With the astonishing amount of technology increasingly available to farmers, whether chemical, biological, mechanical or doctrinal, it is easy to forget that we are never at liberty to make complete unilateral decisions. The ground with which we are privileged to work has a view. It’s like working with a ‘masterful’ aunt with a quirky sense of humour and a will of iron. Critically, we fail to listen to what she has to say, and I would suggest at we do this at our peril.

There are a number of tests that enable us to understand soil, many dealing with its chemistry or its physical properties, For many, a spade provides a useful, if subjective, insight into the current state of soil, enabling us to see and smell much of what is going on. Powerful as this is, there is another extraordinary dimension in front of us that most of us pass by; the world of soil microbiota. To monitor this, we need a microscope.

Last year I bought a shadowing microscope for the farm. Originally this was to conduct fecal egg counts and inform our animal worming strategy; but soon it became a stunning window into what is (or in some cases isn’t) going on in the ground!

I have to say, it’s absolutely fascinating what goes on beneath our feet (so long as we are standing on healthy soil)! After much research I decided to take Dr Elaine Ingham’s foundation course at www.soilfoodweb.com. This course requires an investment of both finances and time, but has been well worth the cost and effort as I come to the final stages. It has given me a fascinating insight into the extraordinary world that is the soil microbiome, enabling even one such as I to see what is going on, to start to understand the implications and, along with some parallel doctrine, to take appropriate action.

Whilst one remains very much a beginner in this field, even a basic understanding of the Soil Food Web and nutrient cycling provides an immediate and elegant focus for many of those parallel disciplines about which one has been required to collect some understanding over the years. This area blends biology with geology, ecology with mycology and even involves a little chemistry. By harnessing the microbial minions that are at (and frequently on) our fingertips but whom we often inadvertently destroy or disable in the interest of productivity, we can unleash the power of nature to provide targeted and tailored fertility whilst banishing the flawed assumption that a shift in focus from chemistry to biology need result in diminished productivity.

The ability to look at soil through a microscope, identify a gap, but then in many cases, to remediate this with a product made at home in a matter of days from compost is incredibly exciting. There are parallel benefits too. Whilst doing the section on compost tea, I decided to experiment on my rose garden. Normally plagued by black spot and the other myriad diseases that affect roses, we have historically invested much in rose spray and fungicides. Thinking it through from the Blackspot’s perspective, it struck me that though the fungicide was killing the black spot, it was also creating a clear landing place for each new spore that should arrive.

Treated with compost tea
No compost tea (control)

It is fair to say that not any compost will do, and that it’s important to make it properly, with the correct ingredients, and to note that I made a number of “rookie” errors when making compost, extract and tea but am slowly getting there! The key thing has been the ability to look at it under a microscope, spot the problems and resolve them.

There is no doubt that at it’s peak, soil microbiology is a complex discipline requiring long and diligent training and experience to master its full intricacies. At a practical level, however, the principles are not complex and with a little application,a working knowledge sufficient for most day to day work is relatively straightforward to achieve…. and for the more arcane aspects of the discipline there are a number of excellent consultants about!

Though I am still on a steep learning curve, it has already become clear that an effectively functioning soil food web and nutrient cycling system is a key part of a regenerative farming system, but it has also become clear that the soil food web needs careful management to establish in an environment which has been managed in a conventional way. It’s not really something that can be done “blind” and for this reason, I suspect microscopes will become increasingly critical tools for anyone who is interested in implementing an effective regenerative farming model.

So this year, I brewed a biological compost tea and applied it to most of the roses leaving a couple as a control. The result has been spectacular, whilst the control roses did show the usual infection, the remainder’s leaves still appear green and fresh with barely a spot. This week we applied a similar brew to some spring wheat that had started to show signs of rust and are watching the result closely!