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Soil, Compost, Fungi

Mycorrhizal Fungi run the Largest Mining Operation in the World

Up to 85% of plants depend on fungi to survive. Plants and fungi depend on each other for nutrient cycling and water absorption.

Photo: Amanita gemmata by Courtney Celley: US Fish & Wildlife Service

"If you sift the mineral particles from conifer forest soil, wash them, and examine them under a microscope, you will discover a startling detail: tiny tunnels, three to ten micrometers across" 

 "The tunnels curve and branch and sometimes more than one pierces the same particle. What could have created these microscopic boreholes?" - Jennifer Frazer

Image: Landeveert 2001 - Thin-section micrograph of a tunneled feldspar  Scale bar = 100 micrometers

There was a nicely done article which came out on the journal Scientific American by science writer, Jennifer Frazer, who has degrees in biology, plant pathology and Mycology. I thought the beauty of post was that she has taken on the unseen microbial subject down onto a microscopic level to help the average reader understand what is going on in the complex sophisticated microscopic world where mycorrhizal fungi mine the soils not only for the basic food nutrients for plants we are familiar with like nitrogen, phosphorus, etc, but also those hard to come by trace elements [Zinc, Copper, Manganese, etc] which plants need for strong immune system health and survival against a potentially hostile world of pathogens. Oddly enough many soils are rich in important nutrients, but they are often locked up in a physical form which makes them unavailable to most plants. That's where the fungi come in. She references this photo here below to compare chemical weathering etches scar patterns [which she compares to an earthquake graph] into a mineral called Feldspar with the contrasting mycelial strands which have a twisting tangled pattern which fungi normally make.

Although, interestingly, Fungi do manufacture a number of chemical acids and other enzymes which do indeed breakdown and weather rock in the soils. The photograph below she used for illustrative purposes only is Mold, growing in a Petri dish from a sample of dust and debris which was taken from some repair work in the bathroom of an apartment. To take this picture, the photographer, Bob Blaylock put the entire Petri dish on the stage of my microscope. The mold is growing in EasyGel nutrient from Wild Goose Science. The mold strands beautifully illustrate the same design patterns we see in the common mycorrhizal fungi hyphae which are clearly different from the chemical etching done on mineral rock if we were talking mere chemical reactions on stone. 

"The tunnels seem like they were made by something … alive. They are the spitting image of hyphae – that is, filaments – of fungi."

Image: Landeveert 'Feldspar' 2001

She then provided another beautiful illustration of something that the average person can actually see feel and touch. Something they may have commonly stumbled upon if they have ever gone for a walk in the woods. Most granite rocks and boulders in forests will be colonized by lichens and mosses. Most folks also understand the degradation and weathering effects that such organisms have on buildings like bricks, rock, rood slates or even the gravestones in a cemetery. 

"But why would a fungus tunnel into a rock? There’s no food there, and it no doubt takes a sizeable capital investment to assemble and secrete the acids necessary to eat raw rock."

"There is a precedent: lichens. The crusty creatures, a combination of fungi, algae, and attendant bacteria/archaea, are the first and last word in Earth-based rock colonization. Wherever naked stone is found, lichens will be there."

Image by Bob Blaylock (Mold - August 2010)

Sure enough. I've previous written articles on Biological soil crusts (Lichens, Mosses, Cyanobacteria, etc], from desert areas and also from here in Sweden within the shallow soils of some of this regions Boreal Forests. Such ecosystems are fascinating and foundations for any future life development. I wrote the Boreal Forest example specifically because most people find deserts boring and the soil crusts which exist there are probably not even remotely noticed by the average person. Hence the Boreal forest example has bigger and better examples of mosses, lichens and fungi which most people find more exciting and sexy when it comes to the visual. But it should be noted that Desert Biocrustal systems are equally important. I'll post the links below. But it is interesting that the microscopic deeper soil layers of this subject are not effected by the surface work from these living organisms.

 Photo: "Caloplaca thallincola" by Jymm - Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

"They cover almost 10% of Earth’s land surface, and if you are paying attention on your next forest or tundra hike, you will be astounded to note just how much real estate they have staked out – not just on rocks, but also on tree bark and soil."

"The fungal half of lichens are the drilling specialists, excreting acids that break down rock and enable the fungus to get a hypha-hold in micro-trenches, cracks, and etch pits (small lens-shaped cavities formed by the action of water). The acids are derived from the food that the algae provide to the fungus." 

