For the last 100 years or so, agriculture has expanded and industrialized exponentially. Heavy machinery now pulls the workload that livestock and human manual labor used to. The goal for farmers has become produce as much as you can per acre and push it out the door as fast as possible. Monocropping has become the name of the game and relies on the ability to grow hundreds and thousands of acres of the same crop, year after year. But, as much as our agriculture has exponentially taken off, it’s come with its own drawbacks and issues.
Conventional fertilizers are designed to provide the plant with its essential elements, while trying to remain cost effective by not supplying anything that won’t be utilized in crop production. These fertilizers rely on a heavy amount of nitrates (-NO3), phosphates (-PO4), and artificially chelated micronutrients for the plant to take up to promote growth. Theoretically, this is true, but in the grand scheme of things, it only provides one part of what the soil on our land is designed to do.
The first problem lies in the idea that these compounds don’t build up or leach from the soils. Nitrates and phosphates have been known to leach out of the soil when rain or ample amount of water is applied. They percolate through the soil and down to the water table or nearby rivers/coastlines. What the plant grabs is what it gets, and what it doesn’t grab is fed into our water supplies. This creates toxic algae blooms, shuts down lakes, rivers, and intercoastal waterways. Heavy metals and salts that don’t make it through the soil structure via percolation causes harmful salinity issues that voids the land of life resulting in crop loss and decreased production.
The second main issues are rooted in soil composition and structure. Soil should get better over time, containing a diverse blend of beneficial microorganisms and beneficial insects. Yields should go up and inputs required for a bountiful harvest should go down. Every input on our land should be building the top soil, providing rich carbon-based and plant-based compounds to build structure. Farmers are suppose to “grow” the soil and build up the organic compounds in the soil structure then the soil grows the plants.
However, this is not the case with traditional agriculture. Commercial fertilizer rarely contains carbon or plant-based inputs strictly providing the plant with only the essential elements for the plant to grow (NPK) and not the needed compounds for the soil (Carbon) to grow. High salinity from heavy fertilization severely impacts the activity of beneficial microorganisms resulting in a decreased ability for plants to ward away pests and diseases. Soils begin to decrease function and produces slower nutrient cycling which reduce elemental uptake which reduces yields.
Monocropping strips the lands of important elements like carbon, nitrogen, calcium, boron, and other trace metals. If land is over produced by monocropping, it erodes our soil by 1 cm every 10 years when it takes the earth 1000 years to build 1 cm of topsoil. Now, more than ever, it is important to start reallocating inputs back into the soil to help grow the soil to produce better yields in the future.
So what can we do?
Begin adding beneficial microorganisms, plant-based and carbon-based inputs into our land.
Beneficial Bacteria & Fungi: These organisms not only attract other like beneficial organisms, but they draw in important elements out of the air and inject them into the soil structure. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria draw nitrogen from the air (N2) and converts it in the soil into a usable form for the plant to uptake, bonding the nitrogen to the soil and reducing the farmers need for nitrogen inputs. Endo- & Ectomycorrhizae draw carbon out of the air in the form of CO2 and injects the carbon back into the soil, continually building the topsoil.
Beneficial bacteria like Bacillus spp. wards away harmful bacteria and fungi preventing diseases to spread throughout the soil via competitive exclusion (bad bacteria and fungi can’t live where there are good bacteria and fungi). Last, but not least, these beneficial bacteria and fungi are plant growth promoting rhizobacteria that release natural rooting and plant growth promoting compounds allowing the plants to thrive as fast as they genetically can.
Carbon- and Plant-based Inputs: Soil needs to have organic matter, carbon and nitrogen, and forms of plant nutrition that also act as microbial food and attractants for the native beneficial bacteria in the region. Carbon is the currency underground. It is basis to all life and all soils on this earth. Plants consume carbon as they grow, yet most of our fertilizing inputs are completely void of carbon. Humic acids, seaweed extracts, plant-based amino acids all contain carbon to some degree (humics being the highest percentage) and should be used regularly throughout each growing season. Not only do they replace the carbon, a macro element for plants, but the added carbon jumpstarts the cation exchange capacity (CEC) in the soil resulting in higher elemental uptake.
Plant extracts like amino acids from soybeans, or seaweed extracts from sea kelp contain a wide variety of biological compounds. Soybeans contain a wide array of nitrogen-based proteins which break down into very active amino acids. These amino acids can directly replace the use of nitrate, ammoniacal, and urea nitrogen with a form of nitrogen that is not only biologically active, but also sticks to the soils. Amino acids help transport elements from in the soil into the plant and prevents leaching into the water tables. We also find a reduction in the total amount of nitrogen needed to grow crops which reduces the cost per acre of inputs.
We have the technology in the modern day era to produce organic fertilizers and beneficial microorganisms that keep up, if not out-compete the traditional fertilizers on the market. With these new-found materials and inputs, we can efficiently and effectively reduce the cost per acre, rejuvenate our lands to be highly productive, and repair the erosion of our topsoil for the next generation to use the land.