Dr. Elaine Ingham developed an early interest in soil science. As a child she often accompanied her father, a veterinarian, when he visited herds of ailing cows, sheep, and horses. He taught her that everything could be traced to the health of the life inside the soil – healthy soil means a healthy farm. By the age of six he had her at a microscope, counting bacteria.
Dr. Ingham will be leading a workshop at next month’s 17th annual Georgia Organics conference called Life in the Soil: A Perspective to Healthy Farming. She has taught at various universities, and in 1996, she founded Soil Foodweb Inc., and she has established a number of laboratories all over the world. Most recently she launched another business, Soil Life Consultants, a group of soil life experts who consult with farmers on improving soil health, increasing production, and decreasing overhead.
We talked to Dr. Ingham about how soil, even dirt, already contains all the nutrients required to grow plants. What is lacking is a system to convert those nutrients that are present in the soil, rock, pebbles, sand, silt, and clay from not-plant-available forms into plant-available forms. What has to go back into the dirt is life, and the organic matter to feed that life. Fortunately when you start growing a plant in soil, the plant provides all of the food to feed those organisms. All we need to do is get the biology back into the soil, make sure we’ve got some good plants growing, and the system starts to fix itself. We’ve got to be the gardeners of the life in our soil, instead of just gardening plants. And then it’s healthy, because the nutrients are balanced in those plants, and that means we’re getting the nutrition we need.
Georgia Organics: What is the difference between soil and dirt?
Dr. Ingham: Basically, it’s whether life is present in the material or not. Dirt is just the mineral component of soil, sand, or clay. But for it to be soil it has to also have organic matter and organisms. And to ensure good plant growth, you have to a complete food web for your specific organism.
Georgia Organics: What does conventional agriculture take out of the soil?
Dr. Ingham: Conventional agriculture destroys the organisms in the soil. So bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micorhizal fungi, those are the things that are destroyed by conventional agriculture.
Georgia Organics: What can organic agriculture put back into the soil?
Dr. Ingham: It can put the life, and the organic matter, back into the soil. Organic agriculture will build soil. Conventional agriculture destroys soil and leaves you with dirt. And if you only have dirt, you’re not going to have nutrient cycling, you’re not going to build soil structure, soil gets compacted, and ultimately it means you can’t grow plants.
Georgia Organics: How can the health of the soil impact the nutrition of the food grown in it?
Dr. Ingham: By putting the right types of organisms— the health— back into the soil, we’re going to be able to make certain the plant gets all of the balance of nutrients it requires so it will be healthy. If we are stressing the plant by not having all of the nutrients usually available to the plant, then it can’t be healthy. It’s much more subject to disease. And the food that we’re eating is lacking the nutrition that we need, if that plant is not getting the nutrition that it needs. The nutrients can’t be balanced in a dirt, because the nutrients aren’t available for the plant. It’s impossible for us to come in with inorganic fertilizers and provide exactly the balance the plant requires on a second by second basis. In a good healthy soil with the organisms, all of those nutrients, all forty-two different nutrients that the plant requires from the soil, will be supplied in the proper balance.
Georgia Organics: How does the health of the soil we grow crops in impact the health of the surrounding eco-system.
Dr. Ingham: In our chemical agricultural soils – and they’re not really soils, they’re dirt – as it loses more and more of the life, and more and more of the proper organic matter to feed those organisms in the soil, the soil is going to be severely lacking in some available nutrients, and it’s going to be overloaded with other available nutrients. And those nutrients that are overloaded, those nutrients present in high concentrations. So phosphates, calcium, and nitrates leech out of the dirt and into the groundwater, the surface water, the lakes, the rivers, the streams. They end up in your drinking water. And now the water treatment plants have to work harder to remove excess of these certain mineral elements. And it costs money. And it means your water bill is going to go up and up and up and up, until we realize what kind of damage we’re doing to our water system and go back to agriculture of all kinds.