“Despite all our achievements we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains.”
This article takes off from a previous article titled: Dirt to Soil: The Miraculous Societal Turnaround that starts in the Paddock. What does regenerative and biological farming methods have in common? In one way or another they all contribute to growing and expanding mycelial networks, like mycorrhizal fungi and other beneficial microbes; that increase nutrient-cycling between microbes and plants, increasing the nutrient-density of plants and the soil, and therefore animal and human health. Nutrient-cycling delivers vital minerals, trace elements and other nutrients to pasture. This has a flow on effect on the food safety of raw drinking milk as well, in a variety of ways. This biological alchemy makes very significant and essential contributions to life on earth. It even delivers the atmospheric carbon back into the soil. As Michael Phillips say:
What is Mycorrhizal Fungi?
This is a symbiotic association between a fungus and a plant that, in this instance, takes place in the rhizosphere (the plant root zone). The word is derived from greek: mykós (fungus) and riza (root). We now know over 90% of all land plants and probably more, form mycorrhizae, and that they influence plant nutrition, community structure and nutrient cycling.
Preserving fungal ecosystem in the top soil
The earth is a sacred being where everything is interconnected. Mankind however, has set ideas about the different expressions of life found here. We tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of the animal-, plant- and mineral kingdoms. The true hierarchy is actually the reverse. This entire planet is a mineral kingdom that determines the state of being and health of the rest. Minerals rule the earth. Minerals, together with microbes, enable plants to thrive, and control and regulate life in communities that together form an interconnected super-organism. Scientists have discovered recently that plant roots extending into the earth are every bit as complicated as a human brain. Individual plant roots connect with other plant roots to form large and complex colonies of mycelial (fungal) networks under the ground, that enable nutrients and vital information to flow.
Plants create and balance the environment and weather so that animals and humans can thrive here. We are in symbiosis with plants, and therefore have to become responsible stewards of the planet, because nature rules the earth, not humans.
Everything is interconnected.
We need to start understanding how whole systems in nature, like soil and rain, function. Rapid desertification and deforestation are tangible examples of our neglect, see the previous article. We have compartmentalised ourselves. We have forgotten that we are nature and owe our existence to nature.
Nature is a social network of nutrient and information exchange
A group of dense, mature plant ecosystems in nature are connected by a mycelial network, which is a growth of fungal filaments that attach to the roots and branch out to many other plants forming a superhighway throughout the landscape. This super-structure shows how extremely intelligent these life forms are. Just like the neural net in the human brain transmit electrical impulses between all the neurons, this mycelial network transmit vital information. These mycelial networks can transfer water from one area of planting, to another. Based on information from the network, the one end that received more water, knows when the other need water, and they will intentionally transmit water across the network to where it is needed.
The relationship is symbiotic and for mutual benefit.
Plants will also send food and nutrients via the mycelial networks. This is why nitrogen-fixing plants tend to benefit other plants, by sharing generously the nutrient bounty obtained in their nutrient-cycling with their associated microbes. Trace minerals are also delivered foremost by the fungal network. Phytochemical messages can also relay warnings on foliar insect activity, or other specific disease vectors, that can result in a collective launch of a self-defence response, like making leaves less tasty. Thanks to the messages from the plant being attacked, other plants can send out signals to attract beneficial insects. The fungal community knows where to re-direct much needed resources for the benefit of the community.
The mycelial network is a transport system with a vast amount of transmission and exchange beneath the soil. It’s just like a busy subway network, or a train station hub. Shelter-belts, hedgerows, wildlife sanctuaries and bordering woodlands are congregation points or hubs for the mycelial networks of pastoral land. This is why regenerative farmers utilise them. Raw dairy farmer Christine Page from Smiling Tree Farm have started to plant trees within permanent pastures, “to develop the woodland edge benefits of a silvo-pastoral system. These include shelter and shade for animals, as well as providing a variety of habitats for wildlife. Some trees will also provide fodder for the cattle and sheep, allowing them to browse the leaves that have both nutritious and medicinal properties.” When this ecosystem is very healthy the fungal network may express itself in the form of mushroom activity (also called fairy rings) above ground.
