In this episode with Dr. Elaine Ingham, world’s foremost soil biologist and founder of Dr. Elaine’s Soil Food Web, we discussed about soils.
What do you know about soils? Not nearly enough!
Learn more with Elaine Ingham about nematodes, bacteria, fungi, who are “the good guys and the bad guys”, why healthy soils don’t need rotations, how plants actually feed themselves and why you don’t need expensive chemical inputs that just benefit the input companies.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
Misconceptions in Soil
While working on her PhD, she learnt from traditional researchers that bacteria and fungi are not important as they do not do anything for the soil. Dr. Ingham refuted this claim in her research. She found 15 to 16 species of bacteria and a couple of species of fungi to work with.
“Many people still do the same, exactly that of soil scientists who haven’t read a book since they left graduate school. They’re still mired back in this inappropriate understanding of what’s actually going on in soil. They have no clue. When I asked those people about this thing that I’m going to work on the bacteria and the fungi in soil, they said, they don’t really do anything.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham
Bacteria and Fungi in Soil
Ingham’s husband worked with her in studying bacteria and fungi in soil. They took soil, sterilized it, and started adding an organism group to see the effects it had on the plant.
“There is no soil on this planet that lacks the nutrients to grow plants. They are these biological interactions that release those nutrients in a plant-available form.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham
Bio Complete Compost
Elaine and her team developed the Bio Complete Compost, where they let organisms do the changes in the soil. They teach farmers the right recipe in growing the “good guys” or good bacteria and fungi.
“We teach people how to grow the “good guys”, just by controlling the conditions in your compost pile, the initial starting materials that you put into that compost pile. Compost is not made by throwing a bunch of organic matter together in a pile and leaving it for a while. If you want to compost, you’ve got all these organisms and the organisms you want. You’ve got to put in the correct recipe that we’ll select for the growth of what you need.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham
Listening to Mother Nature
Dr. Ingham’s research and company battle against the use of pesticides. They are teaching farmers how to increase their yields while not having to pay for the pesticides, the herbicides, the inorganic fertilizers, as well as not needing to till their property every year.
“Well, it is kind of classic measures of plant health. Are there a lot of diseases in this property that says that they’re going for sustainable methods? You can’t be sustainable if you’re constantly battling pests and disease fungi and root-knot nematodes and all the bad guys. That’s not sustainable. You can’t be sustainable if you’ve got a lot of weeds that come up every year. You’re not paying attention to the messages that Mother Nature is sending.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham
Barriers of Soil Research
The switch from academia to starting her own company and working with farmers for her research was not an easy road. She received a lot of discouragement especially about funding to support research. After butting heads with several people in the academic world, she shares her realization about soil people and experts and what role money plays to gain their support for her research.
“I realized then that the reason why none of these soil people, the agronomists, the plant biologists, the botanists, all of those people were interested was that there was no source of money for them to switch to understanding nature. There was no company that would give them the grants, that would give them the funding. Whereas things were, all these chemical companies are out there. They don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. They don’t want to destroy the cash cow. They didn’t want to hear this and I was kind of relegated to the back row not getting any financial support and not getting any ability to get a plot on the research farm.” – Dr. Elaine Ingham
To learn more about Dr. Elaine Ingham and the importance of soil, download, and listen to this episode.
Dr. Ingham discovered the soil food web nearly 4 decades ago and has been pioneering research ever since. Widely recognized as the world’s foremost soil biologist, she’s passionate about empowering ordinary people to bring the soils in their community back to life. Dr. Elaine’s™ Soil Food Web Approach has been used to successfully restore the ecological functions of soils on six continents.
The courses offered by Dr. Elaine’s™ Soil Food Web School have been designed for people with no relevant experience – making them accessible to individuals who wish to retrain and to begin a meaningful and impactful career in an area that will help to secure the survival of humans and other species.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
soil, plant, compost, organisms, bacteria, fungi, people, nutrients, grow, regenerative agriculture, microscope, nematodes, farm, question, field, farmers, put, crop, food, biology
Dr. Elaine Ingham, Koen
What do you really know about soils? I can promise you probably not nearly enough. Join me to learn more about nematodes, bacteria, fungi, the good guys the bad guys, why healthy soils don't need rotations, how plants actually feed themselves and why you don't need expensive chemical inputs just benefit the input companies.
Welcome to another episode of "Investing in Regenerative Agriculture: Investing as if the Planet Mattered", a podcast show where I talk to the pioneers in the regenerative food and agriculture space to learn more on how to put our money to work to regenerate soil, people, local communities and ecosystems while making an appropriate and fair return. Why am I focused on soil and regeneration? Because so many of the pressing issues we face today have their roots in how we treat our land, grow our food and what we eat. And it's time that we as investors, big and small, and consumers start paying much more attention to the dirt slash soil underneath our feet. In March last year, we launched our membership community to make it easy for fans to support our work and so many of you have joined as a member. We've launched different types of benefits, exclusive content Q&A webinars with former guests, "Ask Me Anything" sessions plus so much more to come in the future. For more information on the different tiers, benefits and how to become a member, check gumroad.com/invest_in_regien_ag or find the link below. Thank you.
