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Shumei'S engliSh language Quarterly magazine

Vol. 299 winter 2013

Elevating Our Spirits Through Hoshi

Sensei eugene imai with ophelia tong

In Remembrance of Hashimoto Sensei

Sensei eugene imai, Sensei Joe amanai,
Sensei Seiji tajima, eriko welsh,
Jim (Keiji) Kashiwagi, Francois Kuwata,
& Satoru nakano

Life in the Soil

elaine ingham, PhD


Life in the Soil

(paRTS I & II)
Elaine Ingham, PhD (USA)
Chief Scientist, Rodale Institute

giving Shumei natural agriculture

a scientific basis would have been
unthinkable when Shumei's
founder, Mokichi okada, first
pioneered this agricultural practice.
It was initially a spiritual practice
based on a good deal of common
sense. Yet, today, the art, spirit,
and science of natural agriculture's
approach seems to be coming
into accord.
Here, dr. Elaine Ingham lends
scientific insight unto a spiritual
practice of food cultivation.
parts III & IV of dr. Ingham's article
will appear in the Spring 2013
edition of SHUMEI Magazine.

The following article derives from a presentation that Dr.

Ingham gave at the Natural Agriculture Conference on
January 21, 2012, at Shumei Hall in Pasadena. The text has
been edited for use in this publication. This is the first and
second of a fourpart series.
n March of 2011, just aer starting as Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute, I toured the Shumei garden at the Institute and
began to understand the principles that embody Natural
Agriculture. It was wonderfully enlightening to find people
who share a similar attitude that natural processes must be the basis for agriculture. My expertise is focused on the sets of organisms that exist in soil, and the processes these organisms perform
in natural soils. Looking at what happens to these organisms in
current conventional agricultural systems is extremely depressing.
We need to understand what life is necessary in soil, how these
organisms function, and what conditions must be present for soil
organisms to perform their beneficial jobs.
e more we maintain the proper conditions
for the workers in the soil, the better we
mimic nature, and the higher the quality in
our foods.
How does nature grow plants? Conventional agriculture does things dierently than
the way things are done in natural systems.
We need to understand how those dierences
influence and aect the soil, plants and the
quality of plants. We need to understand the
damage conventional practices cause. We
need to learn how to maintain our plant pro- Dr. Elaine Ingham
duction systems as naturally as possible, realizing that short term gain in yields costs too much to the long
term health and balance of the system. What are the constraints
we impose? What are the sets of organisms that need to be there?
How do these organisms behave in a natural system and how can
we use them in our agricultural systems?

The soil food web is comprised of the different organism

groups in soil: bacteria, fungi (including mycorrhizal fungi),
Shumei magazine \ winter 2013


The rural spender of the Rodale Institute's grounds in Kutztown, Pennsylvania,

where Dr. Elaine Ingham works as the institute's chief scientist.

protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, and larger organisms.

These organisms interact to perform the functions needed by
plants in the soil: disease suppression (around roots and
around aboveground parts of plants), nutrient retention (so
leaching loss of nutrients does not occur), nutrient cycling
(making nutrients available to plants but mainly just in the root
zone), decomposition of waste materials, and building of soil
structure so roots can grow as deep as the plant requires.
Food web structure varies with season, climate, soil type,
age of the ecosystem, etc. The existing food web will select for
the growth of certain plants, and against the growth of others.
Thus, defining health of the soil must be done relative to the
desired plant. Is this food web healthy for this plant? To promote health, we need to understand soil as nature designed it.
Plants have existed on this planet for at least the last billion
years, meaning that the linkage between certain plants being
selected by certain sets of organisms in the soil, and vice versa,
has had plenty of time to develop.
To understand this system, then, we need to start at the
beginning. The process of photosynthesis in plants uses sunlight energy to bond carbon molecules together and form
sugars. Plants store sunlight energy by bonding one carbon
from one carbon dioxide molecule, with another carbon from
a second carbon dioxide molecule. Depending on what the
plant needs, and its physiology, additional carbons can be
bonded to the chain, storing energy in that sugar for future use.
The sugar formed can be used to grow the plant, or it can be
sent to the root system to escort nitrogen, in the form of an
amino acid or protein, for example, to where the plant needs
it. These sugars will bond with phosphorus, sulfur, magnesium,
calcium, potassium, sodium, or any other nutrient in order to
move those nutrients to where the plant needs that nutrient to
continue growing.
All nutrients, except CO2 and sunlight, are provided to the
plant through the soil. Soluble, inorganic forms of nutrients,
move into the plant by simple diffusion into the roots, but the


winter 2013 / Shumei magazine

inorganic nutrients have to be converted from the ionic form,

into carbonbound forms once, inside the root, in order to prevent harm to the plant. Thus, once the soluble nutrient is inside the root, the plant uses enzymes to attach the nutrients to
the carbon backbone of sugar from photosynthesis.
How many necessary nutrients are required for plants to
grow? When I was a child, scientists talked about only three
necessary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, or
NPK. All that was needed to grow a plant, right? Wrong! By the
time I was in high school, scientists realized more than NPK
was needed to grow a plant. By then it was twelve important
nutrients, including Na, S, Ca, Mg, B, C, O, Fe, and Zn. By the
time I was in graduate school, the number of important nutrients jumped from 12 to 18. Today, scientists would say 42.
And will we discover more necessary nutrients? Probably. Science continues to discover more essential nutrients all the
time. In fact, probably all of the nutrients found in soil are necessary in some amount.
Consider the fact that all the nutrients plants need are
found in soil. They are present in excess in the rocks, pebbles,
and particles of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. Inorganic
fertilizers are not needed, as the farmers and horticulturalists
of Shumei Natural Agriculture have taught for many years.
But it is the organisms in soil that convert those nutrients in the
sand, silt, clay, rocks, and pebbles from nonplantavailable
forms into plantavailable nutrients. It is critical to have the organisms that perform these jobs present in adequate number,
and balance, to be able to grow healthy plants.
If the beneficial organisms in soil are killed through inappropriate management, plants cannot get mineral nutrients
from the soil. If plants cannot get mineral nutrients, then they
will either die, or humans will have to take over providing
those nutrients as inorganic fertilizers. Humans are not good
at knowing what inorganic nutrients plants require at any
given instant, and so we put on too much, in the wrong places,
at the wrong times, and soil is harmed even more. Those excess
nutrients also leach out of the soil and destroy soil further

down the hill. Ultimately those excess inorganic nutrients

harm water and destroy the quality of our ecosystems all the
way to the ocean.
All agricultural soils, from young soils to ancient soil, contain all the nutrients needed to grow plants. Why is it, then, that
you are told by fertilizer salesmen that your soil is poor, that it
does not contain the nutrients needed to grow plants? Be careful, a trick is being played on you by people trying to sell you
a product. Your soil has the nutrients in it, but if your plants
show signs of poor fertility, what are lacking is the organisms
to change nutrients that are present in the soil from a plantunavailable form into a plantavailable form. What you lack is the
biology, the organisms, to convert the nutrients that are present in your soil into a form of nutrient your plant can use.
We need to have a full diversity of all these organisms in
our soil. Each group of organism performs different basic
functions. Disease, insect pests, and weeds are all actually
messages from nature trying to tell you exactly what's present
or missing in your soil. Just because human beings have paid
no attention does not mean that nature gives up trying to get
our attention. Disease, weeds, pests, and poor plant growth are
signs that you do not have the right sets of organisms present
in your soil. However, you were taught by people who want to
sell you a product, that you should pick up a toxic chemical to
kill the organisms, or to fix the lack of nutrients. Neither of the
chemical approaches fixes the problem in a sustainable fashion.
Use a chemical and most likely you will need to use more
chemicals. Perfect for the salesman. Not so good for your soil,
your health, or your pocketbook.
When a disturbance occurs, such as a landslide, flood, or fire,
all the organic matter that was present may be lost either as a
result of being burned or buried deep in the earth. Regardless,
nature immediately starts to build soil again. The first things
that return after a catastrophic disturbance are photosynthetic
bacteria. These bacteria gain energy from sunlight, fix nitrogen from atmospheric sources, and solubilize all other needed
minerals from rocks, sand, silt, and clay. Photosynthetic bacteria do not need organic matter in order to function. Instead
they release waste products, which are the organic materials
that other organisms require. Lichens and algae will colonize
as well, but all these organisms hold the mineral nutrients
they solubilize in their biomass. Plants cannot grow yet, because no soluble nutrients are being released from the bacterial, lichen or algal biomass. Nutrient cycling has not yet begun
to occur.
However, all these photosynthetic organisms release organic waste products, which give nonphotosynthetic bacteria
and fungi something to consume and grow on. As bacterial and
fungal diversity increases, and more organisms become present to solubilize mineral nutrients from rock, sand, silt and clay,
their biomass reaches a critical threshold that will support
predator populations. When protozoa arrive, they can survive
and flourish. Protozoa eat bacteria, and release plant available
nutrients. With the arrival of predators, nutrient cycling begins.
At first, only enough nutrient cycling occurs to maintain bac-