Michael Phillips - Mycorrhizal Planet: How Fungi and Plants Work Together to Create Dynamic Soils
Michael Phillips is a farmer, writer, carpenter, orchard consultant, and popular speaker based in New Hampshire, USA. Michael was one of the three international speakers at the recent Australian Biological Farming Conference & Expo 2018, held at Southern Cross University in the Gold Coast. Links to watch his presentations can be found at the bottom of this article.
Michael is also the author of Mycorrhizal Planet, a book that abounds with insights into “fungal consciousness” and offers practical, regenerative techniques that are pertinent to gardeners, landscapers, orchardists, foresters, and farmers.
Building soil structure and fertility that lasts for ages results only when farmers comprehend the non-disturbance principle.
As the author says, “What a grower understands, a grower will do.” There is a profound intelligence in the underground nutrient exchange between fungi and plant roots, which in turn determines the nutrient density of the foods we grow and eat. The boost to green immune function in plants and community-wide networking, turns out to be the true basis of ecosystem resiliency. When farmers know better, they will do better.
Practices that disrupt Mycorrhizal Fungi networks in pasture
Dairy farmers in Australia utilise many inputs, and employ modern farming practices that can disrupt, harm or eventually kill off mycelial networks of mycorrhizal fungi. Some of these have been common practice for many decades on non-organic, and even on some organic farms. The dairy industry is one of those who demand a great deal of unity and uniformity from farmers. Another previous article, Growing nutrient-dense food for dairy cows and humans, explored the idea of bringing awareness to situations that have been held in darkness, and how important it is that dairy farmers allow the tears to fall. The past needs to be re-evaluated, and obstructions need to be cleared. New lessons have to be learnt and understood, so we can move forward in a balanced manner. Some dairy farmers may experience tremendous heartbreak, as they realise the true extent of how much soil fertility and farm profitability have been lost. This
information may start a healing process on many levels, and eventually lead to increased awareness.
According to this article Australian soil scientist Dr. Christine Jones claims that over the last 150 years, many of the world's prime agriculture soils had lost between 30 and 75 per cent of their carbon. These losses have contributed to the profitability of farming. She says farm debt is at an all time high and farmers are making less money every year, while the suppliers of farm inputs were earning 98 per cent of the total revenue generated by agriculture. Dr. Christine says that many of today's farming practises had compromised soil microbial communities. She believes all the minerals and trace element plants were there in the soil, but they could not access them (minerals) because "networks of beneficial microbes were either not working or had been killed of by chemicals".
The following farming practices have been discussed in detail in previous articles, however, here is a brief list:
Some modern agrochemicals, like pesticides, herbicides or fungicides can have antibiotic-, antimicrobial- or anti-fungal properties. When a product applied to the soil and plants have ‘anti-life’ properties, microbial communities are most vulnerable.
Synthetic fertiliser can also disrupt, or slow down the nutrient-cycle between plants and microbial life, as described in detail in previous articles.
Paddocks are often overgrazed. Ruminants are left to graze on one area for a long time, which enables them to graze on their favourite plants first, and eventually kill off plant biodiversity. More bare patches start to form, exposing the topsoil to the heating and sanitising effect of the hot rays of the sun, which can be seen as climate change in action on a micro-level, because the soil heats up. On the other hand, when pasture plants grow in a tall, dense manner where the roots are cool, protected and well hydrated, they can cope with being mob-grazed and trampled for a 24 hour period of time, before the animals are moved on in a planned grazing system.
In Australia some paddocks are frequently disturbed to be resown with grass, disrupting networks of soil fungi. If sufficient rain doesn’t follow, the seeds fail to germinate and for an entire season the soil may lay bare to the elements. Soil fertility will diminish year after year in these paddocks, because they cannot sustain mycelial networks. Rain or wind may take some topsoil off-farm as well. Soil may turn into lifeless dirt eventually.