"But the shafts in the photos at the top of the page were found nowhere near a lichen or a boulder. They were inside little bits of stony soil. What other fungi could be driving these tunnels ?" 

An interesting feature of the illustration below which you really don't see are those hormonal substances that the mycorrhizal fungi  manufacture or produce which hinder or suppress the plant's root  from growing root-hairs and might even encourage actual dichotomous branching from the root tip itself which will further enhance performance. So this tangled looking fungal mantle which covers this area of the root and inserts itself in between the cortical root cells is where all the interactions of nutrient, water and sugar exchanges take place between the fungi and the plant. This allows a much enhance performance of root area absorption than it had previously or if it were under and industrial science-based management as recommended by Dow Agro-Chemical and/or Monsanto. See how superior nature is compared to imaginary human improvements influenced by nothing more than bottom line profiteering ???

Reference: smith se read dj (1997) Mycorrhizal Symbiosis (second Adn) Academic Press

The illustrated image above also comes from her referenced resource material from the Department of Forest Mycology and Pathology, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences here in Uppsala, Sweden. See how she describes what is going on in the above image:

"The fungus forms a root sheath called a “mantle”, and from this mantle, it sends hyphae both into the soil and into the root. The hyphae that invade the root do not actually invade the cells there. Instead, they weave a web around them, a structure known as the “Hartig Net”. Why would a tree put up with such a flagrant home invasion? To start, the net is a secure place where the fungus and the tree can exchange goodies.

"But fungi are also particularly good at seeking and absorbing (you might think of them as biological “Bounty”) owing to their diffuse bodies, which comprise a vast network of tiny tubes that max out surface area. Since fungi live in their food and secrete their digestive enzymes directly into it before resorbing the digested slurry, they are effectively one giant inside-out intestine (to those of you who dislike mushrooms, I apologize for putting you off them forever now -- though if it helps, mushrooms themselves generally do not digest anything, being strictly reproductive structures. That doesn't help either, does it?)."

She next provided the readers with an illustrative photo example of a soil penetrating root with end cap and it's fine root hairs without the colonization of the mycorrhizal fungi. The purpose really is to illustrate just how limited any plant is without the extra aftermarket add on parts I described in past posts where I previously compared a plant to a factory stock car out of the showroom and multiple species of fungi & bacteria comparison to all those after market performance enhancement auto parts, like a set of Hooker Headers which further enhance a stock automobile's high performance which makes it a true muscle car. Here is her description followed by the image:

"Unassisted, trees are limited to their own relatively meager collection of root hairs, found only near the tips of roots. The rest of the root is just a conduit. Fungi, by contrast, absorb across their entire bodies. Furthermore, root tips are vastly larger than a hypha. Even root hair cells – the finest filament available to roots, which sprout from the side of root tips -- are around 15 micrometers in diameter. That’s one and a half to five times as large as a hypha. You can easily see them with the naked eye."

Image: Oergon Caves, by AnimalParty - Wiki Commons (2011)

Now what I find interesting about this image above is that it also beautifully illustrates the limited nutrient and water uptake infrastructure of a farm crop grown which is common with the  maintenance recommendations of the conventional industrial business model we have today. If we just focus strictly on how the synthetic fertilizer inputs and all other synthetic pesticides actually cause a sterile soil system, the dosage concentration must be high enough so that a certain percentage will be actually used by the crop plant. It's a numbers game. The plant has certain specific requirements for proper growth. The industrial practices deliberately limit how much rooting absorption area will actually exist in the soils. So the chemical potency needs to be high enough to ensure that enough uptake from the limited root infrastructure will provide such requirements to the plant's above ground food producing  factory. Such high potency of chemical inputs also assure that the mycorrhizal fungi will never colonize these crop plant root systems. The high synthetic fertilizer potency triggers an epigenetic switch within the plant's DNA to actually turn off production of the chemical signaling which sends a message to fungal spores or hyphal strands to colonize the root. If the mycorrhizal fungi already exist, the shut off switch will trigger the fungi to detach from the root system. In any event, the root absorption area becomes far limited and the soil changes from a mycorrhizal soil to a bacterial one which actually favours weed (ruderals) competition. 

