pretty much every day in May, June and part of July. That has been hard to overcome and really put a damper on things this year.

“We mostly get people in their 20s and 30s,” Chuck says. “We only hire people with experience and who want to be doing this. We’re kind of picky. We can’t always find people with good experience, though.”

“We find that people who come without experience,” adds Marie, “have so big a need for training that it is too severe on us to provide it. We do so many different things here there is a lot to learn. Too much complexity, variation, every week, every season is different. You have to be able to learn a lot quickly. Some people will stay for several years, but there is a lot of turnover and then we have to train people in our own systems and it takes a lot of time.”

One advantage that Freedom Food Farm has is that, because of the diversity, the animal and added value products, they can support people with year round work. Many farms can’t do that.

Chuck and Marie have discussed participating in the H–2A program, getting foreign workers who are approved through the Department of Labor as seasonal employees. But Chuck doesn’t like the idea of foreign workers.

“I’m kind of an anti–globalist, I guess,” he says. “I know that they are good workers and often can do two or three times the work of the average American, but I believe in having people who work here live in the community and keep the money here. It’s buying in labor, and we’re trying not to buy in things. Plus, H–2A workers are expensive. I’ve heard some horror stories from other farms that tried to get H–2A workers You have to provide housing for them, but you can get on a treadmill trying to get approval for your housing, there are so many regulations and requirements. On one farm the inspector gave him a list of 10 things to fix. He fixed them and the inspector came back and had a new list of another 10 things to fix. The farmer said: ‘what’s the deal here?’ and the inspector said: ‘Look, its my job to say anything that will prevent you from hiring H–2A workers. I don’t want you to hire them. I want you to hire American workers!’ I don’t know if it was one guy, or policy, or what. But I don’t want to get involved in that.”

Some of the practices on the farm require extra labor. Being serious about no–till means more work must be done by hand to manage weeds and prepare a good seed bed, Currie feels. Of course it depends on what you are raising. Grain requires a lot less labor per acre than vegetables. He figures you can plant and harvest an acre of grain in eight hours if you have a combine.

The couple feel that the most immediate threat to the farm’s sustainability is their quality of life.

“We need to figure out how to keep this farm running,” stresses Chuck, “and not have to work so many hours. Part of that is money and having enough people here to help. But even if you have the money, it is still hard to find people who want to do this work. We pay from $12 to $15 an hour, and it keeps going up and up every year. Eventually were going to be competing with McDonalds at $16 an hour! We’re going to have to drastically reduce the amount of labor we need to run the farm. We’re really only going to find a handful of people who want to work this hard for what we can pay.”

The farm has been fortunate to be the recipient of some serious equipment to help with aspects of the farming work, due largely to Chuck and Marie’s hard work and numerous hours devoted to applying for grants. Just a week or two before I visited they received a ten and a half foot long roller crimper. They haven’t used it yet, but plan to lay down numerous cover crops with it, so they can plant into the residue.

“The plan is to use that for winter squash this year,” discloses Chuck, “and for our grains. When filled with water it weighs 2800 pounds, heavy enough to crush the plants’ veins and to shut down their vascular flow so they won’t be able to come back. This was made by a Pennsylvania company that also does a lot of horse–drawn implements in Amish country. We got it right after all our cover crops dried up and haven’t had a chance to use it yet.

“About 15 farms got them,” he continues, “but we are one of the smaller growers to get one. It was really competitive. A lot of people applied, apparently. You are suppose to use it for five years at least, and in the application there were some calculations to see how much greenhouse gas savings you would make, both for fuel use over that time and also by sequestering carbon in the soil. Realistically, we will use this once per year per field. We will use this on winter squash, tomatoes, peppers and a few other vegetables. It would definitely work to share these between local farms. It is a pretty simple piece of equipment and hard to break. Which is a consideration when you share equipment!

“You can use this with a no till transplanter,” Currie concludes, “like a conventional transplanter except the furrow is very small and is covered over right away. They aren’t as available as the crimpers. And you can also get cultivators that work in mulch. Those lift the mulch up and draw a blade under it to deal with small weeds that are beginning to grow.”

The pair also got a no–till drill from the ACRE program through MDAR. It cost over $16,000 and Currie says they never would have bought one without the grant. It is for use in planting small seeds into any kind of residue.

