What does it cost to have a profitable crop? Do you till and buy synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and fungicides? What if there was a better – and less expensive – way to farm? Would you be interested?
There is. And It Starts with Understanding Mushrooms!
In spring do you hunt morels? In fall chanterelles? Tasty and worth looking for, but what do these have to do with your farm fields? The mushroom that we eat is just the tip of the iceberg of an amazing living network of filaments that are only visible when we turn up a shovel of soil or roll over a log in the woods. Fungi are found in the top few feet of soil and their white strands (called hyphae) can travel for miles, searching out plants that will give them the nutrition they need.
Plant roots give off exudates that the Mycorrhizal fungi need to live. In exchange, the fungi give the plants nutrients and water, in a mutualistic relationship. Plants can’t move but beneficial fungi in the soil can acquire necessary nutrients for the plants from afar. Some types of mycorrhizal fungi send out hyphae from the plant roots into the soil where they forage for nutrients that are usually scarce and necessary for healthy plant growth, especially nitrogen and phosphates. Fungi connect plants below ground by hyphal networks that move resources among coexisting plants. The mutualistic relationship between fungi and plants plays a key role in the cycling of carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P).
Beneficial Fungi for a Profitable Crop
Of course, you want to make a profit on your farm. But if you are tilling, adding synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides those all cost you money. Why not work WITH mother nature and save yourself some dough? That’s where the fungi come in. The majority of plants need fungi, and almost all fungi need plants. Fungi cannot live in soil that has been heavily tilled. Deep tilling destroys the hyphae. They also cannot live where synthetic fungicides are sprayed. Even if you only do a foliar spray with fungicide those chemicals eventually make it into the soil. You may have killed the mold on your squash leaves, but you also killed the fungi in the soil that are an ally in your squash field health.
Why pay out good money when you can get something for free? Fungi are in all soils, even soil that once was commercially farmed and now abandoned. It is found in all soil types and in all climates, from the arctic to deserts. The only place it’s not found is in traditionally farmed agricultural land. When you deep till a field you are destroying the fungi and all the other microorganisms that feed your plants. If you’re growing using tilling and synthetics you are losing out on a free resource that can give you higher yields that are more nutrient-dense.
The Importance of the Plant/Fungi Relationship
There are nearly 6,000 species of Mycorrhizal fungi that interact with plants’ roots. Ten to twenty percent of the exudates that a plant produces through photosynthesis are taken up by the fungi. The plant doesn’t lose vigor because the fungi give the plant many essential nutrients and increase the plant’s drought resistance.
Our weather patterns are changing, we are having more extreme conditions which make it difficult to plan farm activities. Have you noticed your dry sandy soil needs more irrigation or that your clayey field is harder to get onto in the spring? Tilling and the use of synthetics are making it more expensive to farm, inputs are becoming more costly, decreasing profit. Fungi, on the other hand, are adaptable and work with nature. We offer a product, Humic Land, that can remediate fungi poor soils. If you’ve been farming the traditional way by tilling and adding synthetics the chances are very good you have a farm that is losing topsoil and becoming more degraded every year.
The nutrient exchange between plants and fungi creates higher crop yields in an increasingly unstable climate. Douglas Chadwick wrote in Mother Earth News in 2014,
Doesn’t that sound like a recipe for a bountiful harvest? And because fungi also help with drought it means less irrigation. If you are farming in the south or southwest that is music to your ears.
So, How Do I Know If I Have Beneficial Fungi in My Fields?
Healthy soil has certain characteristics you can see with the naked eye. Although most of the health of your soil can only be seen through a microscope you can get an idea of your soil health by digging up a spot in the middle of your field or under a fruit tree if you have an orchard. That soil should be the consistency of dark cottage cheese, if not you have work to do. Do you see roots with soil clinging to them? That is one effect of microorganisms in your soil, creating glomalin, a protein created by fungi that creates soil aggregates. Are there earthworms in your shovelful of soil? If your soil is dark, crumbly, and smells like soil – congratulations! you have the characteristics of healthy soil full of microorganisms. On the other hand, if you don’t see any earthworms, the soil either falls apart (sandy) or clumps (clay), and it’s a dusty color you have work to do.
You’ve spent some time in your field feeling and smelling your soil to get an idea of your soil health. But you need to compare that soil to some undisturbed soil on your farm to get a better feeling for soil health. And then you can determine just how much work you have to do.
Go out into your woods with your shovel and find a place with a lot of vegetation. Look at those plants, do you see disease? Do you see much insect damage? And even if there are some predatory insects, if you look closely do you see beneficial insects also? Dig up a shovel of soil in your woods. What do you see? Earthworms? What does a handful of that soil smell like? What color is it? If it is dark, crumbly, and full of earthworms you are looking at soil full of microorganisms that are giving nutrients to the roots of the wild plants so they can survive insect and disease damage. Do you want that same kind of lively soil in your fields? Then you might have to change both the way you do things and the way you SEE things. Your real work is to change the way you SEE things. Going from traditional agricultural practices to working WITH nature requires a change in mindset.
Nature will do a great job in helping your fields become fungi rich if you give her a hand.
A Quick Look at Nature’s Way
The vegetation in your woods is a good example of nature’s way. But those aren’t crops that can be harvested for profit. Nature works in all kinds of ways and there is a middle ground between heavily tilled and totally wild. You may improve your profitability by working with nature rather than using conventional growing practices.
According to Gabe Brown, a farmer, and rancher in Bismarck North Dakota, there are some essential actions you need to take to create soil hospitable to beneficial fungi and microorganisms.
- Reduce/Eliminate Tillage
- Have living Plant Cover on Your Soil (cover crops)
- Reduce/Eliminate Synthetic Chemicals
That’s all the changes you need to make. But if you’ve been deep tilling, letting your soil lay barren, and using synthetic chemicals these are major changes in your agricultural practices. When you change your agricultural practices you will invite millions of fungi and other microorganisms that can make your dirt into soil. You do have to help them along a bit.
Soil Is A Drug Addict
Having said that – you need to know that soil is like a drug addict, you can’t stop applying synthetics to your fields cold turkey. Gradually wean your soil off synthetics, just like a calf from a cow. Otherwise, your soil is going to bawl just like that calf. That bawling will take the forms of low productivity, high insect pressure, and disease. But that is a short-term situation followed by the repopulation of fungi, beneficial nematodes, and Protozoa. Many farmers have found a jumpstart by using Humic Land, which also has good biology. As you use less inputs, till less, and allow the fungi to recolonize your fields you will discover 4 things.
- Your plants will become healthier.
- You will note changes in your soil structure.
- Your soil will become darker.
- In the long term you will have less work to do.
Plants and soil are one so as your soil becomes healthier so will your plants. Fungi cycle nutrients and water throughout your fields. As they are doing so your soil is also attracting millions of beneficial microorganisms. The smallest beneficial microorganisms are living food for larger microorganisms, which are food for even larger organisms. The Soil Food Web includes microorganisms that are invisible to the naked eye all the way up to earthworms and more. So, in the spare time, you will have you can dig up your own fishing worms.