This is because a mycorrhizal system will outcompete the weeds for available phosphorus. If there are any weeds that do germinate, they will be greatly stunted in growth. This also benefits the Agro-Chemical companies who want to sell the farmers more synthetics to kill off those weeds. The conventional Agro-system remains flawed, inferior, but this at the same time allows the industrial business model to remain intact and more powerful. It's extremely important for everyone to understand where the problem lies, what makes it flawed and why there are such powerful lobbies to keep the status quo. But there is more in understanding how this root structure operates by illustrating things we see and use in our world. Look at the illustration below. This is a core boring and cleaning device with water jets engineered into the head for cleaning out a bore hole.

Image; Stone Age Gopher Water Injection Bore Hole Head

Like an industrial water well drilling bit designed with jets to soften, lubricate and cool down the material ahead of it so that the drill head can more easily bore a round core through rock and other challenging material, a plant's root system also can itself bore through many challenging materials. The illustration at right shows that such technologies may also be used in branching off a main bore hole shaft and going horizontally, just as plant roots do. As I have written about previously, there are several shrubs and trees which have an incredible ability known as hydraulic lift & Redistribution of water from deeper layers to the surfaces which also may be shared with other shallower rooted plants. But the reverse is also possible and it's known as hydraulic descent where water is taken from the surface during rain storms and stored into the deeper layers of the sub-soils. The plants have a tough root cap which can expand it's growth further into tough soil materials with the help of water and other enzymes it itself may produce. But the plant is limited and this is where the fungi also manufacture enzymes and biologically created acids to dissolve minerals pushing ever further into newer soil regions that the plant wouldn't otherwise have access to and on a microscopic level. 

"Taken together, these traits mean fungi can probe and penetrate crevices that roots and root hairs cannot. Thus by partnering with fungi, trees can make use of a much larger soil volume than roots alone could do, and can consequently absorb more water and nutrients than trees without fungal partners."

"Ectomycorrhizal fungi hold up their end of the deal by secreting acids that dissolve mineral particles from a distance. Via special digestive proteins called enzymes, they can also access organic forms of nitrogen and phosphorous in the soil (like amino acids, peptides, proteins, amino sugars, chitin, and nucleic acids) that plants wouldn’t otherwise be able to exploit. But there is a lot of other competition in the soil for these nutrients -- from other fungi, from bacteria, and from protists." 

"And the tunnels in those mineral particles sure looked suspicious."

"Scientsts began to connect the dots. What if ectomycorrhizal fungi were not just passively sopping up whatever nitrogen, phosphorous, magnesium, potassium, calcium and iron they could scavenge from the soil? What if ... what if ectomycorrhizal fungi are actually mining hard rock for their trees?"   

"One clue can be found by looking at thin sections of fungus-enveloped root still embedded in soil. In this sample, probing hyphae sprouted from the mantle have wrapped mineral particles in a fungal embrace."

Image: Landweert et al 2001

In the photograph to the right, notice the thin section of an ectomycorrhizal root tip showing root (r), fungal mantle (fm), mineral particles (m), and ectomycorrhizal hyphae (h). Scale bar = 50 micrometers. Scanning electron micrographs of these particles show the fungi not only grasping, but invading them. In the photograph below again notice the scanning electron micrograph of branching hyphae that embraced and penetrated a mineral particle. Fungi seem to enter the particle at upper right and center right. Scale bar = 10 micrometers.

"As you saw in the image at the top of this post, thin cross sections taken from tiny pieces of feldspar and hornblende – common minerals in conifer forest soil – reveal tunnels inside with rounded ends, curving paths, and constant 3-10 micrometer diameters that also seem to finger fungi as their drivers."

"Scientists speculate that secretions of organic acids at the tip of the hyphae driving the tunnels release potassium, calcium, and magnesium ions from the mineral, simultaneously excavating the tunnel and releasing these valuable elements for absorption."   
"Could anything else be responsible?"

"Scientists have also observed that the tunnels are found most commonly near the soil surface, and much more rarely deeper down. That definitely seems to implicate something alive."

"And as mentioned above, the tunnels look radically different from the etch pits and saw-tooth cracks that are the hallmarks of purely chemical weathering. As a result, scientists now think ectomycorrhizal fungi have *two* ways of shanghai-ing nutrients for their trees, summarized below."

Illustration: Landweert 2001

"Fungi can access organic sources of phosphorous and nitrogen that would otherwise be unavailable to trees via enzymes they make, but also by mining soil minerals"

"Fungal mining has many advantages. Some feldspars contain pockets of apatite, a major source of phosphorous in forests. By excavating these otherwise locked nutrient chambers, fungi are able to access a phosphorous source that would be unavailable to plant roots alone."

