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Why bio-assess your soil? Good question.

Midway through last year’s growing season, shortly after Foothill Biological had opened for business, a new client challenged us bluntly: of what use is a bio-assessment of my soil, he asked, if it doesn’t clearly say what inputs to add?

It was a good question. In our line of work, there is not always a product to address each deficiency we might find in any particular soil. Ever since the mid-20th century, farmers have learned to look at soil management in a way that we now call conventional: find out what chemical and mineral constituents are lacking, adjust accordingly. We have since turned vast oceans of farmland into massive hydroponic systems, with soluble nutrients dialed to prescribed levels and the soil itself reduced to an inert rooting medium.

But now our focus lies with living things, and so the entire approach must be different. Dealing with life can be a fussy business, relying as it does on so many details of the immediate environment. Those details must be tuned and maintained, giving life the conditions and time it needs to take hold and grow. It’s a process, one that can transpire quickly – several weeks – or more slowly, say a growing season or two. And as things progress, we need to confirm we’re on the right track.

That’s where the bio-assessment answers our questions. Have we sufficiently remediated toxic accumulations from past inputs? Is a soil allowing enough oxygen penetration for microbes to breathe? Does our compost contain sufficient microbes to allow fewer applications, and therefore lower cost? Is what we’re doing actually working?

For a farmer, changing one’s approach can be a scary prospect, full of financial pitfalls. By monitoring whether our microbes are growing, we can always be fine-tuning our efforts and maximizing efficiency.

But it’s not just efficiency. It’s also peace of mind. When we confirm sufficient numbers of beneficial microbes, we know well in advance whether a crop will reach harvest at maximum quality, free of pests and pathogens. Correlations between microbial health and plant health have been proven by science and demonstrated countless times in the field, allowing us to know with certainty – early in the growing season, or even before the season begins – whether we’ve hit our target.

As the season progresses, a periodic check confirms, amid all the activity of agricultural production, whether our microbes remain healthy and active. All sorts of things can happen; what if portions of a field are allowed to dry excessively in the summer heat? Many microbes will go dormant and reawaken when water returns, but not all will survive. A quick check confirms any lasting damage, and tells us whether the expense of new applications is warranted long before any impacts to plant foliage become apparent.

The client who challenged us was a producer of organic vegetables. His soil showed beneficial nematodes and protozoa, and therefore contained decent nutrient-cycling capability, but he was hoping greater fungal development would boost productivity. As it turned out, he didn’t need any inputs at all. He just needed to stop disturbing the soil. For the rest of the season he did exactly that.

Before long, his minimal fungal counts blossomed -- and then, totally predictably, came an increase in production, along with reduced production costs. His experience became a good illustration of the sort of goal we’re aiming for.

And it all starts with counting microbes.

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