terial, fungal and predator populations. But as their numbers

increase, eventually a rooted plant will be given the nutrients
it needs, and plants will begin to germinate and grow.
To keep nutrients in soil and prevent them from washing
away when plants are not growing, bacteria and fungi must be
active and growing. Bacteria and fungi eat significantly different kinds of materials. Fungi are better at using lignin, cellulose, and other woody kinds of materials. Bacteria are better at
using simple materials like sugars, structurally simple carbohydrates and proteinsnot the more complex, woody things.
Both bacteria and fungi hold the full range of nutrients necessary to support life in their biomass. So if you have a good soil
food web, there is no need to worry about nutrients leaching
from the soil.
But if your soil lacks diverse microbial life and living
plants growing on the surface, then the soluble nutrients present in your soil will leach downstream to damage any ecosystem they encounter. Chemical fertilizer salesmen will tell you
to put inorganic fertilizer on in the fall. But plants are not growing in the fall. As fall rains occur and the first few snowfalls
melt, if there is poor microbial life in the soil, there will be
nothing to hold that fertilizer. In that case, there is a crying
need to add the required soil organisms to prevent leaching.
So, let us say you have a good level of bacteria and fungi
in the soil. Nutrients are being held in the bodies of the bacteria and fungi. But now you put the seeds for your plants in
the soil, and you want plantavailable nutrients to be released. You want just the right amount of nutrients to be
made into plant available forms to support your young plants,
but not too much in order to avoid loss of those soluble nutrients. How does this work in the real world? How does nature make it work? Cannot we mimic this system, if we understand what it is?
Predators are needed to eat bacteria and fungi and release
plantavailable nutrients of all kinds. Protozoa and bacterial
feeding nematodes eat bacteria. Fungalfeeding nematodes
eat fungi! Microarthropods eat fungi for the most part, and
maybe a few nematodes and worms too.
Most people have heard about the bad nematodes that eat
roots. Not until people start learning about soil life do they find
out about beneficial nematodes. If a nematicide, or a nematodekilling toxic chemical is applied, all nematodes, not just
the bad guys, are killed. We want the good guy nematodes to be
left alone, because they make nutrients available to your plant.
But we kill the good with the bad via the toxic chemical approach. And once killed, it will be bad guy root feeding nematodes that recover faster than the beneficial nematodes.
This means if a toxic chemical is used, the exact things that you
wanted to kill or suppress will actually be the first to come back.
This helps the chemical pesticides sellers to make more money
as they sell you more, and more, and more toxic chemicals.
And all the while, as you spend more and more money, the
problem is becoming worse. When pesticides are reused, the
very organisms that suppress and control the problem organisms are killed. As the organisms that control the pest are lost,
the worse the problem becomes.
Shumei magazine \ winter 2013


Include plenty of good fungal and bacterial foods.

Where do the organisms in compost come from? Both the

beneficial and harmful ones come from the surface of the
plant material put into the compost pile at the start. The conditions that develop in the composting process select for the
growth of the beneficial (aerobic), or the harmful (anaerobic)
microorganisms. The organisms that live in the habitats surrounding a living plant are present on that plant material when
it is added to the compost pile, and they grow when conditions
in the pile are right for them. If the conditions are not right,
then the organism stays dormant or becomes dormant.
Thus, if you disturb your soil by tilling or digging in it, you
need to replace the soil microorganisms that were damaged by
the management you did. Is it unnatural to put back what we
have harmed? As long as we make compost that contains the
beneficial organisms of that place of its origin, that compost
will maintain the set of organisms that should be present. We
need to consider and discuss these things, especially because
Natural Agriculture practice suggests that compost can be
highly beneficial. When compost is considered to be bad, I suspect the reason it is considered bad, is because of a particular
situation where the compost used was not really compost at all,
but rather an anaerobic, smelly, black organic matter that
would harm plants.

Maintain good moisture levels through the entire

composting process.

part II

Can we get rid of rootfeeding nematodes? It is the good

guy nematodes, the bacterialfeeding nematodes, the fungal
feeding nematodes, and the predatory nematodes along with
microarthropods that suppress, inhibit and consume the bad
guy nematodes.
How did populations of rootfeeding nematodes, or any
other problem organism, increase in your soil? Nature builds
soil, but disturbance destroys soil. Every time soil is disturbed,
via plowing, digging, or compaction, some portion of the life
in the soil is harmed. Consider the disturbances common in
agriculture. When plows and tillage are used, fungi, protozoa
and nematodes will be crushed, sliced to shreds, pounded
into dust.
Can we replace the life killed by tillage, inorganic fertilizer, or
toxic pesticides and herbicides? Where can we find the whole
set of organisms required to make our soil healthy? The easiest and simplest source is good compost. The most important
factors in making good compost are:
Keep it aerobic at all times.

Maintain adequate but not too high temperature for

correct amount of time to kill weed seeds and
human or plant pathogens.
If making worm compost, weed seeds have to be killed
first by high temperature before adding to the worm bin, but
then the beneficial aerobic organisms in the worms take care
of the pathogens.
How do you tell if your compost is aerobic? It should
smell like good forest soil. The just before rain smell is not what
you want; actinobacteria make that material and while good for
brassicas, it is not desirable for any other crops.
Anaerobic conditions result in the growth of the organisms that produce the bad smells. For example, only under
anaerobic conditions can ammonia be produced. If in doubt
about what the ammonia smell is, go to the grocery store and
buy a bottle of ammonia. Open it, and carefully waft a little
of the gas escaping from the liquid by your nose. If soil, compost, or lake or pond water smell like ammonia, then nitrogen, one of the most vital nutrients needed to grow plants, is
being lost. The ammonia smell indicates that nitrogen is being lost as a gas.
Similarly, a rotten egg smell can only be produced when
conditions are anaerobic. That smell occurs when any inorganic, soluble sulfur compound is reduced to hydrogen sulfide.
Sulfur is needed by plants, and its loss as a gas can reduce yields.
There are many other examples of toxic anaerobic compounds
that harm plants, and most of these materials are only produced in anaerobic conditions.

winter 2013 / Shumei magazine

Having briefly explained how we replace the complex set of organisms that need to be in soil, let us make sure to cover all the
important points regarding a healthy soil food web. If all of the
soil microorganisms are in the proper balance, disease will be
suppressed because plants put out specific exudates to grow exactly the right bacteria and fungi around every part of the root
system, protecting all the roots.
What is an exudate? Exudates are mostly sugars from photosynthesis, a little bit of protein and some carbohydrate. If I
sent you into your kitchen and asked you to make a recipe of
mostly sugar, a little bit of protein and a little bit of carbohydrate, what would you end up making? Cakes and cookies.
Thus, root systems of plants release different cakes and different cookies depending on which bacterial or fungal species the
plant wants to have working for it at any point in time. The
plant may put out one type of exudate in order to grow those
bacteria and fungi that prevent the growth of fungal diseases.
In another part of the root system, the plant may put out foods
that grow those bacteria that solubilize iron because the plant
needs more iron. Because there are billions of bacteria and
miles of fungal hyphae around that root, the plant is protected
from disease organisms. No disease causing organisms can
survive in that root area because there is no space left and no
food left for something unfriendly to consume.
Predators are attracted to the root system, bringing nutrients
and eating the harmful organisms, as well as the other bacteria
and fungi present, and thus releasing plant available nutrients.
Like pizza delivery guys, predators deliver precisely the nutrients
your plant needs right to the surface of the root.

Is not nature amazing? If we just get the proper microbial life

back into our soil, then there is no need to apply inorganic fertilizers. Hopefully, you begin to understand that the management
you have been doing in Shumei Natural Agriculture has a scientific basis.
So soil amendments are not needed if you have the right sets
of organisms in the soil to do the work. ink about the fact that
your plant puts out the foods to grow billions of bacteria on
every bit of its surface and supports miles of fungal hyphae growing around its root system. Bacteria and fungi form a castle wall
to protect your plant from disease and pests.
How many species of bacteria and fungi are in that wall?
Every species of bacteria or fungi grow best in one particular
set of conditions. One species grows best at zero degrees, one
grows best at five degrees, another grows best at ten degrees,
and so on. Some species grow better at low moisture, while others grow best at higher moisture. Each species also needs different levels of calcium, or CO2 concentration, or iron, or
boron, and the list goes on and on. There are an unfathomable
number of factors that will cause one species to do better and
another one to die out.
When you start thinking about all those factors, how many
species of bacteria are needed in soil? Research is being done at
many institutions all over the world, such as the Center for Microbial Ecology at Michigan State University, Cornell University,
Auburn University, UC Davis, and so forth, using DNA analysis
to determine that there are a million species of bacterial in one
acre of woodlot soil in Michigan, along with five hundred thousand species of fungi, thousands of species of protozoa, and hundreds of species of nematodes. And that is just in one wooded
acre in Michigan. Imagine other woodlots in Colorado, or California, each with its unique cast of millions of species from all
these dierent organism groups.
If we destroy that life, how can we replace it rapidly and easily? e answer is: Make compost. If your soil lacks anything, you
can put it back with good compost. If you do not disturb your soil,
then the life in that soil will not be lost. If you disturb your soil,
then you may need to help remediate the damage that you have
done. e goal is to help nature's organisms get back to the
proper balance so that the natural nutrient cycling processes can
occur at the rate they need to occur.
Disease suppression depends on having all these species
functioning, so that every second of every day, the roots, leaves,
flowers, fruits, and stems are protected by this castle wall, no matter how environmental conditions change.
With this massive set of organisms growing on all surfaces
of the plant, and all these organisms needing the proper balance
of nutrients in their bodies, nutrients will be taken up, held, sequestered, and retained. ese nutrients will not leach or be lost
through water movement, because the bacteria and fungi are
glued and bound to plant surfaces, organic matter surfaces and
sand, silt, and clay surfaces.
But then, how are all these nutrients turned back into plant
available forms? When bacteria and fungi are eaten by predators,
nutrients are released in plant available forms. Given that plants
are most demanding of nutrients in the springtime, most predators need to be most active during that time.