“There is no PTO,” he explains. “It is all ground driven. It cuts through the slice of mulch, the seed is dropped down one of as many as nine tubes, and then a wheel tamps it all down. If you don’t want to use all 9 you can close off one or more. I got it 6 feet wide, exactly as wide as the tractor. You need about 60 horsepower to use it. Most of the problem is the weight, which is about 3000 pounds. You have to be able to lift it off the ground. It looks complicated, but once I used it and understood it, I see it is really simple.”

“The seed comes from a hopper into 9 little pouches,” he continues, “and a paddle picks it up. You can control how much that hole opens up, and how fast the paddle goes. You tend to get several seeds going through at once, so you have to use it for plants that can tolerate being clumped together like grains, grasses, radishes, etc. It would be tough for crops that need more precise spacing. It is great for reseeding pastures, which we used to do with a broadfork and by broadcasting seed.

Chuck and Marie also built a storage facility in the barn with coolbots and hard insulation panels. There are four different areas, with different temperatures and humidity levels. Root crops want it cold and humid, alliums like it cold and dry, winter squash and sweet potatoes like it just cool and dry, greens like it cool and damp. The coolbot controls an air conditioner scaled to 25,000 BTUs, the largest wall unit you can get. In the winter a fan draws out the heat at night and brings in cold outdoor air. That helps a lot as coolbots have more trouble cooling in the 40˚ and below range.

Currie and Kaziunas are focused on trying to do a better job building healthy soil by reducing tillage and compaction, using more mulch and cover crops, and rotating crops and animals. The advantages are obvious.

“Long term, of course,” says Chuck, “reduced tillage is the best solution to the weed problem. When you till you keep bringing up fresh weed seeds. Also no–till greatly reduces the fertility you have to bring in to the farm. Fungi and bacteria are constantly breaking down what you already have and making it available to plants. Also, if you are not adding bagged fertilizers you also don’t need as much lime.”

The couple don’t use many bagged fertilizers or dried manure, although they use a little soybean meal, sul–po–mag, and minerals. They do use a lot of compost –– its about 75% of their fertility. Most of it is bought in and that is a big expense they would like to avoid.

“We make enough compost to handle perhaps half the vegetables we are growing now,” figures Currie, “using our manure and crop waste. You can get almost the same amount of crops off a half of an acre no–till as you can off a full acre with tillage. That would be a significant reduction in our expenses if we could raise the same yield on less land, and make all of our own compost for it.

“We could do also do a lot more mulching,” he continues, “especially with green material. If we could go out and cut the grass when it is still green, stick it into a manure spreader or forage wagon, and use that to mulch the crops, we would get moisture retention, weed control, and 50 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre with the decomposing green matter. It is like side–dressing your crop with nitrogen. If you wait until the hay is dry you have pretty much lost all of that.”

Grazing their animals, and rotating them with crops, is another practice they are doing more of. Currently they move their cows through 10 or 12 paddocks, Savory style, to get maximum use of their pasture. They are planning to work a cover cropped paddock into these rotations.

Hedgerows are important for biodiversity and for soil quality, enabling living root systems to sustain soil life during periods when the crops are gone. The pair would like to use them more, but it would like to have more permanency in their tenancy for setting up long term projects like that.

Complex cover crops can be both soil builders and forage if planned properly.

“In one of our fields we grew winter peas and triticale,” says Chuck, “and once they were dry and ready to harvest we turned the pigs in there in sections. They ate a lot of the peas and triticale, cleaned it up and got it pretty much flat, then we ran the chickens on the residue. They scratched and mixed in things, and their manure also helped the straw break down a lot, mixing in the nitrogen with the high carbon. When we came in after all that, you could push a ground rod three feet into the soil, it was such nice stuff! It was in cover crops and then got tilled in without anything driving over it! We would have been able to drill cover crop seed right into that if we had the no–till then. We could have saved all the mowing, chisel plowing, and disking.

“We have a spring brassica section,” he continues, “that we flail mowed and then instead of plowing or disking it we just direct seeded a cover crop of Sorghum Sudan and sunn hemp right into the kale. Our mower broke so there was a ten day window between when I mowed it and seeded it, and I would have come back and mowed one more time before seeding, but I couldn’t. The kale was already tall. So we planted that whole area without disturbing the soil much. The cover crop is coming up nicely beneath the kale. We can graze it when it is tall enough.”

“If you are careful you can put cover crops into cropped areas and graze both the residue and the cover crops once they have grown,” Marie adds. “Given the organic regulations, however, you usually can’t graze an area before putting in a vegetable crop. You may run into the 90 or 120 day ‘raw manure’ prohibition on harvesting the crop too soon after animals have been in the field.”

