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Who's Up For Soil Biology?

On occasion, usually after a long hot day and a cold Margarita or two, I think about what is happening today with soil problems and the role of Biological Science in agriculture, plant nurseries, landscaping and home gardening.

(I know, I could be spending that time pondering far more exciting things but I am, after all, in the business.)

It's pretty clear that the Chemistry majors have prevailed in nearly all areas of growing plants, supported by big ad budgets and industry research sponsorship. You gotta hand it to the Dows, duPonts, Bayers, Orthos, and Monsantos of the world - they've successfully developed countless pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and even altered plant genetics to match their chemical products - all to "solve growers' problems." Kill, control, sterilize, fertilize, immunize - got it right here, pal.

However, when it comes to the science of soil biology I'm reminded of the teacher who asked the class clown to explain the difference between ignorance and apathy, and he responded, "I don't know, and I don't care."

Ignorance, or the absence of knowledge about soil organisms and their functions, is probably the most common condition. I'm guessing that most folks are not even aware that there are beneficial microbes in soil. Much more is known about harmful organisms - like lawn grubs - and the chemicals designed to kill them. I wonder what the results would be of a survey question that asked, "Would you rather try to grow plants in completely sterile soil or in soil loaded with fungi and bacteria?" How many people know that healthy soils are filled with microbial life, let alone that the great majority of soil organisms are helpful to plants?

Wine grape growers, landscape architects, soil restoration services, and some sophisticated plant nurseries are probably the most knowledgeable groups as far as strategically using soil biology, although in recent years I have received orders from a wide variety of customer types - with crops ranging from pastureland to fruit orchards to bonsai nurseries.

So, awareness is increasing, both among commercial growers and home gardeners - largely due to magazine articles on the subject. I'm even seeing some some passing mentions of mycorrhizal fungi in chemistry-oriented ag journals, which is encouraging.

Apathy, on the other hand, reflects more a sense of contentment with current practices - sort of, "Yeah, I know there are some good soil bugs, but who cares as long as the 10-10-10 is working fine." This attitude is almost impossible to overcome, because you really can't argue that turning to bio-enhancement techniques will be more profitable, at least in the short run, and unsustainability is one of those off-in-the-future-maybe concepts for those blessed with deep, rich soils. Let's face it, if someone doesn't want to change what they're doing, it's a waste of time to argue with them. (This, of course, is true for any number of unhealthy habits, political stances, and other dug-in positions.)

My overall measured conclusion on the subject is that growers who know and care about the biological heath of their soil represent my best customer prospects, followed by those who are beginning to have issues with the use of synthetic fertilizers for whatever reasons - cost, water contamination, newly restrictive laws, soil compaction, salt buildups, or other problems. And lastly, I deal with lots of experimenters - those who enjoy trying different ideas in their laboratories, greenhouses, farm fields, orchards, vineyards, yards, and gardens. These are some of my most fun customers.

Of course, the fact that you are reading this means that you have subscribed to my newsletters, so I'm probably mostly "preaching to the choir," but why not? - many among you are leading the way to better soil practices, and I hope I can encourage more of that.
By the way, the several responses I received from last month's newsletter where I asked about our customer's experience last season with tomato diseases were all favorable about plants inoculated with our products, but there really weren't any that had what I would consider solid comparisons - like perhaps to a neighbor with the same varieties who didn't inoculate. Thanks to you who responded.

Good growing, my friends,
Don Chapman
President, BioOrganics

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