Learn how to help farmers restore their soil biology, increase their profits and grow food in harmony with nature. Dr. Ingram discovered the soil food web nearly four decades ago and has been pioneering research ever since. Widely recognized as the world's foremost soil biologist, she's passionate about empowering ordinary people to bring the soils in their community back to life. Welcome to Dr. Elaine Ingham.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 01:48
Thank you very much Koen, glad to be here.
And a shout out to Francesca Thelus who introduced us and got you on the show. I want to ask you a personal question: What got you into soil? What got you into regenerative agriculture? From all the other career paths you could have choses, you chose this one...
Dr. Elaine Ingham 02:04
Yeah, it's kind of a long story. Because there were steps along the way. When I was a child, my father was a professor at the University of Minnesota. He would bring me into the laboratory, and my memory is that at about six years old, my dad sat me down at a microscope because he didn't want me wandering through the laboratory touching and getting all messy. So "Sit down here, kid!" and "Here's how you use this microscope." and "Now I want you to count all the E. coli in all these samples". And I had the greatest time. That was so much fun. I'm not sure that I gave him any statistically significant data. But it kept me out of trouble. Man, and I loved it. And he used to take me out on the farm with him when he went to look at dairy herds. And he would send me out into the fields to look for poisonous plants. Did the farmer in their fields have adequate food for the cows to eat? Or was this person feeding his cows with just, you know, Purina Cow Chow stuff out of a bag which is extremely high in salt, had high levels of lead, had all kinds of other problems.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 03:21
He wanted to know what was the condition of the pasture which kind of introduced me to soils that were really horrific and would grow nothing but weeds versus other farmers that really were doing a good job. I didn't think about these things in a scientific manner yet, but that question of: Why is one person's field gorgeous and beautiful - the grasses, all kinds of forbs and herbs and wonderful things and the cows are fat and happy - versus right next door there's this other field that's nothing but weeds! What's going on here?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 03:57
As I went through college, my parents both pushed me very strongly to go to medical school. I had submitted my applications and I was going to go to medical school in the fall, but I happen to take microbiology in the last quarter of my senior year of college and decided that I liked microbiology way more than I liked being a medical doctor. I'm not comfortable really with telling other people what they should be doing to fix their health. Although, of course, I am now doing that sort of thing because what's in your soil is what has to get into your digestive system and the biology is what determines the nutrients that are in your foods. So yeah... kind of the backdoor way to help people become healthy.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 04:53
I worked in a heart hospital then during the summer of my senior year in college. I was working in the labs, I was the dishwasher, and I kind of got to see all the nastiness that actually happens in those laboratory situations, and I did not like the people who were going to be my professors in the fall so I decided not to go to medical school. Sorry, I'm not interested. I applied to graduate school, and so I headed down to Texas A&M the next fall and started graduate school at Texas A&M in marine microbiology but it did introduce me to the fact that the methodology that most soil scientists use, that even marine scientists use, to measure bacteria or fungi or protozoa or nematodes in their systems are completely inappropriate. You can't make the interpretations using plate counts about the total set of micro organisms in an oyster's digestive system, or in the soil, or on surfaces of leaves. It's incorrect.
Why is that? Because it's not the whole picture? Why is that so incorrect? For anybody that hasn't looked in a microscope for a long time, and isn't studying soil or oyster digestive systems.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 06:24
I'm going to answer that with a little bit of explanation of the experiment that you do to figure this one out. The classic method for doing total bacterial or fungal numbers in soil or in any environmental sample, would be to take a particular petri dish filled with a particular kind of medium. The medium typically used for bacteria is tryptone soy agar. The medium used for fungi is a particular medium with a very limited set of food resources in it. So you plate your sample that may in fact have somewhere as high as 75,000 species being spread on that plate but the only things that grow are those things that can utilize that particular food resource. Remember also that you're incubating that plate at one temperature, and that is a unnatural. There is no place on the planet that you go where you have the same temperature all day long and all night long. They're used to a fluctuation.
So what you see when you do that is you're going to see a completely distorted, very narrow part of reality, of what's out there.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 07:51
And typically, you get one or two different species growing on that plate.
Apart from the 75,000 you just mentioned.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 07:59
Right. And so for fungi it's not quite as bad: out of the 25,000 species of fungi you spread on that potato dextrose agar. There, I remember the name!
Oh it's only one third!
Dr. Elaine Ingham 08:09
So only potato. Well what's the food resource when we make potatoes?Mashed potatoes? Well, it's one particular kind of food resource. And then you have the dextrose, which is one particular form of one of the millions of different sugars that are out there on this planet. So of course you're restricting the growth of who actually grows. So this is by no means a total community of bacteria or fungi that they were looking at. They were looking at something that really comes out about 0.000000001% of the actual community of microorganisms.
And that was the case when you started studying. Is that still the case?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 08:59
Many people still do exactly that. Soil scientists who haven't read a book since they left graduate school, they're still mired back in this inappropriate understanding of what's actually going on in soil. They have no clue. When I started my PhD work at Colorado State University in soil my major professor told me to go and talk to all of the other professors in the university that dealt with soil: "Go talk to those soil scientist"; "Go talk to the agronomist"; "Go talk to the hydroponics people"; "Go talk to crop scientist". And I did that, and when I told those people that I'm going to work on the bacteria and the fungi in soil and asked "What's their purpose and soil? What do the bacteria and fungi do? How important are the bacteria and fungi for plant growth, for production, agriculture?" And to a man they said: "Oh, they don't really do anything. They're unimportant. You should not do a PhD on this subject because there's no future in it."