"Fungal tunnels and the acids used to make them also speed up mineral decay and increase mineral surface area available directly to plant roots. Futher, fungal mining cuts off competition from other soil microbes for nutrients by accessing minerals in seclusion directly at the source. And it provides trees access to minerals even in acidified soil (the product of decades of acid rain), which can make grabbing them straight from the soil more difficult chemically."
"The speed with which fungi drive their tunnels is not blinding, but not glacial either, considering the miner is just a few micrometers across. One estimate suggests that the tips of fungal hyphae could be pushing their leads at the rate of 0.3-30 micrometers per year. If so, the authors calculated that 150 meters of pores are formed each year per liter of “E horizon” soil – a type of forest dirt leached of many minerals. In this same relatively small volume, 10,000,000 hyphal tips would be tunneling into sand grains at any given moment."

"Spread across the soil of an entire planet, the extent of fungal mining surely dwarfs anything  undertaken by humans. Its scale, and the volume of soil that fungi have helped create over what may be half a billion years of delving, beggar belief."

Source: Scientific American & Jennifer Frazer (

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The Soil Food Web

Published on Apr 8, 2015

Pioneering 'Soil Food Web' scientist, Dr. Elaine Ingham, B.A., M.S., PhD., explains the interconnected relationships of microbes in healthy soil. Learn how a biodiverse microbial community in the ground is critically important for soil nutrient uptake and vibrant plant health. Honoring the many life forms that thrive in living soils help us produce nutrient dense crops that are grown organically and sustainably while conserving water and maintaining the ecosystems that connect all life.

Visit Dr. Ingham's website for workshops and many free resources for growing food organically at Get more in depth workshops available from Dr. Ingham at

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The Roots of Your Health: Elaine Ingham on the Science of Soil

The following is a reposting of an article from Sustainable Food Trust

March 6, 2015 - by Linda Brown

Earlier this year, US soil microbiologist Elaine Ingham, of Soil Foodweb Inc. fame, caused several gasps at the Oxford Real Farming Conference with her controversial lecture, ‘The Roots of your Profits’. I recommend anyone interested in joined-up thinking about health to listen to this and view her slide presentation.

Put bluntly, Ingham’s message is that if you are interested in health, you have to be interested in soil. This lecture, and her work in general, brilliantly explains why.

Time to take a deep breath, prepare to have conventional thinking about soil turned on its head and find out why soil biology should matter to you.

Soil vs Dirt

As most of us have realised, soil is not merely a prop for plants or ‘terra firma‘ for the biosphere; it is an infinitely complex underworld and inter-dependent web of micro-organisms such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and micro-arthropods to name a few.

It is this hidden world that allows our planet and our society to thrive. It is every bit as important to our health as breath itself.

But far from nurturing the soil that feeds us, agriculture often destroys it. Every time the soil is disturbed, or artificial fertilizers and pesticides are applied, soil life is killed and soil structure compromised.

Soil erosion, the leaching of water and nutrients, anaerobic conditions, pests and diseases all follow. The system gradually collapses and eventually the soil – now bereft of soil life – is degraded so much it becomes mere dirt.

It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction, and farmers then have to devote their energy to dealing with the destructive knock-on effects.

Myth Bashing

For Ingham, agriculture should be the art of nurturing soil life. It’s essential to understand what makes the life in soil tick – and conversely what destroys it – as well as how to manage soil life so it works to overcome the challenges that producing food presents. Get your soil biology right – ensuring the ‘good guys’ (aerobic micro-organisms) flourish and are in balance – and the rest falls into place.

Forget the latest farm app: the most essential piece of equipment a farmer or grower can have is a microscope. And the one skill she or he needs above all else is how to make aerobic compost and compost teas. It is these that contain the necessary microorganisms for soil health. Applied correctly, this is the only magic bullet you’ll ever need. It’s as simple as that.

But Ingham also goes further. She has no time for wasting money on soil tests, pointing out that during her lifetime the number of plant nutrients considered to be essential has increased from 3 to more than 40. Who can say what a plant needs, except the plant itself?

Applying this mineral or that fertilizer, Ingham says, is also a waste of money. Assays of plant tissues reveal that the nutrients present bear no relationship whatsoever to any soluble artificial nutrients applied. A plant requires all nutrients to a greater or lesser extent, and only it knows what it needs and when – the trick is having all those nutrients in a bio-available form in the soil at all times.