How does your plant make sure that this nutrientcycling

system is rapidly providing all the nutrients that the plant needs?
When your plant needs lots and lots of nutrients, it puts out lots
and lots of cakes and cookies through its root exudates so bacteria and fungi grow rapidly and take up all available nutrients from
soil water, organic matter, soil particles and rocks. Beneficial
predators are attracted into the root system, which then eat the
bacteria and fungi and release plant available nutrients right
there at the root surface.
When the plant's growth slows down and it does not need
as many nutrients, an example would be when the plant starts
to make seed, then the plant directs more of its energy to the
flowers and the seeds. When that happens, less energy is being released in the soil, so fewer cakes and cookies are released,
the bacteria and fungi no longer grow rapidly, and the protozoa lose interest in the root system. The protozoa, bacteria,
and fungi may go into dormant phase as the soil nutrient cycling system slows down.
Another really important function these organisms perform is to
build soil structure. Fungi produce threads, or strands, as they
grow. A dead brown leaf can be decomposed by fungi rapidly, and
within a few days that leaf changes from mostly cellulose and
lignin to fungal biomass and humus. Bacteria cannot use dead
brown leaves as food, because their nutrient concentration of
everything from nitrogen to zinc is too low.
When fungi start to consume plant material, however, they
release sugars that bacteria can use. So leaf decomposition is a
twostep process. Fungi have to come first to start breaking up
the leaves, and bacteria can then scavenge the sweets that the
fungi do not use.

EXAMPLE ONE: typical Beneficial Soil Fungi

e beneficial fungi we want to see always look like strands or
threads of uniform diameter tubes growing from their tip. Fungi
can be black, tan, red, golden, or clear, and can be narrow, under
two micrometers, or wide, greater than three micrometers.
Shumei magazine \ winter 2013


As all these material get pulled together, airspaces appear between the aggregates in areas that were once filled with bits and
pieces, creating space for oxygen and water to move very easily
through the soil.
How many of you see water puddling on the soil's surface
in the springtime or after a rain? Through these puddles, nature is trying to send you a message. Puddles indicate areas
where there's poor soil structure and the needed bacteria and
fungi are not present. No hallways and passageways are available to allow good infiltration of water or air or roots. Compaction layers are likely present and soil life is lacking. Learn
to read all the messages that nature is trying to send. How do
you prevent puddles or compaction? Put organisms back in
that soil.
Once micro and macroaggregates are built, larger organisms
need to move the particles around and form larger spaces. Protozoa, nematodes, and microarthropods rearrange the macroaggregate furniture and make bigger spaces appear. Does soil have
feng shui? Absolutely, and it is built by the organisms that live in
the soil. No life: no feng shui.
EXAMPLE TWO: Soil Bacteria
Bacteria are much smaller than fungi, on the order of one to five micrometers. ey can be round, rodshaped, corkscrew shaped, and
Cshaped. Each of these shapes can have small diameters or very
wide diameters. Some species can move under their own power, although at least half of bacterial species cannot move by themselves.
Bacteria can clump in various patterns; such as chains of individuals, filaments that grow around themselves, colonies, picket fence
patterns, Vshaped pairs, or just as chains connected end to end.
We train people to identify these dierent organisms in soil.
A sample can easily be analyzed for microbial populations in
five to ten minutes, once you get good at identifying organisms.
ere are great videos of roots growing through soil showing the castle wall of bacteria and fungi surrounding the root. As
the root develops root hairs farther along its length, protozoa arrive to start nutrient cycling processes for the plant.
When roots grow through soil, the soil needs lots of spaces,
hallways, airways, and passageways so the root can grow without
expending energy to push its way through the soil. A better aggregated soil makes it easier for the root to reach the sites, nutrients and water it needs.
Soil aggregates, which are clumps of smaller soil particles
bound together, are built by all of the organisms in soil working
together. Sand, silt, and clay are pulled together by bacteria that
ooze gluelike exudates to bind the particles together. Aerobic
bacteria make copious amounts of glue to hold themselves on to
surfaces so they do not wash away from their food source. e
bacterium then glues some organic matter into place, then some
silt and clay, then more organic matter, then a sand grain, and so
on. is process creates a soil microaggregate.
A macroaggregate that can be seen with the naked eye requires fungi to bind its particles together, just like rope around
a group of packages, or microaggregates, made by the bacteria.

winter 2013 / Shumei magazine

EXAMPLE THREE: alaimus nematodes

e name of the above nematode is Alaimus, and she eats bacteria, then releases the nutrients previously held in the bacteria's
bodies in a plantavailable form. How do we tell that this is a nematode, and how do we figure out she is Alaimus? We identify organisms based on morphology. e mouthparts show us that
this is a bacterialfeeder. We want to know whether we have
enough of these beneficial nematodes in a teaspoon of soil. us,
we may need to scan through several drops of a slightly diluted
soil looking for these organisms. Typically, all this scanning work
is done under a microscope at 400X magnification. is low
magnification is easy to work with, making the soil analysis
process quite easy for people to learn and master.

e secret is to have the right balance of biology in the soil

to hold and release nutrients in exactly the right ways.

EXAMPLE FOUR: roots and Ciliate

A root crosses the lower part of this picture, while the top area is
occupied by a ciliate. Note the hairs coming o the ciliate's body.
ese are cilia, for which the group of organisms is named. Within
the root, note that you can see quite a number of dierent cells,
and so it is easy to distinguish it from a hypha of a fungus. ere
are aggregates made by bacteria all around the root; note the little round bacteria and the rod shaped bacteria in high number.
e color of the aggregate tells something about conditions
in the past. e tan color denotes fulvic acids, while the dark
brown to nearly black color denotes humic acid formation. ese
are both highly condensed, very beneficial foods for aerobic fungi.
ese forms of organic matter are a way to save foods in complex
forms so no microbes attack them too quickly.
e ciliate indicates that the sample is, or recently was, anaerobic. In the past, this soil may have been in good shape, based on the
humics, fulvics, and aggregates, but the material is or recently was
anaerobic, indicating that the soil may cause harm to plants. e
presence of the ciliate says that attention needs to be paid, and immediately, to this agricultural field to establish a better set of organisms, or face probability of diseases and pests or poor fertility.
With all of these organisms, we need to understand the balance of each organism for each plant, climate zone, soil, and condition. e relative biomass of fungi versus bacteria seems to be
an important determinant of pH, nutrient retention, and soil
structure, while the balance of protozoa and nematodes indicate
whether nutrients will be cycled rapidly enough to maintain nutrient concentrations in the root zone.
Consider how the nutrients needed by an old growth tree come
to be in the root zone of such trees. No one applies inorganic fertilizer to old growth forests. Yet, the increase in biomass and nutrients
stored in plant biomass is greater than that of any agricultural field. If
nature manages to grow old growth forests where more carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphate, and so on are sequestered each year, than
are removed from agricultural fields in crop yield, and yet no additions
of N, P, K, or any other nutrients are needed, then we need to pay attention to how these old growth systems manage to do this.

e largest organism on this planet, or at least the current winner,

is in Washington State. Paul E. Stamets1 has shown this fungal individual is possibly 20 miles wide, and goes from a couple inches
below the soil surface to as deep as 25 feet, creating a single individual fungus the size of a herd of blue whales. is organism
holds and retains nutrients in the soil on a massive scale. But come
springtime, the microarthropods, flying squirrels, earthworms, and
other predators in the old growth forest system wake up and feast
on that fungal tissue that grew without predators all winter long.
ese predators almost entirely consume the fungal tissue, almost
wiping it out. ink of all the nutrients released and cycled! But
come fall again, when the predators go to sleep, the fungus grows
and reaches the same size, and sometimes growing even larger.
Trees, on the other hand, do not release the nutrients they
take up until they are decomposed. ose nutrients are stored in
the tree's wood, branches and roots and will not be released to be
cycled for hundreds or even thousands of years.
So, from where do all the new nutrients for old growth trees
come? Nobody is out there putting inorganic fertilizer into that
forest and yet each year, old growth forests increase the nutrients
held in old growth tissue. Each year, more plant material continues to be stored in that forest than in any agricultural crop we harvest. How is this possible?
Where do the nutrients constantly come from? Both bacteria and fungi have the ability to solubilize nutrients that are in the
soil's parent material, sand, silt, clay, and organic matter. ere are
thousands of years' worth of mineral nutrients in sand. All minerals that plants need are in rock, except for nitrogen. Nitrogen gas
is found in the atmosphere, carbon, drawn from carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere, and energy, which is sunlight.
Bacteria and fungi have the enzyme systems to pull these
plantunavailable forms of nutrients from rock and convert them
into their own biomass. en bacteria and fungi are eaten by their
predators, resulting in the release of plantavailable nutrients.
Bacteria and fungi contain the most concentrated forms of N, P,
K, Ca, Fe, Zn, and other nutrients of any organisms on the planet,
so they hold and retain nutrients in an organic form. Predators release those nutrients in a plant available form.
Fungi in an old growth forest hold nutrients and then are almost completely eaten by predators in the spring and summer.
When the predators go to sleep in the dry, dry summertime, or
in the cold, cold winter time, the fungi start to regrow. Come
next spring the fungi are completely reestablished, and ready to
go again. ink of how dynamic a forest is! We need that fast a cycling system in our agricultural fields, and we can get it just by improving the soil microbial life in them.