Boy, they were wrong.
Oh, man. But you know, they were so blinded by the methodology that they'd been taught. None of them had thought about that this doesn't make any sense. If you take a drop of liquid from someplace from your soil, or from your oyster's digestive system, and you plated it on that plate you get one or two different species of bacteria or fungi. But when you take a drop of that same material, put a drop on the microscope slide, cover that with a cover slip, and you look in just one field of view...
What's the field of view?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 11:09
When you look through the microscope and you're seeing that round circle of light, you can see what's going on in that "field of view". And there are 2300 fields of view as you go through that whole coverage.
Literally, this petri dish is so big you zoom, and then you can zoom even further, but, so you have... Wow. And how many do you see? Because I interrupted you...
Dr. Elaine Ingham 11:34
Well, on the petri dish I take a drop of the solution and put it on there and then I can take a drop the same solution and put it on a microscope slide. Then I'll cover, I'll put a glass slide on that drop so that you have a uniform depth of that liquid that you're looking at. Then you can count the number of bacteria in each field of view, and each field of view would have somewhere around 15 to 16 different species of bacteria that I could see the differences in their morphology so I knew I had at least 15 to 16 different species of bacteria and maybe a couple different species of fungi. Multiply that by the 2300 fields of view and you can see where we get up to this massive number of species and individuals pretty rapidly which is completely the opposite of what you're getting from those plate counts.
So nobody ever put a liquid from the soil under a microscope? Or did they and then sort of didn't believe it and then went back to growing medium, and "okay, let's see what we get there..."
Yeah, they never questioned the discrepancy between what the microscope was telling them and what plate counts were telling them. Yeah, it just completely flew right over the top of their head.
And so you saw that, and then what?
So what I did was I worked on methods of assessing total fungi and bacteria in soil and a method for determining whether they were active in soil so we could differentiate those organisms who were awake and functioning from the rest of the organisms that were hanging out waiting for the right conditions, to become active and start helping your plant. Once I finished my PhD I worked with a group at the Natural Resource Ecology Lab at Colorado State University headed up by Dave Coleman who wanted to know what were the functions - you can tell that these guys are all active - but what are they actually doing? They are doing something! What's the something that they're doing? And so my husband, who is a nematologist, he works in soil. He works with the critters that eat my critters, so yeah we have interesting dinnertime conversations.
That's a fun relationship
Both my kids went into the world of entertainment because my husband and I, I think bored them silly by constantly having these conversations about bacteria and fungi and who's eating them, and which nematode, and how do you identify that. But we worked out that his PhD work was to take soil and sterilize it, and then start adding in each organism group to that sterile soil seeing what effect it had on the plant. When all you do is put in one kind of group of organisms, the plants die. If you put in predators and prey such that the exudates coming out of the root system of the plant, feeding the bacteria or feeding the fungi, getting those bacteria and fungi to make the enzymes to pull the nutrients out of the sand, the silt, the clay, the rocks, the pebbles in your soil, storing those nutrients in their bodies so nothing leeches, nothing's lost when water moves through the system. When the predators come along, they eat those bacteria and fungi nd because the nutrient concentration that the predators have is so much lower than what's in the bacteria and fungi, those predators are forced to release the nutrients in a plant-available form. There's how nature actually converts the total nutrients in your soils. There is no soil on this planet that lacks the nutrients to grow plants. It is these biological interactions that release those nutrients in a plant-available form. So your plant says: "Thank you. Thank you. Yes, thanks for putting all the nutrients I need right outside my root hair" - and takes it up.
:ike being in a supermarket but all the shelves are covered up. I mean, let's say a good supermarket with good food - let's not take the average one - but all the shelves are covered with plastic: you can see it but you cannot touch it. All this life in the soil makes it accessible.
Yeah, it's actually probably a worse case scenario. It's as if all of the food and all of those shelves were encased in stone. Who's going to be able to, you know... a human being could reach between the plastic pretty easily and get the food they want but if it's encased in stone? You got to go to the supermarket with your pickaxe? And you know, stand there and chisel? No, no, no. Let something else, let the bacteria and fungi do that work for you. When the protozoa and nematodes eat those bacteria and fungi here's the foods coming from that interaction that you as a human being could pick up very easily. You don't have to do any work at all.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 17:12
We don't need to set up diffusion gradients. We don't need all these explanations that soil scientists are talking about: your plant has to pull the nutrients into its root system from a meter, three meters away. That's just ridiculous! Let that plant have the food handed to it, and my favorite example of this is to look at this nutrient cycling system in the soil kind of like the pizza delivery guy. The plant calls up the pizza parlor. So here's the exudates, here's the message going to the pizza parlor saying "here's what I need you to do". And the guys of the pizza parlor say "Oh, yeah, sure you want cheese with bacon, or you want pepperoni and sausage, or you want extra cheese?" Whatever. They make exactly what the plant wants. And so that's the function and the role of the bacteria and fungi. They're making the pizzas with the proper kinds of foods in that pizza. Well, then you hand that pizza off to the pizza delivery guy - that's the predator, that's the nematode or the protozoan, or the earthworm, or the micro arthropod - and that pizza delivery guy delivers exactly the nutrients that your plant wants to the doorstep.