She also blows away the myth of pH, the measure of soil acidity or alkalinity. Since when, she asks, has nature said a pH 6.5 is ideal for crops, when they grow successfully in ranges from 5.5–11? Soil pH varies so widely even along a root hair that an average value is meaningless. It isn’t the soil pH that needs analyzing, it’s the soil’s microbial life.

Even more controversially, Ingham points out that all soils on the planet have enough (inorganic) nutrients locked up in their mineral particles (that is, particles derived from rocks) to feed plants for the next 10,000 billion years. What?!

The only reason the Green Revolution worked is that it fed dirt, not soil. Sustainable intensification? Forget it. It won’t work because it can’t: it still relies on the chemical inputs that destroy soil life. Get your soil biology right, and you don’t need to spread manure, rotate crops or till soil. (At this point, even the organic farmers at the Oxford conference winced.)

Theory Into Practice

Ingham has spent the past 40 years putting her knowledge into practice and training farmers, growers and gardeners to become soil doctors. She has achieved impressive results. Pasture grasses, for example, have increased rooting depth and protein content has gone up from 5%–25%.

But to understand why her followers achieve the results they do requires a basic primer in the evolutionary relationship between plants and soil life.

Nature’s Elegant Solution

Plants use sunlight to make sugars; they then send most of these to their roots as exudates (substances that ooze out from plant tissue) – or, as Ingham puts it, they deliver ‘cakes and cookies’ to the soil for aerobic bacteria and fungi to feed on, encouraging them to amass around the roots and prosper.

These ‘good guys’ have three important functions: they form a protective army to fight off the ‘bad guys’ (anaerobic micro-organisms responsible for disease); they contain the necessary enzymes and acids to break down and transform inorganic nutrients in soil particles into organic nutrients suitable for plants; and they play a critical role in the formation of soils’ structure, which is necessary for water retention, preventing the leaching of nutrients.

Why, then, do you need an armory of chemicals when nature has already provided a ready-made solution?

Why Life Needs Death and Death Creates Life

At this stage, the nutrients that plants need are still locked up in the microorganisms, and are only released when the latter die. To enable this, nature has evolved predators – creatures that eat other creatures for their food – to create food chains and thus ensure constant nutrient recycling.

In this case, the predators are protozoa, which eat bacteria, nematodes and micro-arthropods, which eat fungi. These predators then excrete the excess nutrients – now bio-available – into the surrounding soil, creating a constantly replenishing supply of food around the plant roots, where they are needed. Clever, isn’t it?

We can see why predators are necessary for plant life, and why we are better working with the fundamental rules of nature than against them. As Ingham has pointed out, Mother Nature doesn’t need human beings, but we need Mother Nature. It’s a one-way street. This is why we have to go back to soil biology to reform agriculture from the ground up. As she says, it’s the only way forward if human beings are to remain on this planet.

Compost: The Key to Sustaining Life

The evolution of plant life is intimately bound up with the soil biology prevalent during its development. The types and ratios, for example, of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms determine what crops will flourish, and enable evolutionary succession to take place.

It follows that what grows where is a good indicator of your soil biology; and it provides clues to where the imbalances might be in the soil, which are preventing you from growing the best crops you can. Again, the simple, quick and easy way to fix this is to ‘inoculate’ the soil with the correct compost.

This is why compost is the nearest farming gets to a cure-all: it holds the key to sustaining life. It’s cheap and easy, and as soils become self-sustaining, the problems go away and crops are more productive – they become stronger, healthier and more nutritionally dense. No wonder, then, that Ingham is not popular in conventional agriculture or the chemical industry.

It’s More Than a Gut Feeling

As Ingham’s lecture illustrates, the vital connection between healthy soils, plants, animals, people and planet is not mere rhetoric but an evolutionary truth. Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the SFT, has also noted that the parallels between soil and human health are too obvious to ignore. Just as the ‘good guys’ in the soil promote and protect soil health, so the beneficial microbial flora in our gut (our microbiome) are essential for promoting and protecting our digestive health, and boosting our immune system.

But guess what? Antibiotics, antibacterials and antifungals impact negatively on our microbiome. One can only wonder, then, what a lifetime of food additives, junk food, pesticide residues, degraded food produced from chemical farming and even GM ingredients do to our internal ‘soil life’?