1. Paul E. Stamets (b. 1955) is an American mycologist, author of numerous

books and papers. He is a strong advocate for bioremediation and medicinal
mushrooms. He is on the editorial board of The International Journal of
Medicinal Mushrooms, and is an advisor to the Program for Integrative
Medicine at the University of Arizona Medical School.
Shumei magazine \ winter 2013



Life in the Soil

Parts III & IV
Elaine Ingham, PhD (USA)
Chief Scientist, Rodale Institute

Giving Shumei natural Agriculture a scientific

basis would have been unlikely after Shumeis
founder, Mokichi okada, pioneered this approach
to agriculture. It was and still is primarily a
spiritual practice, based on unbiased observations
of natures workings, as well as a good deal of
common sense. Yet, today, as science and
spirituality evolve, an accord between them
seems at hand in the art of natural Agriculture.
Here, Dr. Elaine Ingham lends scientific insight
into a spiritual method of food cultivation.
This is the second and final installment of a fourpart article. The first and second parts can be
found in the Winter Edition, 2013 issue of
SHUMEI Magazine.

The following article derives from a

presentation that Dr. Ingham gave at a
Natural Agriculture Conference on
January 21, 2012, at Shumei Hall in
Pasadena. This is the second of a two-part
series. Part III is based on the conclusion of
Dr. Inghams presentation. Part IV is
drawn from a question and answer session
that followed the presentation. The text
has been edited and abridged for use in
this publication.
Elaine Ingham

Part III
n March of 2011, just aer becoming Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute, I toured the Shumei garden on the Institutes
grounds. It was then that I began to understand the principles of Natural Agriculture. It was enlightening to find people who share the attitude that natural processes must be the basis of agriculture.
My area of expertise is focused on organisms that live in
the soil, and the processes these organisms perform in natural soils. Looking at what happens to these organisms in current conventional agricultural is depressing. We must understand what life forms are necessary in soil, how these
organisms function, and what conditions are necessary for
these organisms to do their jobs and benefit the soil. The
more we maintain the proper conditions for the workers in the
soil, and the better we mimic nature, the higher the quality of
our foods becomes.
How does Nature grow plants? Conventional agriculture
does things differently than the natural systems do. We need
to understand how those differences influence and affect the
soil and the quality of plants. We need to understand the damage conventional practices cause. We need to learn how to
maintain our plant production systems as naturally as possible,
realizing that short-term gain in yields costs too much to the
long-term health and balance of the system. What are the con-



straints we impose? What are the sets of organisms that need to

be there? How do these organisms behave in a natural system
and how can we use them in our agricultural systems?

Benecial fungi are typically colored and have wide diameters.

ere is a very beneficial fungus in the picture above. We

know this because of its wide diameter and color. Colored fungi
are almost invariably beneficial. So the dark brown hyphae with
the diameter of about 3.5 micrometers is very good, as is the tancolored strand of slightly narrower diameter in the bottom le.
ere is a clear, colorless hypha a bit below midfield, but its diameter of five micrometers sets it in a beneficial category. Finally,
there is a strand of fungal hyphae that is clear, narrow diameter,
a bit out of focus, nearly parallel to the strand of brown fungus
above center field. A narrow diameter and clear color almost always means that fungi are pathogenic, or disease causing. us,
we can say something about the fungal community in this soil by
observing its morphology.
In this particular case, the bad fungus is Pythium, which is a
white rot fungus that can attack and destroy root systems. If we

plant in this soil, should we be concerned about disease? No, because competition from the good fungi will prevent the bad fungus from growing. What if we had used a fungicide, meant to kill
all fungi in the sample? All the beneficial, disease-competing fungi
would have been killed in the soil, and most likely the disease-causing fungi would survive in the soil at a level deeper than the fungicide penetrates. If that happens, be very worried, because the disease will be able to destroy the plants in this system. By maintaining
functioning beneficial organisms, in the proper balance in your soil,
we can let the organisms do the work for us.
Below, to the le is an example of soil at a golf course in the
United Kingdom. When we first started working there, massive
weeds, insects, fungal diseases, root-feeding grubs and nematodes
infested their soils. en the proper biology was put back into the
system. ese nice white fungal hyphae started to grow, indicating that a good healthy food web had been reestablished. Disease,
pests, and weeds were gone as well.
When fungal strands like this appear, it indicates that the soil
is healthy. e soil is no longer bacteria dominated, and the ratio of
fungi to bacteria has shied from a strictly bacterial system to a wellbalanced systemthe proper amount of bacteria to fungi. When
that happens, weeds, fungal diseases, and root and foliar diseases disappear. e soils no longer are compacted. Nutrient cycling is established, setting the stage for growing the grasses the groundskeepers want to grow. ey do not have to use toxic chemicals anymore.
It only took about six weeks to create this conversion. So the
life that is supposed to be in the soil can be put back very quickly.
Can this kind of understanding of biology help the Shumei Natural Agriculture process?
In Tasmania, where the government is giving grants for people to test concepts that shi from conventional agriculture to
more sustainable practices, an onion farm had been managed with
conventional chemical practices for perhaps 60 years. e conventional field had two applications of herbicides already applied, but weed numbers remained very high. Roundup1 was not
able to kill the weeds, as the genetic resistance to Roundup had
been transferred to many plant species.
e field next to the conventional field, which had been previously managed by conventional means, two applications of compost
tea2 were applied instead of Roundup, and no weeds to speak of ger1. Roundup: The Monsanto Company rst brought glyphosate, an herbicide
that kills a wide range of weeds and grasses, to market in the 1970s. Its
brand name was Roundup. Because of relatively low toxicity, it was a
desirable alternative to other herbicides. Later, Monsanto introduced
Roundup Free, a range of crops resistant to glyphosate poisoning. This
allowed farmers to kill weeds but not their crops, thus increasing Roundups
sales and Monsantos prots. However, because of Roundups heavy use
strains of glyphosate resistant weeds have naturally evolved. While
glyphosate is used widely throughout the world and is approved by many
regulatory bodies, both its long-term effectiveness and its impact on human
and environmental health are still a major concern.

Benecial fungi in a golf courses soil.



2. Compost Tea: Compost is decomposed organic matter that is used as a

nutrient for plants. It is a key ingredient in organic farming. Making compost
usually involves piling moist organic matter such as vegetable food waste,
leaves, and dead plants and leaving it to decompose until it becomes nutrient
rich humus. The process could take weeks or months. Compost is used in
gardens, landscaping, horticulture, and agriculture. Additional benets of
compost are weed and erosion control, and warmth.
Compost tea is a liquid extracted from compost. It can be made by
soaking compost in water for three to seven days. Its original use was to
combat fungal infections on foliage.