I asked Currie for an example of using cover crops, grazing them, and planting a vegetable crop into the residue that would meet organic standards. He told me about one situation where that worked for them: “We put in a cover crop where we had a cash crop the year before. In the spring, about April, we put the sheep or cows in and they grazed the cover crop down as tight as they could to the ground. That also saved us the task of mowing it. We like most any grass/legume mix of cover crops –– Vetch a little bit less, but we like triticale and peas just because they are the fastest growing and the easiest to overwinter. Rye is okay but it seems to bolt really fast in the spring, where triticale stays leafier longer. Triticale just comes out better for us. Maybe it’s our soil, but it is lusher and we have less bare ground when we use triticale instead of rye. We’ve kind of gone to a mix now. We use peas, rye and triticale. You can even put vetch in there as well. Or oats, or something. We try to get up to three or four species. But the livestock grazes that in the Spring, right down to the ground. Then we chisel plow and disc a couple of times, and plant our winter squash. It has to be a crop that has a long season so you have that 120 days the regulations require. With the new roller crimper we think we can just use that on the cover crop and plant winter squash right into that. The plan with the winter squash is to underseed it with clover, so that once we harvest the squash off we will be able to mow it but there will still be some clover in there and we can use the no–till drill to plant our oats or peas or triticale for the following year. We need to get those in by late September or early October, so we try to get the winter squash out by September 15.”

Chuck feels that the hardest part of farming vegetables while being sensitive to soil and soil life is managing the weed situation. You have to have some way to lower weed pressure during the transition to no–till until you get the benefit of not turning up weed seeds. They cultivate with hand tools, rotate in cover crops and animals, and have tried to solarize this year with greenhouse plastic on a 60 x 60 foot square to lower weed pressure. They also had a plan to get silage tarps and kill weeds with shade, too, but were so short handed they didn’t have time.

For the future, the pair plans to try out their new equipment to avoid tillage as much as possible, reduce vegetable growing areas in favor of more intense production via greenhouses, more labor and irrigation, cut down on black plastic and increase natural farm–produced mulch, benefit from lower weed pressure resulting from no–till practices, and more creatively use cover crops and grazing.

“I think if you really want to see people be able to produce food to feed people healthfully for many generations,” Marie offers, “you have to be able to farm differently. Thinking about it is the first step, and then we have to find practices that work on different scales and be able to implement them economically.”

Sustainable Farming Leaders Strategize for Healthy Soils Across the Nation

Over the course of two sunny days in Seattle, 14 sustainable agriculture organizations convened a strategy meeting to advance healthy soil legislation. We gathered as farmers, farmer-based organizations and advocates working in more than 20 states and nationwide to explore pathways at the forefront of healthy soils advocacy.

The meeting was the culmination of more than eight months of webinars and resource sharing building upon a burgeoning interest nationwide in the potential of agricultural soil health to mitigate climate change, enhance on-farm resilience to extreme weather and drought, and improve water and air quality.

Front line from left to right: Renata Brillinger, California Climate and Agriculture Network, Amy Winzer, CalCAN, Cat Buxton, Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition, Elizabeth Henderson, NOFA-NY, Sarah Laeng-Gilliatt, NOFA-NH, Liz Stelk, Illinois Stewardship Alliance Back row from left to right: Peter Lehner, EarthJustice, NY, Benjamin Anderson, Land Stewardship Project, MN, Ellen Stern Griswold, Maine Farmland Trust, Erin Foster West, National Young Farmers Coalition, Megan Kemple, Oregon Climate and Agriculture Network, Maggie Zaback, Northern Plains Resource Council, Steve Charter, Western Land Owners Alliance, Joanna Will, Kansas Rural Center, Katie Rock, Center for Rural Affairs, IA, Marty Dagoberto, NOFA/Mass, Lauren Lum, CalCAN

The organizations present listed at the end share a common understanding of the climate volatility threatening America’s farms such as flooding, drought and fires. We also understand the powerful solutions farmers and ranchers have to offer to address environmental problems, especially when equipped with sufficient resources to adopt practices that increase organic matter and the biological health of the soil, enhance water quality and water retention rates, and sequester carbon. To that end, we recognize the importance of using farmer-informed policy to scale up these solutions, leveraging robust funding and incentives, technical assistance and research to accelerate the widespread adoption of soil stewardship practices.