This is why the quality of the food we eat, and how we produce it, is so vital. And it is why we need to take Ingham and other whistleblowers seriously when they warn us that the quality of our soil affects the quality of our food and its fundamental ability to nourish us.

Photograph: Mycatkins

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Sir Albert Howard on Artificial Manures

by Charles Dowsing - May 30, 2012

In this article Charles Dowding examines Albert Howard's 1940 book An Agricultural Testament, which was the first articulation in print of the urgent need for a healthy soil.
When it is borne in mind that our greatest possession is a healthy, virile population, the cheapness of artificial manures disappears altogether. p38
Howard’s 1940 book An Agricultural Testament was written for a general public who were showing interest in the major changes happening around them in farming; it pre-dated the Soil Association or any body representing an alternative viewpoint, but it is still a brilliant reminder of our essential starting point, a healthy soil.
Howard (1873-1947) had worked through a period when machines replaced animals, monoculture replaced crop rotation, artificial fertiliser replaced animal manures and chemical remedies multiplied to cope with the results of these changes. He was painfully aware of many powerful reasons for changes, usually linked to economic motives, yet often causing harm to the soil, for example:
The factories engaged during the Great War in the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen for the manufacture of explosives had to find other markets, the use of nitrogenous fertilisers in agriculture increased, until today the majority of farmers and market gardeners base their manurial programmes on the cheapest form… What may be conveniently described as the NPK mentality dominates… Vested interests, entrenched in a time of national emergency, have gained a stranglehold. p.18
Most of his professional life was in India where the combining of his scientific training with observation of native practices and health provided fertile ground for modern explanations of traditional agriculture. Helped by his own farming background, Howard sought whole solutions to all the partial problems he witnessed, and found many of them in the use of well made compost. His great triumph was discovery and probably the first modern explanation of relationships between soil fungi and healthy, abundant growth. Only recently have agricultural scientists taken up this story, as soil chemistry has for so long held the upper hand, including a chemical response to plant disease.
In the mycorrhizal association Nature has given us a mechanism far more important and far more universal than the nodules of the clover family. It reconciles at one bound science and the age-long experience of tillers of the soil as to the supreme importance of humus. There has always been a mental reservation on the part of the best farmers as to the value of artificial manures compared with good old fashioned muck. The effect of the two on the soil and on the crop is never quite the same. Further, there is a growing conviction that the increase in plant and animal diseases is somehow connected with the use of artificials. In the old days of mixed farming the spraying machine was unknown, the toll taken by troubles like foot-and-mouth disease was insignificant compared with what it is now. The clue to all these differences – the mycorrhizal association – has been there all the time. It was not realized because the experimental stations have blindly followed the fashion set by Liebig and Rothamsted in thinking only of soil nutrients and have forgotten to look at the way the plant and the soil come into gear. An attempt has been made to apply science to a biological problem by means of one fragment of knowledge only. p168
Howard acknowledged help in understanding the work of mycorrhizae from the research on Wareham Heath in Dorset by Dr Rayner, who also inspired Eve Balfour in her writing of The Living Soil (1943). Soil fungi are multiplied in soil where well made compost has been applied, even in small amounts, where Howard was amazed to discover how it was possible to restore the health and productivity of worn out soils in the tropics. These insights about the importance of compost in promoting soil fungi and healthy growth were fundamental to early Soil Association philosophy and practice, and it may be that if Howard had lived for longer, they could have retained a central position instead of being sidelined by a more chemical, nutrient-based approach.
Another difficulty Howard encountered in Britain was financial. His recipes for Indore compost were based on cheaper and more available labour in India, making it possible to prepare and spread compost properly. Aspiring organic farmers in Britain often ended up with basic heaps of animal manure and machines of variable quality to spread it. Even this cost more than use of artificials and led Howard to lament the dominance of economics, both in research and practice:
Farming has come to be looked on as if it were a factory (and) far too much emphasis has been laid on profit. But the purpose of agriculture is quite different from that of a factory. It has to provide food in order that the race may flourish and persist. The best results are obtained if the food is fresh and the land is fertile... Why neglect the very foundation stone of our efficiency as a nation? p198