minated or grew there. Several thousand dollars were saved before

the crop was even planted because compost and compost extract
were used instead of the expensive herbicide and inorganic fertilizers. Onions were planted on the same day in both fields, and at the
time, a third application of Roundup was applied because the weeds
were clearly bad in the conventional field. A third application of
compost tea was also applied on the biological field. Extremely few
weeds were present in the biological field, and the onions were
larger and roots deeper than in the conventional field.
e grower showed that when the soil in the biological field
was not treated with organisms to suppress weed growth, the
weeds were worse there than anyplace else. is proves that weeds
were indeed suppressed by compost tea application, since without compost tea, the weeds were extremely dense.
What are composts and compost teas? Compost is made by
the oxidative decomposition of a mixture of organic materials.
Oxidative decomposition means that good levels of oxygen, or
aerobic conditions, are maintained throughout the composting
process. Aerobic microorganisms are allowed to grow rapidly
enough to produce heat in the organic matter. is heat should be
high enough for a long enough period of time to kill the
pathogens, pests and weed seeds in the compost pile. e pile
should be turned if the compost temperatures reach higher than
65 to 70 C (149 to 158 F) or if the pile smells bad, shows a layer
of actinobacteria growth, or if moisture needs to be added into the
pile. As the bacteria and fungi consume all the easy-to-use microbial foods within the pile during the composting process, the
pile will cool back to ambient temperatures. Once cooling occurs,
the pile is considered to be finished.
Finished compost can be extracted using water to pull soluble nutrients and beneficial microbes out of the compost. e extract then can be added to water to simplify spraying over a large
area. Typically five to 20 liters (about 5.3 gallons) of compost tea
per acre can be applied, depending on the concentration of organisms needed to change the soils biology.
us, by altering the biology in the onion fields soil, weed
growth was suppressed. If the biology in the soil is maintained
such that adequate bacterial, fungal, protozoan, and nematode
numbers are present, weed, disease, and pest problems will remain
suppressed. Fertility will also be improved as nutrients are cycled
by bacteria and fungi being eaten by protozoa and nematodes.
If we follow Natures principles and put the proper biology back
into the soil, then onions will grow in a very healthy fashion.
Growers need to understand that dierent plants (weeds,
crops, trees, and so on) have very dierent requirements for the
balance of fungi and bacteria. We can all see that dierent plant
communities occur in dierent places, but many people do not
understand why this occurs. What allows this set of plants to do
well here, but not over there? Why do these plants grow in this
place now, but did not grow here 20 years ago?
To understand this, we need to first recognize and understand the normal course of plant community succession, why one
type of plant community follows a dierent plant community.
Succession starts with sterile, bare dirt. Everything on this planet
was once sterile, without life, but then photosynthetic bacteria
evolved and rapidly took over the planet, developing into many,
many dierent species. us the earliest successional stage is

What plants will thrive in soil as its ratio of fungi to
bacteria increases.
Conifer & Old Growth Forests
F:B = 100:1 1000:1

Deciduous Trees
F:B = 5.1 100:1

Shrubs, Vines, & Bushes

F:B = 2:1 5:1

Late Successional Grasses & Row Crops

F:B = 1:1

Mid-grasses & Vegetables

F:B = 0:75

Early Grasses, Bromus, & Bermuda

F:B = 0:3

(High NO3, lack of oxygen)
F:B = 0:1

Cyanobacteria, True Bacteria, Protozoa, Fungi,

Nematodes, & Microarths
F:B = 0:01

Bare Parent Material

100% Bacterial

strictly bacterial. But as these bacteria release wastes, true bacteria grow, saprophytic fungi appear, and then predators of bacteria and fungi develop. Not until a basic food web has been established can plants of any kind grow. e first types of plants are
ones that put little energy into the root system, grow very rapidly
for short periods of time, and produce high numbers of ospring,
usually seeds. ese plants thrive best with lots of bacteria around
their roots, and not much fungal biomass. us, these plants
prefer their soil to contain lots of nitrate and little ammonium.
But when green plants grow, the residues they leave when
they die provide more fungal foods in the soil because of the
lignin and cellulose that plants contain. This transition will begin to increase the amount of fungi in the soil to a point where
the balance of fungi versus bacterial shifts only slightly to the
side of fungi in the weedy species. Slowly but surely, the shift
continues to occur and fungi catch up a bit with the bacteria,
and then plant species shift as a result. True weeds phase out,


and some early grass species, brassicas and wetland plants begin to appear. Eventually, these more fungal loving plants will
develop a larger fungal component in the soil, with more
species of fungi, creating a plant community shift to more vegetables and mid-successional. Nature keeps increasing that
fungal component. Thus plant species shift to later successional grasses and plants that have more and more woody components, eventually leading to forest development.
Mature grasslands will give way to shrubs, vines, and bushes,
which in turn will develop even more fungal dominated soil
communities. ese woodier, more fungal food containing plants
put more fungal foods into the soil, shiing the soil balance away
from bacterial food, increasing the fungal component more and
more, and shiing plant species into conifer and old-growth forest systems. In the late stages of succession, bacterial biomass remains the same with respect to numbers, but its diversity keeps
increasing. is is how Nature does it. Can we use this information in agriculture?
Part of the explanation for these shis in plant species is that,
early in succession, bacterial dominance generates a lot of nitrate
in the soil, making it the predominant form of nitrogen. As fungi
become more dominant, they shi the predominant form of nitrogen in the soil to ammonium, Nh4. In soils where bacteria and
fungal populations are balanced, then nitrate and ammonium levels will be about equal. When the vegetation shis to woody
perennial plants, changing with the soils shi to fungal dominance, the predominant form of nitrogen will become ammonium,
which is what trees require.
So Nature drives successional changes by increasing the fungal component of the soil more than the bacterial component. If
we want to truly mimic Nature in our agriculture fields so to generate a successful crop with no weed, pest, or disease problems, we
have to generate the same fungal and bacterial balance in the soil
as that found in the natural system.
So why is not this planet covered entirely in old growth forest? Because disturbance re-sets systems to earlier stages of succession. A severe disturbance will set things back to very early
stages of succession, while less catastrophic disruptions will push
things back to intermediate stages.
If there is a fire, what happens to old growth forests? If whole
trees burn and all the organic matter on and in the soil burn, succession may return all the way back to bare soil, with no plants at
all. e system has to start again from the beginning. And of
course, nature does exactly that.
If a pasture system is tilled, how far back in succession will
the system be driven? is depends on how intense the disturbance is, how much of the life in soil was destroyed, and how
much organic matter was lost. A rototiller will cause a great deal
more damage than a moldboard plow because rototillers slice and
dice and crush more organisms living in the soil, leaving only bacteria to rule, whereas moldboard plows only flip the soil surface
over, leaving more organisms intact. When the first rainfall or irrigation occurs aer rototilling, the soil will collapse and compact,
because there was no life in that soil le to form the structure
needed to build and maintain aggregate structures. Rototillers also
press down on the soil at the depth of the metal blades, compacting the soil at that depth. Without any decent life in that soil,


water is held at that compaction layer, causing anaerobic conditions to develop. is process, coupled with a lack of oxygen, set
the stage for growing weeds, and only very early successional, disturbance-requiring weeds.
Be aware what is destroyed when any management practice is performed. Consider the effects of disturbance of any
kind on life in the soil. Will that alteration result in succession
going the way you want it to? How many of you have had experiences with a rototiller? After tilling, what comes back in
abundance? Weeds. What if we disturbed the soil less, or not
at all? Can we plant crops without disturbing the soil? Can we
cause less damage?
Consider no-till methods, rolled cover crops, direct drilling,
or planting into an existing living mulch, or permanent shortgrowing cover crop mix. Or as the practice of Natural Agriculture
shows us, plant back into undisturbed soil where that plant was
grown the year before.
If we have to damage our soils in order to prepare seed beds
to grow our crops, then perhaps we could reduce the damage by
coming back immediately aer the disturbance and replacing
the organisms we have killed. is is what Nature does, over
time, to improve productivity in that soil. So, perhaps we can find
ways to make these improvements more quickly.
By understanding what these organisms do in the soil, we
could allow our agricultural soils to match what Nature does instead of destroying natural processes. When disturbances happen, we can use these principles to reduce the harm done, and
more rapidly return our soils to healthy conditions to grow
food for people.
Over the last 100 years of doing intensive chemical agriculture and intensive urban landscaping, humans have developed a
very warped and incorrect view of how roots exist in soil. en
tilling, we flu the surface layer of the soil, but we also push
down on the earth below the plow blade, causing compaction at

The compacted area in this crosscut of a eld can be seen just below the
black anaerobic layer.

that depth. Because water will not move very rapidly from that
fluy layer into the compacted layer, an anaerobic layer develops.
en toxic, unhealthy bacteria grow, producing toxic materials
and releasing major nutrients as gases. Plant roots will be restricted to just the top few inches. is is not natural. at is not
the way plants are supposed to grow.

Compaction in the landscape prevents grass, owers, trees,

and shrubs from being healthy.

How far down into the soil do roots go? Over the last 100
years of doing intensive chemical agriculture and intensive urban
landscaping, humans have developed a very warped view of how
roots exist in soil.
The compaction layer and the black anaerobic layer are
seen in the picture at left, above. They are the consequences of
human management. As a result of this poor management approach, the roots of the plants have been killed at the anaerobic
layer. The plants are forced to fight each other in that shallow
layer of soil at the surface.
ere are hundreds of papers in the arboricultural3 literature
that suggest that trees only put their roots systems down about
three feet into the soil, and then go sideways. Just like the tree in
the picture above. Many, many examples of this type of root
growth have been shown. But this does not mean this pattern of
root growth is natural. What we see here is the same problem that
humans impose in agricultural fields. Compaction was imposed
on the soil by human management such as tilling to aerate the surface soil, but imposing compaction where the blades of the plow
pushed down below the surface of the soil. People compact soil
around houses or buildings to prevent the foundation from moving, but they pay no attention to the damage they are causing to
the landscape trees. e tree in the above picture suers from diseases, pests, and poor fertility because the roots are prevented
from growing as deep as they should. But humans, instead of understanding the damage they cause, blame disease, pests, and
poor growth on the soil being poor. When instead we should
properly point the finger at ourselves for destroying the aerobic
life that should be in the soil.
How far down can roots go? If you go out into natural systems
and look at how far down roots of trees can go, the first thing to note
is that those roots are not restricted to the top two or three feet of
soil. Instead, tree roots can go from 100 to 200 feet deep, perhaps
deeper. Go to a cave, and look for the roots of the trees growing
through cracks in the rock down 50, 100, 200 or more feet.
3. Arboriculture is the planting, cultivation, and study of trees, shrubs, vines,
and other perennial woody plants. It is both a practice and a science.