And hopefully, it's still warm. Yeah.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 18:34
Oh, yeah! Hopefully, it's still warm. Well, you know, you're playing. We go. "No, I tend to want that. It's not warm enough."
And hands it back.
Yeah. Because they're getting everything they want.
Okay, so you discovered this, which is a huge discovery! You could have spend the rest of your your life in academia, looking into this, but you decided to set up a company working with farmers out there and not just in the university's experimental farm. What was that process like?
Well, for me it was, in academia, finding these things. And that's not the only benefit we found for plants because if we get the right sets of biology in the soil they will physically cover the surfaces both below ground and above ground, and prevent any diseases from being able to attack your plant. Not only are we improving plant resistance to disease by making certain that plant is getting all the nutrients it wants in the correct balances. It's the exudate the plant's putting out that tells which bacteria and which fungus to go and get which nutrient, and so the plant's going to get the nutrients it wants. Its health is increased by 90%. And then we're going to make certain that the surfaces above and below ground - the fruit, the seed, the leaves, the body, the roots, everything - are protected from disease and pest attack by getting the covering of these organisms back into the system. The organisms build structure in the soil. So you will never have the situation of a compaction layer, ever again; your root systems won't be limited in their ability to grow down into the soil and get all the water they need from the water that should be stored in the structure of that soil.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 20:28
There's all these benefits, and yet when I started wanting to have field trials done, to do work out at the farms, you know, the University farm, the responses I got were: "Well, you're gonna have to go out and find funding. We don't have any money to put towards your research because we don't think your research is really all that important. If microorganisms did all these wonderful things for the plant, then why hasn't somebody else already found that out?" Well, because what we've done in agriculture, starting back in the late 1800s, with the mechanical plow where people could go out and and plow ten, twenty, fifty, a hundred acres on a daily basis. It's so easy to go out and do that plowing. Get rid of the weeds, but for only about two weeks. Get rid rid of the compaction layers, but then you've killed, you've sliced, you've diced all the organisms that do the job of rebuilding that structure so your soil compacts worse than it ever did before. You get compaction layers at the surface, where salts are left behind as water evaporates. Well, where did those salts come from? It came from the inorganic fertilizers that you were told that you have to use in order to be able to grow these plants. Why would you possibly need inorganic fertilizer inputs into your soil where you have literally thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years worth of nutrients are already present in that soil? Why do you have to add more? Well, it's present in the wrong form. Those nutrients are in the soil in a not leachable, not plant-available form. You have to have the micro organisms do the conversion. Well, if you just sliced and diced and crushed all of those organisms by tilling two to fourteen times through a growing season, and if you're putting out inorganic fertilizers which are all salts, which will kill the organisms in the soil... If we didn't kill you with the plow, we will kill you with the high concentrations of salts that are going out. And if we didn't kill you using those two methods then we're going to kill you when we put out fungicides, bacteriacides, nematicides, mitacides, herbicides. And so most of the soils that we see when we go out and look for the biology in the soil is: there is nothing beneficial to your plant.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 23:08
Empty. You might find some bacteria but they're not good bacteria, they're the disease causing bacteria. So you're putting your seed into a substrate that is chock-full of things just waiting to attack and consume. They're not going to get the right nutrients, they're going to be stressed from day one when they germinate and start to grow. Trying to figure out why people were so negative about: "But wait a minute, this is the way nature works! This is how nature has been feeding plants for the last, well, how long have plants existed on this planet? A billion years, nature's been at this for a billion years, do you think maybe she's had the time to figure things out? And human beings in our arrogance think that we've figured it all out in the last hundred years.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 24:02
Ahhh! And I realized then, that the reason none of these soils people - the agronomists, the plant biologists, the botanists, all of those people - the reason they weren't interested, is there was no source of money for them to switch to understanding nature. There was no company that would give them the grants that would give them the funding. Whereas as things were, all these chemical companies are out there. For example Monsanto at Oregon State University: it was $75 million a year that was coming just from Monsanto.
No wonder they weren't looking beyond the few bacteria that group. Of course!
They don't want to bite the hand that feeds them. They don't want to destroy the cash cow. And so they didn't want to hear this and so I was kind of relegated to the back row, not getting any financial support, not getting any ability to get a plot on the research farm. The answer always was: "Well, there's a waiting list of 35 other people waiting for plots on the research farm. I'm sorry, but you'll have to wait your turn." And yet I'd go out to the research farm because I would get involved in other people's research and there were all kinds of fields that there was no crop, there was nobody doing anything with them, why couldn't I have used that weed field? Excuse after excuse after excuse. It became very apparent, especially when I kind of butted heads with Monsanto over genetically engineered organisms, that academia was not the place for me. Academia is not what it's touted to be. Back in the day when I was in this situation back in the early 1990s - associate professor at Oregon State University, trying to get my research done, trying to find funding, having a hard time getting that because the research funding was shrinking by massive amounts on an annual basis - I finally really considered my goals and I really didn't want to be fighting the academic world for the rest of my life.
