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Here’s a company figuring out how a storable product can deliver diverse, nutrient-cycling microbes

Updated: Aug 9, 2020

We recently became acquainted with some folks in Alabama who are showing it’s possible to deliver impressive soil microbes through a dried, storable product.

CHONEX Inc. has been working with the larvae of black soldier flies, a popular resource for making highly-quality compost and protein-rich animal food. The folks at CHONEX combine the larvae with chicken manure to produce livestock feed, while also making an organic soil conditioner and fertilizer. Because the larvae eat all kinds of things, CHONEX is helping to answer the growing need in agriculture (not to mention lots of other industries) for a sustainable means of waste disposal.

The larvae are put to work in the company’s composting process, and the resulting material is dried to make storage and handling feasible. Having compounded the value of their system, the folks at CHONEX sensed that more was still possible, and they soon got to thinking: what if we used this compost to inoculate a microbe tea? They contacted us for help, and before long we were embarking on a tea-brewing experiment.

At first, only bacteria grew in our teas. This is not uncommon, generally attributable to brewing technique or the condition of the inoculum material, or both. Aerobic bacteria are generally plant-beneficial in and of themselves, but a tea containing only bacteria is of limited value in working with soil ecology. Our goal is always a complete Soil Foodweb, and in that pursuit, bacterial dominance can be a real hindrance.

We knew from experience that with a tea, things can get more interesting as time passes. So we kept brewing, and sure enough, flagellates soon appeared and began quickly multiplying. And these flagellates didn’t all look the same, as they often do in these situations (see video below): there were squiggly ones that darted around like fish; large round ones that lumbered and bumbled slowly about; medium-sized specimens of oblong shapes, swimming round and round in circles. What we had was a relatively well-developed set of aerobic, bacteria-eating predator species.

With predators you have nutrient cycling, which unlocks a whole new world of plant health. The diversity we observed, moreover, is especially important: predators expel their wastes as nutritious compounds that plants can readily absorb, so the greater the depth and diversity of a microbial community, the greater the range of plant nutrients it produces. This nutrient-cycling activity can quickly boost plant health and set any production system on its way toward eliminating pest problems and reducing, if not eliminating, conventional inputs.

In any microbe tea, it can be difficult to predict what might appear. With microbes stored in an active state, an assessment of the material gives an idea of what will probably multiply while brewing. But with dried material, microbes reduce in number and the survivors go dormant. In a standard analysis, these microbes’ dormant cysts may be scarce enough as to appear in insignificant numbers, or not appear at all; but given enough time in the aquatic environment of the tea brewer, those few sleeping survivors soon re-emerge to begin feeding and multiplying at a high rate.

There are lots of tea recipes out there, and more than a few products purporting to contain, or at least promote the growth of, soil microbes. Developers usually incorporate some nutrient material or other, and often some packaged inoculum source, like a dried block of material to be soaked in the brewing tank.

Results are mixed at best. We’ve seen store-bought products, brewed on-sight, showing some combination of good (oxygen-loving) and bad (reduced-oxygen-dwelling) organisms. But usually we find only bacteria, and often not all that many. Again, much of this result can come down to brewing technique, but it likely also traces back to inoculum quality.

To be honest, we were initially skeptical of the quality that CHONEX’s product could deliver. Because it’s dry, it can be more easily stored and distributed, but drying complicates things for microbes. Not all of them will successfully transition to adverse conditions. Of those that do, some may last longer than others in dormancy, thereby reducing diversity over time. As it happens, we tested CHONEX’s product 10 weeks following manufacture, and to our pleasant surprise, our teas kept yielding similar results.

There is, of course, more to the Soil Foodweb than bacteria and flagellates; there are higher-order predators, not to mention the vast realm of beneficial fungi and all those microbes that graze on their mycelia. But currently, products on the market offer only a relative handful of species of fungi and bacteria, nature’s decomposers. These two life forms anchor the Soil Foodweb, but most of the benefits they offer are lost without nutrient cycling. We are unaware of any product that can reliably introduce predator species to soils, and we wish CHONEX all the best as they bring theirs to market.

These days, there are lots of intrepid folks trying to find feasible means of delivering to farmers and gardeners the benefits of biologically rich soils. But the journey is still young, and the challenges many – so hats off to our new friends across the country as they work to further the goal.

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