Thursday, January 26, 2012

Soil Health: Level 1 - Introduction of Terms

Level 1 - This post is intended to introduce terms which describe the essential components of a healthy soil. This discussion is complicated, so we will provide increasingly detailed levels of information, at the risk of oversimplifying in the beginning.

All plants, found on earth today, evolved to thrive in a soil system filled with variety. Ancestral soils teamed with organisms and carbon compounds, which supplied abundant nutrients and water. What does a varied soil system look like when compared to a conventionally managed soil system?

A varied, or healthy, soil system contains the following essential components:
  • Carbon Compounds:  
    • Labile Carbon: 
      • Carbons which easily decay, such as those present in microorganisms, compost, crop residues, manures, and mulches.
      • These materials release mineral nutrients back into the soil.
    • Recalcitrant Carbon:
      • Contains Humic Acids which are essential to a healthy and productive soil, Humic Acids are known commonly as Humus.
      • Humic Acids endure the stress of time and will remain in an undisturbed soil for thousands of years.
      • Humic Acids improve soil structure, for as long as they remain in the soil.
      • Humic Acids increase a soils capacity to hold water more than any other soil component.
    • Both Labile and Recalcitrant Carbon levels are often very low in conventionally managed soils systems, because the pipeline of their formation has been compromised. 
  • A Diversity of Organisms:
    • Soil organisms, such as Mycorrhizal fungi, beneficial bacteria and earth worms, are absolutely essential in soil heatlh management.
      • Mycorrhizal fungi greatly improve soil structure and nutrient uptake.
      • Beneficial bacteria provide a wide range of benefits, including Nitrogen fixation.
      • Earth worms contribute enzymes and decompose labile carbons.
    • The diversity of microorganisms increases as vegetation types increase.
    • The redwood forest soils of California, with their incredible diversity of vegetation, provide abundant  fertilization as a result of this biodiversity. 
    • The lack of biodiversity, in conventionally managed soil systems, contributes to unhealthy and unproductive crops.
  • Nutrient Availability:
    • Mycorrhizal fungi increase plant root mass and solubilize mineral nutrients. 
    • Humic Acids increase Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), thereby storing mineral nutrients.
    • Nutrient availability is greatly decreased when Mycorrhizal fungi and humus are not present.
    • Please see our blog for more information: Understanding the Importance of Cation Exchange Capacity .
  • Macroaggregates
    • Macroaggregates result when Mycorrhizal Fungi bind soil particulates together.
    • Humic Acids have been shown to increase macroaggregate formation.
    • Tilling of soil will destroy these structures, increase erosion and create soil compaction.
    • Please follow this link for more detailed information: NRCS Water Stable Soil Aggregate Handbook .
  • Increased Moisture: 
    • Moisture must first be absorbed -  water will  penetrate soils when macroaggregates are present. 
    • Humic Acids and decomposing surface organic matter will then retain water which has penetrated an uncompacted soil.
    • Water in conventionally managed soil systems frequently runs off without being absorbed.
  • Decomposing Surface Organic Matter:
    • Mulches can be described as a decomposing surface layer which insulates and protects the soil from environmental stresses. 
    • This organic matter will eventually become part of the labile carbon fraction of the soil.
    • Conventionally managed soil systems often lack even thin layers of surface organic matter.
    • Please see Got Mulch? for more information.
Our most precious natural resource, healthy top soil, is disappearing at alarming rates. For generations modern soil management practices have systematically reduced the diversity of soils, resulting in reduced yields. To compensate chemical fertilizers have been added, a costly and increasingly ineffective solution.
Stay tuned for Level 2.
Written by:
Aurora Fabry-Wood
Staff Biologist

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The World Has a Problem: The Cascading Failure of Soil!

In Response to: Fruits and Veggies are Not as Vitamin-Rich as in the Past, Says New Data  
Larger Fruits and Vegetables Mean More Plentiful but Less Potent Bounty
March 1, 2006 ABC News Internet Ventures
Story by Megan Carpenter

Staff of Soil Secrets Responds to this story:  The population of the earth is growing by approximated 86 million people per year, according to a recent National Geographic Special Issue; this is a net gain after accounting for population mortality.  This means that on average 235,000 babies are born each day, which is 235,000 new mouths to feed every day.  The USDA and food protection studies performed by Sandia National Laboratories have determined that according to our Ecological Footprint - 6 acres of land is required per person for annual food production, based on the standards of the United States.  If the goal is to modernize the developing world to the same standard of living as the developed world, then the same Ecological Footprint would be needed for every person on the planet.  Therefore, the 235,000 human beings added to this earth each and every day would require 511 million acres or 800,000 square miles (6 ½ New Mexico’s) of new agricultural land every year.  This is an impossible quest and in fact the world is not gaining farm land but instead is losing agricultural land at an alarming rate!

I see this as one of humanity’s greatest obstacles! 

Megan Carpenter addressed another concern, nutrient density, in her article Larger Fruits and Vegetables Mean More Plentiful but Less Potent Bounty.   In this article, a biochemist with the University of Texas at Austin, Donald David, suggests that the fruits and vegetables currently sold in the United States show substantial deficiencies in 6 of 13 major nutrients.  In collaboration with the USDA, Dr. Davis calculated a 38% loss in protein, calcium, vitamin C, phosphorus, iron and riboflavin when he compared fruits and veggies grown today to those same crops produced in past decades.