That was the road.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 26:30
Yeah, the people who weren't interested in learning anything new were never going to listen to me. So where is my effort really being directed? It's at growers. I need to be talking to growers and quite a few growers were working with me and we were having really good results. So the demonstration plots were out there, it just happened to be on people's private land, where I could go out and I could teach them how to make compost so that they would have all these really good sets of organisms. Today we call that bio-complete compost, where you've got all the organisms to do the changes, get them into the soil. We started to realize with time that if you're trying to grow weeds, you want this kind of foodweb, this group, in these concentrations, with this much species diversity, if what you want to grow weeds, if that's what you want to grow, then great.
These are going to be your friends.
Yeah, this is what you want to be putting in there. Well, most people don't want to grow weeds. Now if I want to grow asparagus, you better put in a different composition of those microorganisms, and it's just balance between the bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes. Well, if you want to grow corn, you need this, in equal balance of fungi and bacteria but if you want to grow blueberries you need twice as much fungal biomass as you do bacterial and it's gotta be all good guys and bad guys. So we teach people how to grow the good guys, just by controlling the conditions in your compost pile. The initial starting materials that you put into that compost pile. Compost is not made by throwing a bunch of organic matter together in a pile and leaving it for a while. If you really want compost that's got all these organisms and the organisms you want, you've got to put in the correct recipe that will select for the growth of what you need. What do you have to put back into your soil? What's missing in your soil? And we can help you first of all ask "What is in your soil?" So we teach people how to use microscopes, or you send samples into a lab where somebody's learned how to do these assessments and they can give you the data back. So you can see immediately: "Well, I want to grow really top notch corn, but my soil has no fungi in it. I've been tilling too much, i've been putting on fungicide." Guess what if you put a fungicide on you kill the good guys faster than you kill the bad guys. Bad guys have gotten resistant, the good guys haven't. So we've got to make certain that all that fungicide is gone, it's all decomposed, it's taken care of. We increase yields easily by more than 20-30 percent in the first growing season. We reduce disease so that you don't need any pesticides. When you get the balance of bacteria and fungi right, when you have more ammonium than you do nitrate in your soil, your weeds can't grow so you don't have to be using herbicides. Your root systems are going deeper into the soil, your soil is holding water better, all that organic matter that's been produced by the actions of the microbes. There's no downside to getting this biology.
Except for the input guys, obviously. But yeah, let's not feel sorry for them. And so when you say "we" who is "we", because you build a company around helping growers and farmers to do this, and to put this into practice, to put us into the field, basically. Can you describe "we" for a second.
So "we" is The Soil Food Web School, where we've put together the online courses that people can take at their own speed. We don't care if it takes you six months, or a year or even two years, to get all the way through the course. But you know, if, of course, if you want to be able to do agriculture the way I'm talking about, you'd want to get through those online courses. There have been people who've gotten through the online courses in three days. So it's possible.
This was all before COVID, just to be clear, you've built this online way before we all got online, basically. And it's given you an enormous reach, obviously, and enormous flexibility for growers to follow these, to learn wherever they are, as long as there's an internet connection.
Yeah, you don't have to go to university, you don't have to go to a class and arrive every night for weeks on end, you just turn your computer on and you start watching where you left off.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 31:28
We then have advanced courses. So if somebody wants to become a microscope technician, we have another eight hours that we put on the end of the "foundation courses". The "foundation courses" are the basic sets where we teach you all the information, we teach you how nature works, and then you can get a little bit more experience on identifying all these organisms and become confident that you know what you're identifying. And then, if you really like all of that, you can move on and become a consultant. Consultants typically take a full year, maybe two years to get through that consulting course. We want them to show us that they took dirt, which has no organisms, and no organic matter. It has plenty of minerals, it's got the sand , silt, clay, rocks and pebbles. You've got all the nutrients you could ever want but you're lacking the biology. So how do you get those organisms back into the soil? We're going to convert your dirt back into soil. That typically takes people a growing season to go through that and become a consultant.
And how many people have done that so far?
Right now, we're probably up around 15 to 20 consultants that have gotten all the way through because it does take time.
And are globally I'm imagining.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 32:54
Right all over the world. The only place we don't have a consultant on the continent is the Antarctic. Not many crops grown in the Antarctic, so I think we're okay. There are people everywhere. It's certainly close enough to anybody that they can do that consulting, that they should be able to get out to your farm with a little bit of travel, of course, that's not going to probably happen right now with the COVID virus.
Somebody within a day can come and visit. And how many farmers have gone through, or are going through, the process until the consultant. Are there hundreds or thousands?
In the foundation courses there's over a thousand. I think we're probably up around more around 1500 students going through the foundation courses, or who have gone through the foundation courses this year. And then there's probably another 60 to 70 people that are doing the microscope training to be able to do samples for people. And then we have 120 students going through the consulting course to become consultants.
So in a year or two, there will be a big group of those 120 for sure, not all, but will be consultants which grows your group of consultants massively, basically from 20 to that it's a lot. And that will give you a good global reach.
It gives us the probability that a consultant will be physically much closer to any client that wants to sign up.
