As I was first getting involved in this soil microbiology business, I was told about a wealthy Saudi
sheik who bought a very large amount of mycorrhizal inoculant from a propagation facility here in the
United States. According to the story, the sheik then arranged for the inoculant to be scattered by
helicopter over a wide desert area in his country and was terribly disappointed when the desert did
not turn green with vegetation.
Whether the story is true or apocryphal (as I strongly suspect), that image has remained in my mind.
It reminds me of how completely uninformed the great majority of people are about soil microorganisms.
Most know more about the surface of Mars.
Really now, how many folks other than microbiologists would know for sure that the helicopter dispersal
of mycorrhizal spores over a desert would not produce vegetation? Yes, I see all your hands
waving in the air, and the answer is indeed, “Damn few, sir!” And the followup question would be:
How many people out there are really concerned about microscopic soil thingies they can’t even
pronounce? Very good! Yes, the answer is, “Even fewer, sir!”
Over the years, I’ve done my share of windmill-tilting and missionary-type preaching about how
important the biological component of soil is to plant performance, and how we humans better be
figuring out how we can use beneficial fungi, bacteria, and other symbiotic soil-dwellers for sustainable
agriculture programs. But the prevailing focus is still almost entirely on soil chemistry and how
to best direct-feed plants.
For example, it’s extremely rare for ag advisors to even think about measuring bio populations as
part of farm soil tests, even though living organisms keep soil texture “fluffed up” and aerated, account
for one quarter or more volume of healthy topsoil, and can generate usable nitrogen, phosphorus,
and other nutrients for plants. When yields begin to drop off in lifeless, compacted and salty
soils no matter how much fertilizer is applied, the common (and well intentioned) professional advice
is still, “You need to plow deeper.” Very few ag advisors have been taught how to use biological
methods to restore damaged soils.
It’s going to take quite a while longer, and I probably won’t be around to see it, but I think the day
will come when growers and homeowners will not be applying urea, ammonium sulfate, superphosphates,
15-15-15 “complete” fertilizers, miracle plant foods, chemical lawn sprays, or similar stuff
without stopping to consider how it might affect the valuable bio life in their soil. “Hey, careful, don’t
hurt my fungi and bacteria!” will not sound quite as odd as it would today.
This shouldn’t be thought of as some sort of biology-versus-chemistry marketing contest, and I’m
not an Organics-as-religion zealot. There is good (and increasing) evidence that a chemistry-only
approach can eventually ruin even the best of soils, and heavy fertilization of both farms and lawns
is leaching excess nitrates into our water supplies as you read this. These bad side effects of directfeeding
plants are certainly a concern to many besides myself.
The fact that you signed up to receive this newsletter probably means I’m preaching to the choir, but
maybe it will keep someone from scattering inoculant out of a helicopter door someday!
Biological Ignorance or Status Quo?
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