We are now seeing the unhealthy results of neglecting this foundation stone, because food has been turned into a commodity of quantity, with some of its lessening quality lost in processing as well. The main emphasis for farmers has been to produce food at the lowest cost, and organic farmers are on this same treadmill. Unfortunately, the claim that cheap food can be produced organically has diminished research to pioneer work on links between soil and plant health, and how this affects both animals and man. The Soil Association discovered at Haughley how expensive and difficult this can be: Howard was not a fan of the Haughley Experiment, yet his comments suggest that he ought to have been.
There can be no doubt that the work in progress on disease at the Experiment Stations is a gigantic and expensive failure, that its continuance on present lines can lead us nowhere and that steps must be taken without delay to place it on sounder lines. The cause of this failure is not far to seek. The investigations have been undertaken by specialists. The problems of disease have not been studied as a whole, but have been divorced from practice, split up, departmentalized and confined to the experts most conversant with the particular fragment of science which deals with some organism associated with the disease.
This specialist approach is bound to fail, when we consider: (1) the real problem – how to grow healthy crops and how to raise healthy animals, and (2) the nature of disease – the breakdown of a complex biological system, which includes the soil in its relation to the plant and the animal. The problem must include agriculture as an art. The investigator must therefore be a farmer as well as a scientist, and must keep simultaneously in mind all the factors involved. Above all he must be on his guard to avoid wasting his life in the study of a mare’s nest: in dealing with a subject which owes its existence to bad farming and which will disappear the moment sound methods of husbandry are employed. p169
Howard lamented that Liebig, who discovered the NPK basis of plant composition, “was only qualified for his task on the scientific side; he was no farmer; as an investigator of the ancient art of agriculture he was only half a man. He was unable to visualize his problem from two very different points of view at one and the same moment - the scientific and the practical.” p182
Howard’s work still reads well after nearly a century and its historical perspective reveals how easy it is to be swept along with contemporary “world viewpoints”. For example in the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, when many organic advisors advocated vaccination, it would have been opportune to quote Howard’s experience with oxen which frequently “rubbed noses with foot-and-mouth cases. Nothing happened. The healthy well-fed animals reacted to this disease exactly as suitable varieties of crops, when properly grown, did to insect and fungus pests – no infection took place.” (p162)
Another misunderstanding explained by Howard is of green manuring, as he narrates how its development came to be over-influenced by attempts to incorporate free nitrogen, at the expense of understandings about formation of humus after ploughing in.
At the end of the nineteenth century it seemed so easy, by merely turning in a leguminous crop, to settle at one stroke and in a very economical fashion the great problem of maintaining soil fertility. The leguminous nodule might be used as a nitrogen factory, while the remainder of the plant could provide humus. All this might be accomplished at small expense and without any serious interference with ordinary cropping. These expectations, a natural legacy of the NPK mentality, have led to green manuring experiments all over the world. In a few cases, particularly in open, well aerated soils where the material after ploughing in was well distributed and ample time was given for decay, the results have been satisfactory. In the majority of cases, however, they have been disappointing. p87.
Howard explains how soil must start with a certain level of fertility, including sufficient humus and mycorrhizae, both to enable good growth of a green manure and then its rapid breakdown before the following crop requires a full array of nutrients. Even where fertility is good, too much or too little rain can also prevent good growth and breakdown, as can the long British winter and soils that are too heavy to allow enough air for humus to form, so he emphasises that green manures are no easy option.

Howard’s life is a parable of the outspoken, brilliant outsider, even to the nascent Soil Association. For example he left a prominent role at Pusa Experiment Station in 1918 because he felt obstructed by a slow moving status quo, where “The instrument became more important than its purpose”. After struggles for funding, he founded the Indore Institute in 1924, principally to solve the problem of insufficient manure in a country where much manure was being burnt. He developed some large composting operations, and within seven years of starting the first heaps of “Indore compost”, production on the Institute’s land had doubled.
A great scientist, Howard acknowledged the limitations of quantitative measurement and bowed before the wisdom of Nature. On his retirement and return to England in 1934, he relished the challenge of some diseased apple trees in a new garden and set out to restore their health by building up the soil’s humus content. He was content to use the trees’ responses as chief indicator of the validity or otherwise of his approach: “No soil analysis can tell me as much as the trees will.” p167. Or in his most famous quote “the results of humus without any help from artificial manures are written on the land itself” (p3 in Farming and Gardening for Health or Disease).
Charles Dowding is an organic grower, member of the Mother Earth editorial board, and author of several popular books on no-dig growing techniques.
This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. 
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