And then because you've made a very conscious decision to do all of this online, do you remember when that happened? Or how that happened? Because for many, they may be thinking it now as we're in COVID, but you did that way before that happened? What was the process there that you saw the potential of the internet and saw the potential of video courses or courses in general. Do you remember?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 35:01
I first started recording my lectures back when I was at Oregon State University. So back in the late 1980s I started recording so that people could buy the tapes, you know, so they were on the tapes originally and then we went to CDs. We expanded it from three lectures to six lectures, because there were so many questions coming from people about "But how do I do it under these situation? What happens? What did you mean, when you said? And how long does it have to be at that temperature? And when I added into the soil? All those questions... so we started expanding the number of lectures. In 2010 to 2011, started converting everything to online courses. So with a fair amount of help to get the computer part of the system to do that, we started selling the online courses. Back then that was with a different group called ECI, and I don't work with them anymore at all. So we started The Soil Food Web School in 2018 or really I think January of 2019 is when we started The Soil Food Web School, went through and completely redid all of the online videos, all that explanation because so many improvements had happened in the last four to five years. The regenerative people's work, the connection between regenerative agriculture and biological, they really go very much hand-in-hand. So we don't teach a lot of the regenerative methods, because you guys do, those folks do a great job at that. So we work together. You really need to understand both to be highly successful. And then you've got quite a community of people behind you to answer any question that you have. So we have several different forums that if you're taking the foundation classes, there's at least three different forums, where we answer your questions, and as the students learn they start to answer the questions. Overviewed by myself and a couple of helpers to make sure that the correct information is going out but we recognize that everybody has specific questions to what they're doing. And they would like to have those answered as rapidly as possible. So we try for a one day turnaround, not always successful.
To shift gears a bit, I think for a lot of listeners on the podcast it's absolutely fascinating to hear more about soil and they're also wondering about "Okay, I'm investing in this space. I would love to invest in this space." So they get very enthusiastic. From what you've seen working with thousands of farmers, visited I don't know how many farms, have seen this change from a lifeless soil to a soil full of life. And you're seeing now I think the interest in regenerative agriculture is growing, the interesting soil is growing. If you would be an investor, what would be the questions you ask or what would be the things to look out for. What's the most exciting thesis, what you've seen in this agriculture movement that's really starting to bubble, which means there's a lot of noise as well. And I think for a lot of investors that didn't study soil science the question is "How do I filter the noise from the real interesting things? Or how do I assess a farmer? What should I ask? What should I look for?"
Well, it is kind of classic measures of plant health: is there a lot of disease? This property that says that they're going to sustainable methods. You can't be sustainable if you're constantly battling pests and disease fungi and root knot nematodes and all the bad guys. That's not sustainable. So you can't be sustainable if you've got a lot of weeds that come up every year. They're not paying attention to the messages that Mother Nature's sending them. So kind of classical assessments of productivity. And, you know, we usually increase yields by at least 20%. So if they're doing things right, if the farmer is doing things correctly, they're seeing those increases in yields, and they're not having to pay for the pesticides, the herbicides, the inorganic fertilizers, they don't need to be tilling their property every year. This is very much a no till proposition. And there are a couple of different ways to do no till so. We work with the farmer to figure out what they're most comfortable with. What do they have the equipment for? I don't want to be telling them that they have to buy massive amounts of new equipment. We can modify their existing equipment to be able to do the biological approach. So listening to Mother Nature and doing the biological approach sounds like a new dance, doesn't it? So it's the same kinds of criteria if you're an investor, but you want to make sure that there is no tillage happening. Every time you till 50% of the carbon in your soil is going to be blown off as CO2. So how can you be sustainable if you're tilling? The farmer has to figure out the way to go no till and we can do it with every crop, honest to God. Come take the foundation courses and you'll learn that. So pure, I don't have to explain all that.
No, no, I think for anybody interested in this space, go and talk to farmers, go and really experience this and go and do courses, read books, but at the end of the day, you need to see this, feel it, touch it, understand it, the difficulties, the challenges, the opportunities, the enormous pieces we don't know yet, and the enormous pieces we do know yet.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 41:17
And making sure that you have the right ones, you've got make certain you have the right ones. And as he just said, the balance has to be there. It's all about the conditions in your soil that select for the beneficials. And then once you're working on getting the conditions right, you should be inoculating those microorganisms that will help your plants. You shouldn't however have to be applying that inoculum of beneficial organisms every month, or every week or next year. Once you get them established, they have to be sustainable. And if you don't have the conditions right. If you keep losing them, then this isn't sustainable. You've got to figure out what you're doing wrong. And we certainly can help people figure out what they're doing wrong so that you apply the biology, you can document that they're there, and that's where we need people using the microscope so that you don't have to keep adding them. All my least favorite companies on the planet, they're all trying to get in on the biology thing where they offer jugs of microbes - "bugs in a jug" is what we call them - and you're supposed to be putting these "bugs in his jug" out, like every month, you're gonna have to go and re-inoculate them, you're gonna have to put them out. Jeez! If you fall for that line, I guess, you know, you deserve to fork out.
It's a business model. Yeah.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 42:58
You're gonna lose a lot of money.
And it's a good bridge to a question I love to ask, especially the people who are not in the investment space. What would you do if you would wake up tomorrow, or today - I mean, it's still morning where you are - and you are in charge of a $1 billion investment fund. So you have all the flexibility, meaning you can choose the time horizon you want it back, but it has to come back, it's an investment. You might lose some, which obviously is fine. We hope not. I ask this question because I want to know what people would focus on. What would they invest in? What is underrepresented, neglected in this space? I love to ask the experts in their field that say "But actually, I would love to focus on x, y, z because that's what nobody is doing and it's super important". In this case, what would you invest this $1 billion into?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 43:46
I'd want to try to develop demonstration farms in every part of the world, as many as we possibly can. And we know that when we develop these demo farms, they're going to make money. And so with that one time billion dollar input into the system...