Three month old, common lawn grass roots grown in healthy soil.

If the soil has no compaction layer imposed on it by tillage, grass

roots will easily grow four to six feet deep within a few months. e
rye grass in the above picture was planted as seeds in healthy soil,
and then dug up three and a half months later. Note that the roots
were four and one-half feet deep in the soil. is is normal for
grasses. Roots restricted to the top inch or two of soil are not normal, but the consequence of damage imposed by humans.
Nature sends messages to us about the harm caused by compaction and oxygen deficiency through diseases, weeds, and pests.
We have to learn to listen, understand the message being sent, and
take appropriate action.
How can productivity, nutrient cycling, soil structure, and all
the other functions of a healthy soil be brought back? How do we
get the organic matter back?
Most of us have seen the posters from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) telling us it takes a hundred
years to build an inch of soil. But, we should understand that it is
microbial life that builds soil structure. Without microbial life, we
can never build soil and it will take forever to bring back healthy


soil, with all its beneficial functions and processes. Soil functions
and processes require soil microbial life. If we nurture the proper
set of microbial life in the soil, then building soil happens continuously in a healthy cycle.
How fast can an inch of soil be built? Work done by James
Sottilo shows how rapidly soil can be built. To get the same results in your systems, you have to do what he did. For example,
take engineered soil. (Actually engineered soil is just dirt, as

might question whether humans have the right to speed the

process of succession. Nature would normally have to go through
years of a weed stage of succession, given the damage that has been
done to this park. But one way of looking at this is that humans
did the damage and therefore they should restore the soil to its
pre-damage state. We destroyed the grassland that was there before construction started, so we have the responsibility to Nature
to return the system to productivity as rapidly as possible.

Roots grew from less than a half-inch to six inches deep into the soil in six weeks.
No erosion, no weeds, no disease, reduced water use, no inorganic fertilizer used
were some of the benets of the replacement of biology in the soil. Courtesy of
James Sottilo,

In this city park, James Sottilo treated sand with compost tea and then laid sod
over the sand. Then, a second dose of compost tea, as seen here, was applied
to the freshly laid sod.

there was no life and practically no organic matter or foods for

the organisms in it.) Engineered soil was spread in the park featured in the above photo. Before the sod went on. en, the
proper set of biology for the grass was applied, using compost tea.
Aer the sod was placed, another round of compost tea with the
proper biology was applied to the plot. Notice that the sod was
compacted, because you can see the puddles of water forming on
the sod surface. at was not healthy sod, and so we were not
starting with good microbial life in the soil.
How rapidly can this problem be fixed? By doing exactly
what Mother Nature would do, only faster. It might take Nature
years to do this in the middle of a New York City park. But we can
build soil rapidly by some simple management methods. We


So, by applying the set of soil microorganisms that would

have been present in a healthy grassland, we jump-started the
successional process straight back to a healthy grassland system.
Note the dark brown color of healthy rich soil and the
depth of the roots after just six weeks in the above picture.
The root system is already down to six inches. Give this system a month or two months and those roots will be even
deeper. There are no weed problems or root-eating insects,
because we brought back the microbial components of a
healthy soil system.
Take a look at these yards in a neighborhood of Boston in the
picture, above to the right on page 21. e yard with the red circle around it is green and healthy and has not had any irrigation
the entire summer. A year earlier, this yard looked like all the
other yards in the neighborhood. How did this yard change from
a dormant yellow patch of grass, full of weeds and disease, to a
verdant patch of green? e owners of these houses were watering their yards of dormant grass and weeds in the late summer
every chance they had. But the lawn that was not artificially watered still looks green and healthy. How can that be?
e answer is that aer the owners had damaged their lawns
so badly, we put the soil organisms and foods required for Natures nutrient cycling and soil building back into the soil.
Soil microbial life builds soil structure that will absorb and
hold water. As such, in this lawn water use was reduced by between 50 and 70% as compared to the toxic chemical-maintained soil systems of the other yards. In the middle of a drought,
it is important to reduce water use. You can also reduce your wa-

ter bill by at least 50%, perhaps as much as 70%. Make sure the
microorganisms you need to support the plant you want to grow
are present in the soil. In that way, you can build the soil structure to hold water and nutrients.
Exactly what did we do to achieve this water-savings, and
stop using inorganic fertilizers and toxic chemicals? We replaced
the soil biology by applying aerobic compost in the fall of the previous year. e next spring, compost was applied in a liquid

A healthy green lawn in Boston, amongst parched neighboring yards.

form three times. We had to make sure the right sets of organisms
to support grass or flowers or shrubs or trees were present in each
area to see all the problems go away.
By returning the right sets of organisms to the soil, we had
no need of chemicals. Whether you work in agricultural fields,
gardens, or lawns, the soils microbial life is what is important.
is is exactly what you have been doing in Natural Agriculture.
But we can reduce the time it takes for you to return to the microbial life that Nature had in the soil before these human-induced disturbances started.
If we start to understand the biology that is in our soil and
if we know what our plants need, then we can increase the speed
of recovery of our plant production systems and our planet.

Dr. Ingham Answers Some Questions
Question: Are you suggesting that instead of tilling we should put
proper biology into the soil?
Elaine Ingham: Exactly. Because we did not understand that
tillage slowly but surely destroys life in the soil, on which crop production depends for good yields, we tried to use the quick fix approach. Of course, quick fixes seldom address the underlying
problems. Tilling flus the soil and air is put back in that shallow
band of soil. But deeper, where the tillers blades pushed down on

the soil, the compaction gets worse. It takes time for the damage
from each insult to soils health to build. e organisms that are
not killed try to recover, but with time the constant damage from
tillage does takes its toll. Eventually, when the damage to the
soils life reaches the critical point, rain will cause compaction. And
so, we think we have to till even more to get flu back into the soil.
Quick fixes end up being exactly the wrong thing to do.
People might put organic matter back in the soil and see perhaps
some short-term benefit, but they do not stop tilling. Water sitting on a compacted layer tends to move downhill, and with no
life holding the soil together, it moves with that water. is is
known as erosion. Where there was once living soil, now has no
living organisms to hold it in place or retain soluble nutrients. e
soil moves with the water and becomes sediment.
Root systems coming into contact with the anaerobic layer will
be killed by alcohol dissolving them or through a lack of usable nitrogen, phosphorus, or sulfur being lost because they were converted to anaerobic gases. Disease organisms grow well in anaerobic habitats, and thus attack any roots that grow into the area.
How do you fix this problem? Till deeper? No. Where will
the compaction layer form? Till even deeper. How do you get rid
of a compaction zone that is even deeper? Till even more deeply.
at is exactly what we have done in modern agriculture.
Back in the early 1900s, we did moldboard plowing where
the plowshare pushes down on the soil at about four to six inches.
How do we break up compaction at four to six inches? e
USDA developed chisel plows, which till down to one foot. How
did we fix a compaction zone at 12 inches? Disc plows, which go
to 18 inches. How can the plough pan4 at 18 inches be dealt with?
Till the subsoil down to three feet. How do we get rid of compaction at three feet? Deep rip. en compaction forms at four
feet down into the soil. How can we deal with that? We do not
have tractors large enough to pull a plow through compacted soil
four feet deep. We are at the end of the mechanical approach to
fixing the problem. Tillage is a quick fix. It does not in fact fix anything. It just keeps delaying the inevitable.
So, how can we get away from ever having to till again? Return
the proper sets of organisms to the soil. If we must till once a year
to put the seeds into the ground, then apply the organisms to the
seeds, so when planted, the seeds already have organisms to heal
the disturbed soil. However, leave the rest of the soil intact.
ink about what nature will do with bare, disturbed soil. If
no beneficial sets of organisms are present and functioning,
weeds will grow. Whatever weed seed is in your soil or that may
blow in is what will grow there. But if we plant seeds for living
mulch, which is permanent, short growing, and has the same biology needs as our crop plants, then the weeds will be outcompeted. e living mulch fulfills its function by preventing weeds
and keeping the right food web happy and functioning in the soil.
When planting, it is best to either direct drill the crop into
the living mulch or till a narrow strip out of the cover just wide
enough to allow planting crop seeds. en any need to deal with
weeds is over. In the Shumei Garden at the Rodale Institute, that
is part of our plan for the gardens expansion.
4. A hardpan or plough pan is a hard layer of compacted subsoil or clay that
forms in agricultural elds by plowing at the same depth every year.