There were several objectives for our meeting: to become more familiar with the work of our organizations; to compare and contrast existing and emerging models of legislation and policies that incentivize healthy soils practices; and to share grassroots organizing and campaign strategy experience and lessons.

We familiarized ourselves with several creative state and federal policy tools that could incentivize healthy soils practices including:

  • Cap-and-trade programs (such as those existing in CA, the northeast and proposed in OR and WA)
  • Bond measures
  • Creation of state healthy soils programs
  • Impact fees on fertilizers and water quality contaminants
  • Reform of various federal farm bill programs (e.g., crop insurance, Conservation Stewardship Program) to expand use of healthy soils management practices
  • Water quality mitigation programs
  • Funding healthy soils as a disaster preparedness tool for flooding and drought

We discovered the value in discussing challenges faced by farmers struggling to stay in business while facing natural resources limits, climate change impacts and a host of other difficult trends in the agriculture sector. Though our work takes place within many different contexts spanning the entire country, common themes emerged. We all work with and on behalf of some of the country’s most innovative farmers and ranchers leading the way on techniques that are both economically advantageous to producers and ecologically beneficial. We all appreciate the importance of pursuing policies that deliver funding and technical resources that support transitions to ecological and regenerative agriculture practices. And we know that it is imperative to form coalitions that put farmer leaders at the center while also building relationships with other politically influential partners in sectors such as conservation, environmental justice, health and others.

The group left inspired by one another and with a desire to stay connected, to continue sharing resources, to research and strategize at the regional level on specific legislative ideas, and to expand our conversation to include other experts and potential allies.

In Memory of William Norton Duesing, 1942 to 2018

Bill DuesingWilliam Norton Duesing, known to all as Bill, died at 75 on July 12, 2018 at the Connecticut Hospice in Branford, Connecticut. Bill was born on August 19, 1942 in Detroit, Michigan and was predeceased by his parents, Howard Ernest Duesing and Charlotte Morehouse Duesing.

Bill is survived by his wife, Suzanne Mann Skorpen Duesing and his children: Daniel Ethan Duesing and his wife, Kassie Murphy of Simsbury, Connecticut and Kira Suzanne Skorpen Spinner and her husband James of Middlebury, Connecticut. He will be sorely missed by his six grandchildren: Nicholas, Brian and Charlie Spinner and Zoe, Charlotte and Kingston Duesing.

He also leaves his sister Alice Duesing Sloan and her husband Paul of Alvin, Texas and their children and grandchildren, as well as his brother John Duesing and his wife Pam Clark of West Des Moines, Iowa.

Bill was most at home outdoors in the natural environment. He enjoyed spending time on the Old Solar Farm in his gardens, walking in the woods, and tent camping throughout his life. After graduating from Yale College with a B.A. in Fine Arts, he briefly attended the Yale School of Architecture. As a member of the artists’ group Pulsa, he created large-scale environmental art between 1967 and 1972 in museums and public spaces in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Halifax. Documents from that work were displayed recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. His art work with Pulsa is archived at: https://archive.org/search.php?query=pulsa+group. He also created environmental art installations in Lincoln Center, Central Park, and the New Haven Green during the 1970s and 1980s. Bill continued his interest in architecture by teaching solar design at Paier College of Art and the Milden Institute.

For 45 years, as an organic farmer, author, artist and environmental activist, Bill promoted organic agriculture, solar energy, and greater local food sufficiency in Connecticut and the Northeast through lectures, writings, media and community work. With his wife, Suzanne, he grew vegetables, fruits and flowers on their farm, while tirelessly advocating for a local and organic food system.
Bill was the founding president of Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CT NOFA) in 1982 and served for 12 years as the Executive Director. For many years, Bill served on the NOFA Interstate Council, including a decade as President. The Council awarded Bill the first “Bill Duesing Lifetime Achievement Award” at its 2015 Summer Conference. In his later years, he worked as the CT NOFA Organic Advocate, and as a consultant, mentoring new farmers. Bill shared personal reflections on his nearly four decades of involvement in the organic food movement with CT NOFA in his report about the 41st NOFA Summer Conference, which is available at: http://ctnofa1982.blogspot.com.

