Presentation on the Soil Foodweb approach, Botanical Gardens, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico


From El Charco del Ingenio – Botanical Gardens, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

If you missed this well attended presentation last June, this is your chance to hear Doug Weatherbee, who owns an organic food growing consulting business in Mexico, present on soil microbiology at the Botanical Garden.  Doug is a Certified Soil Foodweb Advisor having studied with Dr. Elaine Ingham, one of the world’s leading applied soil microbiologists in regenerative agriculture.

He will talk about how soils are more than just clay, silt and sand. Healthy soils are alive with incredible biological diversity. What do San Miguel’s soils look like from a microbiological perspective, and how might we begin to bring vibrant life back to these soils?

Reserve a space at  70 pesos for members of El Charco and 100 pesos for non-members. Doug will be going to Haiti to help 4 NGO’s with restoration work, focusing on the food aspect of the project. All proceeds from this presentation will go to the efforts in Haiti.

Australian Macadamia Farm Using Biological Approach – Dr. Elaine Ingham & Alan Coates

Here are three short videos made by in Australia.  Dr. Elaine Ingham and Alan Coates do a walk through of a Macadamia farm in Australia that has used the Soil Foodweb biological approach to wean the orchard off of chemicals.  The results are dramatic: very efficient water use and retention in soil, consistent good yields, soil de-compaction, visible-to-the-eyes earthworm and beneficial fungi in the soil; all indicators of an orchard coming back from the poor soil and plant health of the chemical past. Watch and listen to Dr. Ingham and Alan Coates discuss.

Part I

Part II

Part III

Dramatic Harvest Yield Data In…Mexico, Summer, 2009

Worst Mexican Drought In Over 6 Decades – Growing Corn with a microbiological Soil Foodweb Approach

Control cob on left ...... Biological cob on rightControl cob on left …… Biological cob on right

Well, we just harvested the corn in Mexico and the yield results are quite dramatic.  Remember, during the summer of 2009 Mexico has seen its worst drought in 68 years.  Dryland-farmed corn has failed in many parts of the country including the area in which this yield data is based.  Here’s a little bit of information on how our corn did, we’re working on a short video documentary that should be released sometime in the new year.  For now, some yield data comparisons between the ‘control’ field and the micro-biologically managed field.

Yield Data Chart Biomass

Biological sample yield on left ...... Control sample yield on rightBiological sample yield on left …… Control sample yield on right

Yield Data Chart Cobs

Bringing Soil Back to Life – a presentation

This is a short introduction to a longer technical presentation I do on the Soil Foodweb Approach. Please note that I can deliver this presentation live in-person or in an interactive ‘live’ on-line forum. If you’re interested in having me speak to a group please inquire on the Contacts Page.

Dr. Bonnie Bassler on Bacterial Quorum Sensing

Here’s fascinating presentation at TED by Dr. Bonnie Bassler, Princeton University, posted in April 2009.  Over the past several years Bassler and her team discovered that bacteria “talk” to each other.  They do this by using a chemical language that lets each bacteria species coordinate defense and mount attacks when their specific species numbers relative to other bacterial species give them an edge.  This has implications for how we understand disease causing bacteria in our soils and on our plant surfaces.  We often think we have to kill, using pesticides, all soil or foliar disease or pathogenic microbes.  Its not that we have to eradicate the pathogens but rather suppress them from expressing diseases in our plants by keeping their numbers low relative to the non-pathogenic bacteria.  We have to increase the good-guy microbial numbers. Bassler’s work points to how pathogenic bacteria are scanning their environment, seeing how many of their specific species are around and how many of the other total bacterial species exist.  Only when the specific pathogenic bacteria species has a chance to be successful relative to the larger bacterial numbers, will it “switch on” and attempt to take over.


Sugar Cane growing results of using a microbiological approach from Australia

Sugar Cane, Queensland, Australia, 42 & 50 Hectare paddocks, 2004-2009

Outcomes: Use of micro-biological approach results in:

  • Significant increase in Commercial Cane Sugar content (15%)

  • CCS content first cut always 2 units above the mill previous 25 yr avg

  • Reductions in inorganic N fertilizer use (200 kg/h to 80 kg/ha)

  • Soil water holding capacity increase (400%)

  • Weeds have reduced – hardly used no chemicals last 5 yrs

  • Cane more drought tolerant

  • Soil getting looser and building structure

  • Paddock owner: “Cane might appear to grow slowly initially but we get continuous growth when everyone’s cane has stopped growing, especially through winter and early spring”


Geoff Lawton – Greening the Desert

One of the people I have studied with, Geoff Lawton of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, has been an inspiration to me and many people around the world.  The following Greening the Desert video is worth a look regardless of how big or small your operation is.