Paddocks are also cut for hay in Australia often, exposing the unprotected roots of the grass to the hot rays of the sun, harming mycelial networks. Long time regenerative farmers like Gabe Brown from North Dakota, US, now recognise this as a harmful practice. Some of his farm’s paddocks are now managed as permanent pasture for brief mob-grazing only, and given long resting periods in between. He says resilience significantly grows year after year in these paddocks that keep a protective cover on the soil.
Farmers in Australia seem to have been taught that they cannot grow a large variety of plants together in a paddock, because they will compete with each other, or kill each other. Dairy farmers are encouraged by industry educators to grow monocultures of ryegrass, with perhaps some clover, but this is not how nature functions. Plants share multiple affiliations with different fungi, as Michael explains in the video below. Greater plant diversity also creates an opportunity for greater beneficial fungal diversity in the soil. When this super-organism function, this is where the magic begins. The diversity we see above ground, influences the diversity in the soil.
In Michael’s book, farmers may discover the real impetus behind no-till farming, gardening with mulches, cover cropping, shallow cultivation, forest-edge orcharding, and everything related to permaculture. This is to help the plants and fungi prosper… which means we (the farmers, the animals, the eaters and the farm ecosystem) prosper as well. Many regenerative farming methods together can produce a resilient, hydrated knee-high green pasture that doesn’t burn easily, as discussed in this article.
Fungal Consciousness: Embracing the Mycelium to Grow Healthy
Recently Michael spoke at the 8th annual Soil & Nutrition Conference in Southbridge, Massachusetts, USA. It was a fantastic and highly educational presentation on the symbiosis that advantages both partners in a relationship that transcends selfish perspective. Michael says that we have a lot to learn from fungus-root synergy. It’s about the collaboration, co-operation and mutualism taking place in the soil. He describes the ‘Mycorrhizal Advantage’ in the following points:
Protect roots from soil-borne diseases
Increase soil volume reach of roots
Abets healthy plant metabolism
Plant community messaging
Induces systemic resistance to disease
Fungal/plant dynamics puts carbon back into the soil
At the six minute time marker, he explains that 95% of the plants on earth desire the symbiotic exchange of mycorrhizal fungi. Michael describes the two types of mycorrhizal fungi: ectomycorrhizae that covers the outside of feeder roots in trees existing primarily in forests, and endomycorrhizae that grow around roots in the immediate area under the soil. At the 19 minute time marker he describes the fungal community as a social democracy where skill sets of unique individuals are increased. It’s an evolutionary marvel that this ‘common root being’ helps redirect nutrients in a balanced form so everyone is getting more of what they need.
At the 23 minute time marker, Michael dives into the mycelial influence on soil carbon. He discusses how the soil aggregates (the houses soil microbes build that gives soil structure) hold a safe, protected area together. Carbon-rich glomalin comes from mycorrhizal fungi and binds soil particles to form microbe havens, where fungal hyphae abide, delivering fertility in a long-lasting fashion. This is what farmers look
at when they dig up soil in the pasture and find a blackish layer with a somewhat ‘sticky’ feel. At the 28 minute time marker, he describes mycorrhizal fungi in the form of the commercial inoculums available in the United States. At the 31 minute time marker, Michael says that in non-disturbed ecosystems there are typically 20 - 50 different species of mycorrhizal fungi. Diversity is very, very important, because the fungi have different niches. The more the merrier, he says. Michael warns that some commercial mycorrhizal inoculants have only one species in them (often Glomus intraradices), and why farmers are not going to get that wonderful community from them. At the 34 minute time marker, Michael discusses the mycorrhizae that distribute water in a plant community, that are particularly noted as beneficial for drought relief during tough times: Glomus deserticola, Glomus fasciculatum, and Glomus mosseae. Recent trials have shows how Glomus etunicatum on the roots of herbs that are grown for their volatile oils (like essential oils used as ‘medicine’) are beneficial. This variety shows an association and positive effect on the composition and level of the volatile compounds.