The bounty of the living soil, produce

collected from a Shumei Natural Agriculture
garden in Crestone, Colorado.

ere are several questions that need to be settled. For example, permanent understory5 plants need to be identified. We
need to test them to make sure they survive in the gardens at Rodale. We need to collect seeds of the ones that work. We need to
match them to the crop or herb, or desired overstory6 plant we
have been growing.
Jay Fuhrer in North Dakota has been working for the last 15
or more years to develop a mix of species, called a seed cocktail,
that are all low growing. Some are nitrogen fixers, some are more
fungal, some a little more on the bacterial side, and some well balanced fungal to bacterial. In the first year those seeds were
planted, three species of plants came up and did a beautiful job
of covering the soil. e crops were strip tilled into the soil and
grew very well indeed, because the organisms were maintained
and nurtured by the living mulch. It was not necessary in some
cases to use compost. Some places did add compost to bring the
soil back to a full set of soil organisms however. In the second year,
dierent species of the original set of seeds grew, because of different weather conditions in the second summer. But in some
cases, compost was not needed in the second year, because the
plants maintained the proper biology.
Could we do this in Natural Agriculture? When crops are
harvested, and the residues are on the surface of the soil, we want
those residues to decompose rapidly. If the soil has good biology,
the residues should decompose in a month. If they do not decompose, compost should be spread over the surface of the bed.
at means that during the winter, under the snow, if the com-


post has beneficial organisms, the

residues will decompose and improve
the organisms in the soil.
e next spring, if any residues from
the year before are still present, add
compost on the soil surface to improve
the life in the soil. Seed in ten spring
germinating understory plants. Add living mulch and the plant seeds. en
watch to see which understory plants
come up.
We could look at the organisms in the
soil, and see if they are the balance we
think is best for the crop. If they are not,
more compost goes on the soil surface.
In Australia, where we work with
growers on 300-acres plots, the growers
returned life to the soil successfully.
Their costs were reduced by $200,000
in the first year. So, minimizing tillage
is important.
We may need think-groups to figure
out the most eective ways to achieve
this within the Natural Agriculture paradigm.
Q: We learned that food labeled organic might contain only1%
organic produce. We look for labels that say 100% organic, yet,
still do not know whether to trust labeling. I wonder if there are
any countries that do not use industrial chemicals in food
production. I heard that China uses massive amounts and
someone else told me that Mexico does not use chemicals at all.
Is this true?

5. The term understory refers to an underlying tier of vegetation, such as

shrubs and small trees, that grow under the canopy of a forests taller trees.

E.I: e answer depends on what aspect of agriculture you assess.

Large industrial farms in Mexico are very chemically based. But
with small farms of less than 10 acres the farmers do not have
enough money to buy chemicals. So, Mexicans generally eat organic food. e food from the large industrial farms goes to the
U.S., Europe, or Asia.
Many European countries have legislated that the farms in
their country shi to organic production. eir goal is that all
their farms will be organic by 2020. Why are we not doing this
in the United States? Because the U.S. is pesticide central. When
you understand how much control big business has of the United
States government, you begin to understand the problem.
No matter where you are in the world, it is best to know the
people and the farm that you buy your food from. This is true
even in the world of organic farming. When I walk into most
grocery stores that offer an organic section and look at the organic produce, I think, Ewww! I would never buy this! I expect that it is organic by substitution. All the growers have
done is substitute Rotenone,7 which is allowed to be used on organic farms, for DDT. Although Rotenone is a natural product,
in the high concentrations needed to kill insects, it is anything but natural.

6. The term overstory refers to the uppermost layer of foliage that forms a
forest canopy. Both understory and overstory are terms that are now used
not only in the field of forestry but also in agroforestry, which involves
the cultivation and use of trees in farming and many forms of integrated
land management.

7. Rotenone is an odorless, colorless, crystalline chemical compound that is

used as a broad range insecticide and pesticide. It is naturally generated in
the seeds and stems of many plants.


So you have to know the person doing the organic growing.

ey have to have their heart in the right place and not use toxics that might be allowed in the organic world. Are we allowed in
Shumei Natural Agriculture to use those toxic chemicals, even if
they are natural products? e answer is no. If given a choice,
would you choose Natural Agriculture or organic food? Again,
know the person growing your food.
Q: You clearly state the advantages of biological over conventional
farming. Could you tell us how long it would take the United
States to convert to biological farming?
E.I: We could do most of this within a year because the first step
is to make good compost. For us to rapidly convert, compost is
job one. All the organic material going into landfills should instead be turned into good compost. Organic matter of any kind
should not be allowed to putrefy into disgusting, stinky, horrible
smelly dark slime.
e proper biology would have to be put into every acre. For
example, in Australia they are already looking at making proper
compost nationwide. If all of the arable land in Australia got compost put on it, we could keep in control all of the elevated carbon
dioxide in the atmosphere within three years.
What if the United States did the same? How fast could
global climate change be reversed? Consider that historic levels of organic matter in the Great Plains of the United States
were at one time upwards of 15 to 25%. Today the Great Plains
contains less than 1% organic matter. Elevated carbon dioxide
in the atmosphere comes from where? It comes from burning
petroleum. Can all of that CO2 in the atmosphere be put back
into the soil as organic matter? Yes, we can do it, and we can
do it rapidly.
But we must have the will to do it. We have to stop politicians from playing games and being greedy. The chemical
companies need to stop protecting their sources of income at
our expense.
Month aer month, other scientists, many scientific journals,
and people that I work with publish more and more papers concerning this. At a recent conference, my husband heard another
speaker say that well over 1000 papers are published each year in
the scientific literature that show that what I have been talking
about for the last 30 years is true. Also, they show that what Natural Agriculture has been trying to do for the entire time it has
been in existence is true.
More documentation, and more evidence gathering is the direction we need to be going in. All of you need to demonstrate
that this approach to agriculture works.
Q: So, I am proud of my yard, which has all kinds of weeds
growing in it. But you claim that with proper biology, weeds can
be gotten rid of. How do you define weeds? To my understanding a weed is just a plant that is growing out of its proper place.
E.I: Plants growing out of place is the chemical companys definition of weeds. Every plant on the planet is, sometime or another,
from a human point of view, out of place. So, that means all
plants are weedsnot a very useful definition.
Q: A vegetable growing on a golf course can be a weed?

E.I: An ecological definition of the term weed, would never include vegetables. However, from the chemical industrys point of
view, a vegetable could be a weed.
Let us go through a little history. In the early 1980s, a chemical company representative was sent out to ask people what
they thought a weed was. at person noted that thistles, corn,
and oak trees where considered by some to be weeds, and that
some people could consider almost any kind of plant a weed. at
is where the definition of a weed as a plant out of place developed.
But it is not a useful definition. Who would be best served by that
sort of definition of a weed? Herbicide salesmen, so they could
sell you herbicides. So let us not fall into a trap meant to sell products that are not needed. You do not need these herbicides if you
understand which organisms you should use to prevent weed
growth in the soil.
An ecological definition of weeds is what is useful. Weeds
grow in conditions where serious disturbances have occurred.
Weeds require very high levels of bacteria, and almost no beneficial fungi. Protozoa should be present, but their numbers fluctuate wildly. Highly bacterial soils result in large pulses of nitrates,
followed by almost no nutrient availability. Very low levels of ammonium, and either alkaline conditions or very acidic conditions
are typical of conditions that set the stage to grow weeds. Weeds
tolerate poor soil structure.
When fungi begin to be an important part of the soil food
web, ammonium becomes a significant pool in the soil, inhibiting the growth of weeds.
Weedy species grow very rapidly, take over, and try to rule
for a short time. Because their purpose in life is to suck up all the
nutrients, turn it into billions of seeds that then disseminate
everywhere, weedy species such as thistles, Johnson grass, and
nutsedge8 are wide dispersing plants and have very rapid growth
and production rates. Corn and vegetables are not weeds because
they do not grow that fast, they need more than just nitrate as a
source of inorganic, soluble nitrogen. ey do not produce a huge
number of seeds that disperse wide and far. ey do not do well
in soil that is compacted close to the surface. Most mid-successional plants can put their roots down several feet or more, and
thus are clearly, not weeds. Plants that make tap roots can be considered one step further along in succession, possibly because
they try to break through the compaction layer and help move
soil to the next stage faster than true weeds.
Corn and vegetables might be classified as volunteers, in
that if you grow corn one year, the next year when you grow soybeans, corn will volunteer in the soybean field. But being a volunteer type plant does not make it a weed.
Weeds require a disturbance of the soil. e soil might have
been compacted and is likely to be anaerobic, requiring high nitrate
pulses. It might be a highly bacterial-dominated soil with almost
no fungi. Weeds have rapid growth and produce lots of seeds.
Q: Can a garden or farm free of weeds still have healthy and good
quality soil?
8. Nutsedge or nutgrass is a perennial weed, a member of the sedge family
that supercially resembles grass. Varieties of nutsedge are aggressive and
tenacious weeds that commonly infest vegetable and ower gardens, and
home landscapes and lawns.