Benefits of a Healthy Soil Food Web

The following is a posting from the Soil Foodweb Australia website.

Benefits of a Healthy Soil Food Web

Although not apparent to the naked eye, a healthy soils a dynamic living system that is teeming with life. Most of the organisms that live in the soil are beneficial micro-organisms such as fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes. While seemingly insignificant, they are represented in the millions in any given soil, providing a range of important services that promote plant growth and vigour.

The collective term for all of these organisms is the soil “foodweb.” The interactions amongst these organisms can provide plants with many of the requirements that they need to survive and flourish which includes the availability & retention of nutrients, disease suppression, and the building of soil structure. However, soil biology is an aspect that has largely been overlooked with many growers preferring to settle for something delivering a quick short term fix. The use of chemicals to kill pathogens and pests can also kill the beneficial organisms. The result is a sterile environment conducive to further disease and nutrient deficiencies. The quick fix often leads to a grower’s dependency on more and more artificial chemical and fertilizers to maintain his crops as with each application he is killing the natural soil food web. This could be compared to developing a drug dependency and the need to enter rehabilitation to kick the habit.

Soil Foodweb Institute have been the soil rehab specialists since 1986 and by utilising their services you will learn how you can manage and maintain a balanced and healthy soil. A balanced and healthy soil food web provides many benefits including that the need for fertiliser, pesticide and water requirements can all be substantially reduced.

What makes a healthy soil food web?


A healthy foodweb occurs when:

  1. All the organisms that a plant requires are present and functioning.
  2. Nutrients in the soil are in the proper forms that will enable a plant to take-up them up. It is one of the functions of a healthy foodweb to hold nutrients in non-leachable forms that  remain in the soil, until such time the plant requires the nutrients. At this point the plant “turns-on” the right biology to convert the nutrients into forms the plant can take-up (but which are typically very leachable).
  3. The correct ratio of fungi to bacteria is present, and that the ratio of predator to prey is present ensuring soil pH, soil structure, and nutrient cycling occur at the correct rates producing the right forms of nutrients the plant requires.

The functions of a healthy foodweb are:

  1. Retention of nutrients so they do not leach or pass off as vapour from the soil. Retaining the natural nutrients means a decrease in the need for fertiliser usage.
  2. Nutrients are cycled into the right forms at the right rates for the plant. The correct ratio of fungi to bacteria is needed for this to happen, as well as a balanced level of natural predator activity.
  3. Building the soil structure, so that the oxygen, water and other nutrients can easily absorb into the soil thus enabling plants to develop a deep, well-structured root system. When the biology is functioning properly, water use is reduced, the need for fertilizers is reduced, and plant growth is increased.
  4. Suppression of disease-causing organisms via competition with beneficials, by setting up the soil and foliar conditions so as to assist the beneficials as opposed to diseases.
  5. Protection of plant surfaces, above or below ground, This is achieved by making certain the foods created by the plant surfaces release into the soil and are used by beneficial, not disease organisms, thereby ensuring that infection sites on plant surfaces are occupied by beneficial, and not disease-causing organisms. This also ensures that the certain predators that prefer disease-causing organisms are present to consume them.
  6. Production of plant-growth-promoting hormones and chemicals that assist in plants developing larger stronger root systems.
  7. Control of toxic compounds through the breakdown or decay of these organic materials.

Soil Foodweb improves banana production: A photographic timeline

This is a case study produced by Soil Foodweb Australia.

Soil Foodweb increases banana production:

Includes a photographic timeline

Sustainable Banana Plantation, Korora (near Coffs Harbour),  New South Wales.

The Taylor family has been growing bananas in the Coffs Harbour region (mid north coast of NSW) for more than seventy years. While the early years used organic methods, inorganic chemicals soon flooded the market and were widely used, initially with excellent results. However, the limitations of conventional methods were soon realised as increasing amounts of chemicals were needed as soil health declined. Production costs were increasing while yields were decreasing and with the strong competition from the North Queensland banana industry, the Taylor family plantation decided to convert to an organic system.  The price incentives for organic produce were also an attractive proposition.