Please take note that some farm educators around the world make the common mistake of only promoting mycorrhizal fungi for soil fertility. American soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham emphasises that healthy soil consists of many different but essential microbial life, like beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, microarthopods, earthworms, other insects etc.
At the 44 minute time marker, Michael talks about the mycelial network as a support network and a metaphor for the way to proceed in life. The biology teaches the same thing over and over: there are benefits to be had from making friends and connections in a community. He says that trace minerals are delivered foremost by the interaction of the fungal network on roots. During the nutrient-cycle plants produce exudates that feed soil microbes, who in turn grow in number and produce organic acids that break down the minerals and trace elements from rocks. This collaboration result in making essential trace elements available for the plants (resulting in healthier ruminants and healthier animal products).
At the 49 minute time marker, Michael elaborates on how fungal dominance results in a slightly more acidic rhizosphere (root zone), and as a protective mechanism keep potentially harmful bacteria from colonising. Beneficial fungi actually protects the plant roots (and the upper parts) from diseases by making them ‘invisible’.
This vast network of mycelia lying beneath the surface of the soil can be described as a planetary membrane holding life’s sacred trust.
Demand for nutrient-rich foods
It has become obvious in recent years that not all food are created equally.
Many consumers are now connecting directly with farmers in order to obtain more nutritious food. According to this article, an Australian survey showed that the next generation, the millennials, are more health conscious and better educated about the benefits of organics, than previous data showed. Almost a quarter of organic purchasers were motivated by a health crisis. Another article shows that demand for organic produce is booming. It has grown a significant 88 per cent in just seven years. According to the 2018 Australian Organic Market report, the nation’s organic industry is worth $2.4 billion, with annual exports of $700 million.
Foods from regenerating production systems are the next phase in highly desirable food. Consumers are prepared to pay for these foods, however, they want assurances of quality and verifiable data. Fortunately, there are already strategies in place to enable this kind of new food system, like Land to Market here in Australia.
In addition, new food testing tools, like the one developed by the Bionutrient Food Association in the US, will give consumers the ability to test the nutrient-density of their food themselves. The bionutrient meter is a handheld tool, learn more here. Another potentially useful device is the SCiO, which is a handheld micro-spectrometer that analyses food in order to determine its chemical makeup.
The significant failures of the Australian government around ecosystem collapse
There is overwhelming evidence that the current government is massively in favour of continuing with industrial agriculture. According to this article, a study commissioned by the Australian Conservation Foundation, was released following a United Nations global assessment that found biodiversity is being lost at an unprecedented rate, with one million species at risk of extinction. The report warns the decline in native life could have implications for human populations across the globe.
Ironically, research found the greatest loss of threatened species habitat had been in the agriculture minister David Littleproud’s electorate of Maranoa, in southern Queensland. Nearly two million hectares, or 43%, has been cleared since 2000, when the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was introduced. Sadly, most of the land-clearing in Queensland has been to create pasture. At the current trajectory of modern farming methods, these lands too may have been subjected to elements of mismanagement, that may result in more dust bowls eventually. Research show that rain cycles are affected where there is massive land clearing. When it comes to environmental issues, the Coalition government keep saying one thing, but does another behind the scenes. We may continue to see more apocalyptic dust storms, like the one that turned day into night at Mildura, Victoria recently.
Farmers are the REAL heroes when they get educated and take action.
Another article, 'It's a groundswell': the farmers fighting to save the Earth's soil shows why it is up to farmers to turn around the degradation of the Earth’s soil. Healthy soil can absorb massive amounts of greenhouse gas emissions – playing a key role in the drive to tackle climate breakdown and the biodiversity crisis.
Biological Alchemy - video presentation from the Australian Biological Farming Conference 2018
Soil Redemption Story - video presentation from the Australian Biological Farming Conference 2018
The Great Mineral Debate - video presentation from the Australian Biological Farming Conference 2018
What price nature? - Charles Massey