How would they make money? What would be the model for the farm, for the demo farm?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 44:14
When you start making the compost, it's very easy to make excess, and you start selling that. We have farms out there that are already doing this. When they first get started, the reputation of compost is so bad because it's the "reduce waste people" that have been calling the yuck that they produce compost and it's stinky, it's smelly, it's black, it'll kill your plants, it's just chock full of pathogens. That is not compost! So when we first started out people have this bad opinion of compost so we're only going to be selling it for you know $75 per cubic yard. But pretty soon the reputation gets out into the neighborhood of: "Yeah, buy their compost because I increased my yields by 50%! Can you believe that they only promised 20%?"
So it starts spreading...
Dr. Elaine Ingham 45:13
Yeah. And so word of mouth over the backyard fence, you know: "How come I didn't see you down at the fertilizer store buying your fertilizer for this year?Yeah, because I got this little bit of compost and I spread it out, and I don't have to keep putting it on." So the word gets out. So like with the folks up in Northern California. They started out selling their product for $75 per cubic yard and pretty soon they were completely sold out. So as they made their next batches, they uped the price. So then it got to $150 and then $300, and then $600, and ight now they're selling their compost for $750 per cubic yard.
Wow, 10 times basically for what they started.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 45:59
Ten times, right. And they still have a waiting list of people wanting to buy their compost. They constantly run out even though they're expanding significantly. Teaching the people in that area, we've made it really clear to them that they don't accept the compost, if they can't show that the organisms that they need are present in that compost. That's the consumers way of determining whether this compost is worth paying $75 for that stuff coming out of the the municipal composting operations that typically isn't even worth 75 cents a cubic yard. So we've got to have this way of proving to everybody...
There's an opportunity there. And regional ones, I mean, that's like you said: "in as many places as possible" so we're not trucking around or shipping around large quantities of stuff.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 47:01
Well because the organisms that live in Northern California are inappropriate for Arizona. Those organisms from Northern California are used to conditions that are nice and wet in the springtime, that are cool. They don't have the heat until later on in the summer, as opposed to Arizona where the rains come in October. So we've set up bio regions, and you really shouldn't be buying compost from outside your bio region. How do you know if the organisms in the composet that you're buying are the ones that work in your conditions? You buy locally. So we want lots and lots and lots of farms, every county ought to have its bio complete compost facility so they're starting materials are all from the local area with local organisms on it. And all the proper conditions are maintained during that composting process, so that you're selecting for just the beneficials and not the bad guys. So that's kind of our intellectual property. I've gone all over the world, there is no continent on this planet that I have not been on. Except for the Antarctic. No, and Greenland, I guess I haven't been there either, if you count at a continent, but otherwise, every place we grow plants...
The name suggests that we could do something there but I don't know if we want to in terms of climate. But yeah.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 48:41
I think they were referring to the green in algae. That's what they grow in Greenland.
Ah that's true. Yeah. So you would invest in demo farms, but demo as in composting local, bio regional, high quality, useful, appropriate compost made on farms sold other others, sold to the neighboring farms, sold to the area.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 49:04
That's one aspect of what they're doing. But then they're also making liquid forms of that compost and applying it on that farm. We would have as many example plant plots; like here's the corn field so we've got 10 acres of corn and we will keep corn there for now until forever. When you're replenishing the biology by bringing in that really good bio-complete compost there is no need to rotate your crops. Sorry but the organic world did not understand biology and the soils, so they got it wrong. If you get the right biology in there there's absolutely no reason to rotate to a different crop. Grow your cash crop! Because every year we're putting in all those organisms that are going to prevent any of the diseases of being able to attack your crop. If you've got all the organisms in there, then you don't have to keep adding every year, but check it. Make sure you do have the biology.
Just so that I get it correct. You are actually answering a question I usually ask at the end. What do you believe to be true about regenerative or biological agriculture that others don't? And you're saying rotation isn't necessary if you have the right life in your soil appropriate to the crop you're growing.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 50:33
Yep, absolutely no reason. Disease factors is one reason for why you have to rotate. If you've got a lot of diseases happening it's kind of like Mother Nature trying to tell you that you don't have your food web in place yet, you don't have the microorganisms present in your soil. So get busy and fix that so you don't have to do a rotation. The other thing that we're told we have to rotate is because your plant sucks all of one kind of nutrient out of the soil and now there isn't enough of that kind of nutrient. Well go back to my explanation of how nutrient cycling actually works in soil and you see just how ridiculous that argument for rotation is.