However, the problems that the Sustainable Banana Plantation encountered during this period of conversion proved to be an important lesson for anyone considering moving towards a more sustainable system. This experience highlights the importance of having a healthy soil foodweb and its role in nutrient retention and availability, disease suppression, and improved soil structure with increased water-holding capacity.

Initial attempts to move towards a more sustainable approach involved the drastic reduction of chemical use and a reliance on nitrogen-fixing plants between rows.  “We thought all we needed to do was to grow nitrogen-fixing crops and this would replace the nitrogen that used to be available through using chemical fertilisers,” said Graham Taylor, owner of the Sustainable Banana Plantation.  However, by 2001 the results were disastrous with widespread stunting, yellowing leaves, minimal suckering and the proliferation of weevil borer.

It was around this time that the Soil Foodweb Institute hosted a seminar in the Coffs Harbour region with Dr Elaine Ingham. It was here that Mr Taylor realised the importance of soil micro-organisms and in 2002 the Sustainable Banana Plantation incorporated Soil Foodweb techniques.

The first step was to address the compaction issues and inoculate the soil with the right microbes. For banana the desired fungal to bacteria ratio is around 2-5:1.  At the Sustainable Banana Plantation this meant a turnaround from a bacterial dominated soil that was encouraged by years of inorganic chemical use and poor soil structure. Therefore, a high quality fungal dominated compost and/or compost tea had to be applied.  The Sustainable Banana Plantation used both compost and compost tea in addition to organism foods during the establishment phase. Compost was applied around the base of the plants while compost tea, made from high quality thermal compost, was applied as a soil drench and foliar spray.  With the use of compost and compost tea to re-introduce a huge diversity of organisms the Sustainable Banana Plantation has had considerable success and negated potential ruin from earlier attempts at sustainable farming methods.

The Sustainable Banana Plantation does not use any inorganic chemicals and has been certified organic since March 2003. This means they have been able to fetch prices around $21 per carton compared to the $8-$9 for conventional cartons of NSW bananas (in average years).

The management of the soil foodweb and inoculation of beneficial organisms including fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and beneficial nematodes has significantly increased disease suppression, increased nutrient retention and availability, and improved soil structure.   “There has been a significant increase in size of the banana plants and increased number of leaves, which are now dark green in colour, with lots of suckers. Micro and macro biology is returning to the soil including earth worms and green frogs and the soil now has visible structure teaming with life including visible evidence of fungi. There has also been an increase in the size and weight of the bunches,” said Mr Taylor of the results that have been recorded since the Soil Foodweb approach has been adopted.

The improved soil structure has reduced water usage on the property by around twenty percent. There has also been the development of much longer, healthier root systems and an increase in beneficial nematodes. The more vigorous root systems are an important aspect, especially in the sub-tropical areas where ‘rootless bananas’ have been a persistent problem over the last twenty-five years.

The natural biology combined with the application of compost teas has also controlled disease outbreaks at the plantation.  “There is little evidence of the typical fruit diseases and now we have a balanced biology in the plantation we do not see the typical boom and bust cycles of diseases on the fruit,” Mr Taylor said.  “All that was necessary was to introduce the right type of microbes and then keep them active by giving them the appropriate foods, water and aeration.”

A Photographic Timeline

Organic sub-tropical bananas: Conversion from conventional system without reintroducing beneficial organisms. Severe stunting of plants, nutrient deficiencies and minimal suckering.


badBananas2Before Soil Foodweb Approach: Poor bunch development

badBananas3Before Soil Foodweb Approach: “Rootless banana” a major issue.


The microbiological Soil Foodweb Approach Applied


Applying high quality compost around base of plants.


Compost tea brew – High quality compost used (i.e. contains adequate
beneficial fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes).


Foliar compost tea application.


Foliar compost tea application.


Compost tea applied as a soil drench.


Soil Foodweb Approach: Visible fungal activity.


Soil Foodweb Approach: Now throwing larger bunches.


Soil Foodweb Approach


Soil Foodweb Approach: Longer, healthier root systems.


Soil Foodweb Approach.

Compost tea – practical results of microbiology in Australian viticulture

Article taken from the Soil Foodweb Australia 2009 September Newsletter.