For three years, Bill chaired the board of the Community Farm of Simsbury, which trains farmers, educates urban and suburban students, and provides certified organic food to the needy. He was especially proud of his work with Once Upon a Farm in Bethany, Connecticut where he was recently honored by having his name grace the Learning and Education Center there. Bill was awarded the Bronze Medal by the Federated Garden Clubs of Connecticut in 2010 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from PACE (People’s Action for Clean Energy) in 2014. He was a founding board member and past president of the Connecticut Farmland Trust. He also served on the steering committee of the Connecticut Working Lands Alliance. Bill is the author of Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future. These essays, written decades ago, are still relevant today.

Bill’s passion for educating youth was evident in his work as founding chair of the New Haven Ecology project and the establishment of one of the first charter schools in the state. The Common Ground High School continues to successfully educate young people on its farm located in New Haven. In addition, Bill gardened for years with Suzanne and her elementary students in Bridgeport.

For 10 years, Bill wrote and delivered a weekly environmental essay on public radio from Fairfield, CT. Until recently, he could be heard every other week on WPKN radio on the Organic Farm Stand with Guy Beardsley and Richard Hill. Richard has created a legacy piece on Bill’s life which is now available as a podcast on WPKN. The University of Massachusetts library has archived five years of his weekly “Living on the Earth” radio essays and recordings of 14 “Politics of Food” radio shows on this page: http://scua.library.umass.edu/digital/duesing.

A memorial to celebrate Bill’s amazing life will be held at the Common Ground High School in New Haven on September 8, 2018 at 4 pm.

Those who wish to continue Bill’s life’s work can join his many friends and CT NOFA to carry on his legacy. Each year at CT NOFA’s Winter Conference, “The Bill Duesing Organic Living On The Earth Award” will be given to a deserving farmer, organic landscaper, advocate or an organization that demonstrates devotion to Bill’s goals of loving and treating the earth respectfully. If you are inspired by his dedication, his grace and his strength, you can support this award by donating in his honor to Bill Duesing Fund at CT NOFA: The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut at: bit.ly/billduesingfund.

Letters to the Editor

Samuel Kaymen and Gary Hirshberg

Samuel Kayman and Gary Hirshberg in the old days

Hi Jack,

Congratulations on another fact-filled and informative issue. You did a great job of putting together material from before your time in NOFA. But I wanted to alert you to one rather grievous error in the photos…you erroneously identified a photo of Jack Cook “outstanding in his field” as Samuel Kaymen! I did a Google images search, and sure enough, UMass archive also has it incorrectly identified. I just sent them a note, and had previously given them complete captions on all my photos, which seem to have been lost.

As for the rest of the issue, I do have to raise a couple of concerns:

One important organic ally goes unacknowledged. While there is a reference to the role played by OFPANA (now the Organic Trade Association) in organizing the Organic Farmers Associations Caucus (OFAC) to lobby for passage of the OFPA, there is no mention of the ongoing role of OTA in advancing the organic agenda in Washington and in the scientific community, as well as in the marketplace. NOFA was instrumental in the formation of OTA in 1985, yet today only NOFA-Vermont claims membership in the organization. I know that many NOFA members take issue with some of OTA’s positions and I certainly have had my own disagreements with them. Nevertheless, we don’t all have to agree on everything to form alliances to further common goals, and it serves no one for NOFA to refuse to engage with an important organic stakeholder.

I continue to be dismayed at the tone of enmity and sheer paranoia with regard to the National Organic Program expressed in policy statements made on NOFA’s behalf. Beyond unsubstantiated innuendo, the piece entitled “Attacks on Organic Integrity—Where Do We Go From Here?” repeats several items of misinformation about earlier drafts of the NOP as well as ill informed interpretations of current NOP policy.
Best regards — Grace Gershuny, Barnet, VT

Hi Grace,
Wow, sorry about the photo error! I didn’t know Jack Cook (one of my predecessors as editor of this noble journal) and, as you say, the UMass archive where I got it had misidentified the photo. Thanks for the correction. I am publishing a photo of Samuel and Gary Hirshberg here for those interested.

On your other points (sorry I had to trim them for space) I think OTA lost much of my respect when it supported congressional legislation to turn back the Ar-thur Harvey court victory on organic standards in 2003, and lost the rest for not standing firm against preemption of state GMO labeling laws in 2016. I do not see an ally there, more an opportunist. I will let Steve respond in the next issue on his article if he wants, but I do feel that many NOP supporters are very dis-appointed with it recently, witness the failure to promulgate the animal welfare rule and aggressively pushing through a divisive sunset definition.
Gratefully – Jack