Because they're there for that corn crop and they should be there the year after when you're growing that corn.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 51:29
Your plant is going to put out the food, the exudate from the plant that tells those bacteria and fungi that do the job of pulling the one nutrient that your plant requires or maybe the 10 nutrients out of the sand, the silt, the clay, the rocks, the pebbles, your parent material, and oh, yeah, organic matter, too. So there is no way in a good healthy soil that you don't have all the nutrients. That always kind of drives me crazy when somebody says: "Well, but you don't have enough nutrients in your soil to support the growth of your plant." Well, how much is your organic matter in the soil? If you're over 3% organic matter you've got all the nutrients your crop of anything should require. Just if the only thing your plants had was organic matter they've got more than enough of that nutrient, whatever it is, because how could that organic matter have lived, grown, reproduced, if it didn't have all the nutrients that plants require? So the nutrients are there, you've just got to get the bacteria and fungi to do their job, the protozoa and nematodes to do their job, and your plant has every single nutrient it needs in the proper balance.
I think a few people are going to be shocked at this piece, which is great, because that's why we're asking the questions. Because it's such a crucial part, such a part of that little list of the principles of regenerative agriculture a lot of people refer to, but it's very interesting to hear the many examples, actually explanation of why that shouldn't be the case.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 53:01
So we want to have farms that we are working on. We want farms that are going to be operating for decades, for 1000 years, so we can show people that you shouldn't put on inorganic fertilizers because you're going to kill the organisms that do the work you want done. If you kill those organisms, then you have to do their work. And human beings are abysmally bad at figuring out what nutrient your plant needs right now.
Yeah we don't have a good reputation on that.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 53:40
Not at all! When you think about how fast that cycling goes in the soil - and most people just have no grasp and how rapidly this is all happening down in the soil. The nutrient that was limiting the growth of your plant at an hour ago, is no longer the nutrient that should be limiting your plant right now. Within less than about 15 minutes, your plant wants to get all of whatever nutrient is lacking. And now it's going to tell those bacteria and fungi to go start on something else. Because this is the new trend that's limiting your plant's growth.
It needs to be on time otherwise, I'm no longer hungry for that specific pizza. And so the system should be responding on time.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 54:24
Yeah, your plan should have gotten all of that nutrients that it needs so now we can go on to the next one. And it's like, how much into the future do plants look? There's an interesting question. You know: "I'm running out of zinc over here! I'm running out of cobalt!"
How much do they plan? That's fascinating. I think there's so much we don't know yet. It's funny that we say "plan" and "think", which is language that maybe 10 years ago nobody would have used in terms of plants but we're now getting comfortable with. In certain circles. I'm not saying everywhere. Looking at time - I want to be conscious of yours as well - and I want to end with a final question. So unfortunately you're no longer in charge of the big investment fund but you have a magic power. You can change one thing in agriculture and food. What would that be? With waving your magic wand? What would you change tomorrow morning, this morning, today, now?
Dr. Elaine Ingham 55:21
And for me, it's probably education. If I could wave my magic wand and have this knowledge about the soil food web transferred into everybody's mind, so everyone understood this. And that's really, my goal, probably impossible to reach in a single lifetime. But it's my goal to try to train everybody on the planet about biology in the soil and how they make it work for them so they can grow the most productive, healthiest plants that will feed human beings, all of the nutrients that the human beings need. And where people understand that the outside surfaces of every bit of that plant needs to have the organisms that will benefit your human gut microbiome. We need to be replenishing that!
So we're back to the doctor.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 56:16
Here's the connection, we've gone full circle.
There was a seed planted there for a while now I think the food as medicine, the healthy soil, healthy produce, healthy gut system, healthy people, and then healthy ecosystem - which is a circle - is one of the most exciting pieces I think we've maybe ever come across, but at least in our lifetimes, and we're going to see a lot of that. I want to be conscious of your time, and thank you so much for your time for explaining. We're going to share a lot of links below in the show notes. And please tell me what you want to add.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 56:50
One more thing. When you think about the chemical world, and they're developing these these inoculum of one or two bacteria that you spend thousands of dollars to put out, it's kind of exactly like all these pills that you're supposed to take with one or two kinds of bacteria that's supposed to replenish all your gut microbiome. That's pure, almost pure nonsense. Yes, if you don't actually have those two or three species in your digestive system you should only have to take one pill to reestablish it. And yet we get put on these "You've got to take one every day for the rest of your life". Ahhh! That's not what you should be doing.
It's not a coincidence, they're all for the same company. The medicine and the input company selling to the farmer are often very close, or even the same, which I think shows us their worldview, their way of business models, their way of approaching life, and should make us very, very, I think, very wary about it.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 57:55
How do you avoid this? Well take a look at who's actually making the pill, who's actually doing that work, and you should be able to take one or two bites out of a really healthy, good piece of fruit or leafy green vegetables, and replenish all the gut microbiome organisms that you're missing. It's that simple: eat healthy food and you're going to get all those organisms as an additional benefit. So yeah, I did want to mention that we have a lot of success stories and we're constantly building those success stories on the website. So foodweb.com.
I will definitely link everything below to make sure it's easily findable. And I want to thank you so much for diving into it, showing us, and taking us on a tour deep down into the soil and also answering a number of questions on investing which are not normally part of your courses, etc. but that's why I'm interested in your answers because you're such an expert on this topic.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 59:01
Well, thank you for having me on the interview. I enjoy them, we had a lot of fun. And remember, we only covered the very tiniest tip of this iceberg.
We just scratched the surface, which I usually have the feeling in the interviews that we get an hour in and we could spend another four but that means we can come back and record another one which is the beauty of the internet and the podcast.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 59:24
Thank you so much.
Dr. Elaine Ingham 59:26
Thank you, Koen.
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