2009-09 Compost tea – practical results in Australian Viticulture

Australia Viticulture - grapes

Photos courtesy Stuart Proud – photo on the left shows weed dominated soil, photo on the right shows grass dominated soil.  Read on to find out what made the difference.

Stuart Proud is a Vineyard and Biological Farming Consultant working in the Yarra Valley region of Australia.   Stuart has worked in the viticulture and wine industries for over 15 years, and has experience covering a wide range of locations throughout Australia.  For the past 8 years, Stuart has focussed on an organic and biological approach.  He has achieved some great results in improving soil biology, diversity and structure which has lead to healthier vines and in turn wines with more depth, structure and balance have been made.

Documenting trials and recording results has enabled a better understanding of what is happening in the soil. Applying Dr Elaine Ingham’s and the Soil Foodweb principles has meant positive results are obtained more quickly.  The scientific data collected and reports produced back up these results instead of just relying on anecdotal evidence.

As Stuart says, “Having worked in various vineyards and managed large properties myself, I never used to think twice about applying hi-analysis NPK fertilisers. The vines responded quickly and plant sap tests indicated the vines were taking up the nutrients. Using synthetic chemicals to control pests, diseases and weeds was standard practice and having a neat, tidy and weed free vineyard was a sign that you were a good manager.

However several years ago I began to wonder why pests and diseases would come back every year, no matter how many chemical applications were applied.  And why did the weeds persist even when pre-emergent and systemic herbicides were sprayed multiple times through the year?

As I have learnt over the last few years, it’s all about getting the biology right at the ground level. Once the soil is improved the plants become healthier – ‘Build it and they will come’”

Stuart believes that a key factor lies in the soils.  Most vineyards under conventional management practices tend to have soils that are high in bacterial numbers, low in active and total beneficial fungus (therefore unable to suppress disease causing fungus) , low in flagellates, amoebae  and nematodes (this means low nutrient cycling) and slightly high in ciliates (this means soils are on the anaerobic side of the scale). This is shown by testing in many regions.  Vineyards which have been managed using natural inputs and lowered pesticide and herbicide use tend to have a better fungal to bacterial ratio and more diverse protozoa and beneficial nematode numbers.

Ideally good vineyard soils will have between a 2:1 and 5:1 fungus to bacterial ratio but this is rarely the case when vineyards are managed with pesticides, herbicides and hi analysis NPK fertilisers. These all contribute to decreasing biological diversity, lowering natural disease suppression, increasing soil compaction and salinity levels. A healthy soil should contain 23% water, 25% Oxygen, 7% organic matter and 45% minerals. Compacted, unhealthy soil will have about 12% water, 15% Oxygen, 3% organic matter and 70% minerals.

A simple on farm test that anyone can do is to count earthworms in the soil. Digging a hole 30cm x 30cm and 15cm deep and counting the worms will give a quick indication of soil health. If numbers are greater than 15 then soil biology and diversity is alive and kicking, if there is only 1 or 2 then it’s time to change as something is wrong in the management practices.  Stuart reports that he has had soils where herbicide use was eliminated, only natural fertilisers were used and 40 worms were found in a single soil sample. The results in earthworm numbers under different management practices have been supported from studies done by Dr Linda Thompson from Melbourne University.

Nutrient cycling should also happen when the full soil foodweb is present. Testing sap at flowering is a standard industry practice, and Stuart has had results that showed vineyard blocks under organic/biological management practices where the vines had all nutrients in the ideal range when compared to other conventional blocks which were low in several micro and macronutrients. Having a biologically healthy soil means nutrients can be unlocked and are in a plant available form which allows the vines to grow and function with right amount of nutrient at the right time. As Dr Ingham’s studies reveal the plant is able to control pH around the rhizosphere of the root zone which means it can decide what nutrients are needed and when they are needed to best support plant function.

In following editions of the Newsletter we will be continuing Stuart’s story – especially the important details of how he has improved the soil and through that, the performance of the vines.  In the photos above (both taken in June 2009), the left-hand photo shows weed-dominated soil that has not been aerated, and has had a single application of compost tea as a soil drench over a 9 month period.  The right-hand photo shows grass-dominated soil that has been twice aerated, and has had six applications of compost tea as a soil drench and foliar spray, over the same period.