E.I: Actually, no weeds and healthy soil go hand in hand. But

think of this in another way. We could also define a healthy weed
soil, because if the soil grows weeds really well, then is it not a
healthy soil for weeds?
However, most of us do not want this kind of soil. Most of
us want a good healthy soil that is going to grow tomatoes,
mustard, cabbage, kale, potatoes, zucchini, carrots, blueberries,
and maple trees. We should know what our different plants
need, so that we can grow a specific plant in the healthiest soil
for that plants species.
What is the biology in the soil where strawberry naturally exists? What is in healthy strawberry soil? Consider what kind of
system strawberries grow in naturally. Where do strawberries
grow in nature? ey are understory species in forests. e proper
biology to help strawberries grow without disease, pests, or fertility problems is five times more fungi than bacteria on up to a
100 times more fungi than bacteria.



Bare Weeds



Deciduous Trees

Grass Land

Old Growth Forrest

Now, let us consider how a conventional strawberry field is

prepared? First, methyl bromide is applied to the field to kill the
diseases, pests, and weeds that have gotten out of hand in conventional soils. However, strawberries growing in sterile dirt
suer from disease. e lack of soil structure, the lack of oxygen
and water does not allow their roots to move deep into the soil.
And, there is a lack of nutrient cycling, so the plants suer from
nutrient limitations. Healthy strawberry soil needs to be fungaldominated, with at least 300 micrograms of bacteria, 50,000 protozoa, and a few beneficial nematodes. With unhealthy conditions,
the strawberries produced generally have a poor flavor. Who
benefits from this sterile dirt approach to growing plants? ose
who sell inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.
How can we fix the soil when using the Natural Agriculture
approach? First, do not kill the life in the soil by using toxic
chemicals like inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Second, enhance the diversity of organisms by planting the same
plant species in the same soil to always increase and improve the
organisms the plant needs. Let the plant choose exactly what soil
organisms to feed on and increase that soil organism. Use composted plant material from your garden to constantly put back the
full diversity of life that is needed. We need to stop killing soil life
and start enhancing diversity of the beneficial organisms. If we
know what needs to be done to improve things, we can make Natural Agriculture even more successful.
Q: Do you have to test the soil to determine what nutrients are
needed? What plants would be used to help revitalize the soil?


E.I: You do not need to do a chemistry test because all agricultural

soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants. Everything
except carbon dioxide, sunlight energy, and nitrogen are in the
soil. If there is a fertility problem, what is lacking is the correct set
of soil organisms to do nutrient cycling.
If a plant does not have enough boron,9 what is to be done to
fix that problem? Pump exudatescake and cookiesinto the
root system to feed precisely those bacteria or fungi that solubilize boron straight from the rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, clay, or organic matter. ose bacteria and fungi hold that boron in their
biomass. Protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, and earthworms then consume those bacteria and fungi, and release the
boron in a chelated form so that your plant can say, ank you!
I got the nutrients I needed!
So testing for soluble, inorganic nutrients is not the testing
that we need to do. e testing that we really need is finding out
whether we have the adequate biology in our soil. If you always
add good aerobic compost every so oen, then you might not
even need to do that testing. Or, why not get a microscope or encourage someone in your neighborhood to do the microscopic
work? Buy a $300$350 microscope and spend a day with us at
the Rodale Institute, learning how to do this.
To sample your soil or compost, take a number of small
samples from the area you want to know about. Mix that composite sample, then remove one teaspoon and dilute it with four
teaspoons of water, gently shake the soil/water mix, put a drop of
that on a microscope slide, put a cover slip over that drop and then
look through the microscope. Right away you should be able to
see if you have life in the soil or not. If not, then get good compost, and apply those organisms to the soil. Does the soil or compost have the right balance? You can see for yourself.
Q: I heard that you were the one that revived all the trees and
lawns in New York City that were covered by dust and ash aer
September 11. How you did this?
E.I: I was working with the Park Conservancy in New York City
when 9/11 occurred. We had already started the people at the Conservancy on the process of making their own compost and making
all their own liquid extracts from the compost. So, they had already
been applying all this good biology and the soil was already in
good shape when 9/11 happened. ere was a gradient from the site
of the World Trade Center that stretched out to the tip of Manhattan. e debris covering the plants ranged from somewhere around
45 feet deep to only about three inches deep at the end of the island.
Everything was impacted by the debris and salts, which were
calcium carbonate (lime) and calcium sulfate (gypsum). It started
to rain not long aer 9/11, and all that salt started to move into the
soil. e number of trees in the area that were not killed by bulldozers taking them out so that debris could be removed numbered
around 6,000. And the salt negatively impacted all of them.
Conventional wisdom would have had us cut down all those
trees, replace all the grass, and replace all the flower beds, because
there was no way to rescue them. But because we had been working with the Park Conservancy, and specifically with T. Fleischer
9. Boron is one of seven essential micronutrients vital to fertilization, fruit
and seed production. Boron deciency is the most widespread of all crop
deciencies, affecting almost all major crops grown around the world.

As with many of Manhattans trees and

shrubbery in the vicinity of ground zero,
those that line the Battery Park City
Esplanade survived the aftermath of the
9/11 terrorist attacks in part due to the
inuence of Dr. Elaine Ingham.

than their counterparts grown by

conventional methods. Do you have
any thoughts concerning this aspect
of Natural Agriculture?
E.I: Locally adapted seed is really important because the other choice is
going to the store and buying someone elses seeds from whatever soil it
has adapted to. Maybe it was adapted
to the soil of Alaska or Mexico or
someplace else. So you are more likely
to have problems getting this new and
dierent seed to do well in your bed.
If we save our own seed, we
of the Conservancy, he said, Dont touch those plants. We will know what conditions the seed was raised in. All plants put out
bring them back. With applications of the right biology, in other specific exudates and improve the set of organisms that helps the
words compost, compost tea, and extracts, all except six out of the plant. e more we maintain the seed that was harvested from
that site, the better the relationship gets to be with the biology in
6,000 trees were resuscitated and brought back to health.
If you go to Battery Park City at the end of Manhattan Island, the soil. at is very important.
If there is bad weather, if a disturbance occurs, the specific bito Rockefeller Plaza, then to the street trees in that area where the
World Trade Centers used to be, you will see healthy, mature trees. ology the plant needs might be destroyed. In that case, we might
want to try to bring back the life that was benefitting our plants
Everything was brought back with no toxic chemicals at all.
e Irish Famine Memorial was buried in the debris from the instead of having to wait for the whole process to occur all over
World Trade Center and all of it was rescued without using chem- again. Maybe we could return the soil to that really good condiicals. ere was no need to replace any of the plant material. tion more rapidly if we have compost ready that has the same biAdirondacks Park also was resuscitated by these methods. It is im- ology that needs to be put back in the soil.
portant to understand that the plants in these specific areas re- Q: What if we do not add anything to the damaged soil, because
quired soil organisms that were specific to those plants. Compost it has the resilience to create the same conditions again? Do you
needed to be made from material from the Irish Famine Memo- think that by not adding anything succession will take place
rial to maintain those plant species. In the Adirondacks Park, gradually, within a few years, reaching the same level it was becompost was made from that plant material. It is important to fore the soil was damaged? You say that by applying compost, the
have indigenous material to make compost. Is not this also a process speeds up. But if you do nothing, the soil will still follow
principle of Natural Agriculture?
the same succession. I think that is what many people working in
So yes, we were capable of bringing back all of the plant life, Natural Agriculture have been doing. Some Natural Agriculture
not just the trees but all of the plants, without having to take out farmers do put compost to cover crops and others do not.
and replant all of Battery Park City, the Rockefeller Plaza, the
street trees, and so forth. Most likely it would have taken years to E.I: I would like to know when it is not necessary to do anything, and
replace the vegetation in this large area if conventional wisdom when something has to be done. Do we need to do something to
help move things toward an improved condition for our plants, or
had held the upper hand.
will existing processes get things back to that point without our help?
Q: You tell us the same thing about crop rotation as those who prac- Can growers depend on natural processes to get back to the best
tice Natural Agriculture; it is not that good and continuous cropping conditions fast enough? We need the ability to assess biology in soil,
makes more sense. It makes sense because it helps bring a field to so we will be able to answer that. e question is when can we rely
the ideal state for growing a particular crop. However, natural dis- on natural processes and when will the soil need help?
asters such as severe storms and droughts can retard the soils adQ: In Natural Agriculture we observe Nature and learn from her.
vancement toward an ideal state or even reversing the process.
at is basically what Natural Agriculture is. You do your obWithin Natural Agriculture there is another component to creserving with a microscope, we only use our eyes. Your method is
ating an ideal relationship between plant and soil: the seed. Seeds
more scientific, ours more of an art. Do you think that science
are kept from a harvest and used in the next planting season. is
eventually will prove that Natural Agriculture works?
is done because, throughout the years, seeds adapt to the soil. is
practice seems to insolate Natural Agricultures crops from most of E.I: Yes, this science proves Natural Agriculture works. Now, how
the damage caused by natural disasters. e crops that grow year does Shumei want to use this knowledge? I think this will lead to
aer year from such seeds seem more drought and flood resistant some very interesting further discussions.