What might cause this significant decrease in nutrient density?  Dr. Davis insightfully concludes that as crops grow faster and yields increase - nutrient density declines.   He suggests that the dilution of vital vitamins and minerals has occurred as direct a result of farmers being paid for the quantity of crop produced and not the quality. 

I found this article to be of upmost importance as we enter a time period when population growth, as mentioned above, is measured in exponential terms.  However, this article does not address the single greatest influence on nutrient density – the biological health of the soil in which the crop was produced and the availability of water stored in the soil!

Agricultural soils across the globe have been compromised due to conventional agricultural practices and therefore are not functioning at optimum capacity, have poor soil structure, and are not retaining water for crop use.  As a result, soils in these managed and constructed landscapes provide relatively low levels of nutrition to vegetation, when compared to undisturbed soil systems. Healthy, or undisturbed, soil systems contain significantly higher levels of Mycorrhizal fungi and Humic substances; both of which greatly increase a plant’s ability to uptake nutrients.  Modern conventional agricultural use of fertilizers and soil tillage damage both the Mycorrhizal plant relationship while causing a decline in the concentration of Humic substances in the soil!

Mycorrhizea are a beneficial mutualistic fungus. They associate with over 95% of the plants in the wild and help improve the uptake of mineral nutrients and water for the benefit of the host plant.  Science has demonstrated that crops that are not Mycorrhizal are in need of extra fertilizer and extra water assistance!   Both significant issues when you consider that most of the agricultural land on earth is found in arid regions requiring supplemental irrigation.    The mycelium hyphae (nutrient transport tubes) of Mycorrhizae lives about 6 days and it’s this organic biomass that contributes to the chemical production of Humus, the Humic substances of soil.
Humic substances are complex carbon Supramolecular Substances, which are prevalent in healthy top soils with the Humic Acid fraction a powerful biologic chemical that’s perhaps the most important part of a healthy soil.   Humic acids (HAs) are remarkable brown to black products of soil chemistry that are essential for healthy and productive soil” Journal of Chemistry, Dec 2001, Vol. 78, No. 12.  Humic acids and the whole Humic substance material is the recalcitrant (resisting decay) carbon of soil that is of critical importance in holding the soils structure together in ‘Macroaggregates’, reducing the compaction of soil while also improving the soils ability to retain water and mineral nutrients for vegetation uptake. On a bio-geo-chemical level, Humic acids are involved in hundreds of chemical equations, including but not limited to making the soil a healthier place for soil microbes, roots, and other members of the Soil Food Web community of the terrestrial biosphere.  Humic acids are also involved in the process of making the minerals of the soil available for plant use, by solubilizing them from the complex chemical compounds that plants cannot solubilize on their own.  As previously stated, Humic acids play a role in helping to retain water in the soil, therefore they also help in holding the plant nutrients in a water solution so that plants can absorb the minerals. 

Many agricultural professionals whom currently follow modern conventional practices are now showing a strong interest in using Mycorrhizal fungi inoculants and Humic acids to reduce inputs, and increase crop nutrient density. Growers operating Organic Certified farms are also starting to take notice of this science as they realize that adding manure and compost is not the solution to the real problem.  While animal manures and compost can provide a fertilizer value, the organic matter of those inputs are rapid cycling and referred to as the ‘labile’ (temporary or fast changing) pool of soil organic matter, while Humic substances (also called Humus) is the ‘recalcitrant’ pool of the soil that plays a vital and essential role in the biological management of soil.  Manures and compost are a poor source of Humic Acids! 

Humianity must overcome this obsticale and act aggresively to protect our most precious natural resource - SOIL!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Understanding the Importance of Cation Exchange Capacity

I was recently asked to provide a simplified explanation on the importance of Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC) values.

My Response: 
  • CEC is the ability of a soil to hold onto plant nutrients.  
  • The finer the particle size the higher CEC value, generally speaking. For example sand particles are course and visible to the naked eye, where as clay particles are fine and are not visible to the naked eye. So clay will have a higher CEC value than sand. It is obvious to most of us that sand cannot hold onto water or nutrients as well as a soil with a finer texture. Therefore, soils rich in Clay and Loam size particles are universally recognized as being better for farming - CEC explains this. 
  • The numerical value for CEC represents how much nutrition can be held by a given amount of soil. For example one pound of a clay loam soil with a CEC value of 20 will hold 4 times as many nutrients as a sandy soil with a CEC value of 5. 20/4 = 5
  • It's all about math, for example Nitrogen in a cation form (not all nitrogen fertilizers are in a cation form) can be stored in a soil. Here is a simplified calculation - A CEC value of 20 can hold 200 pounds of cation nitrogen, 200/20 = 10. Where a sand with a CEC value of 5 can only hold 50 pounds of cation nitrogen,  50/5 = 10.  
  • Well decomposed organic matter may have a higher CEC value than sand or clay, but it is insignificant when organic matter represents a tiny percentage of the soil.  See the attached chart on the potential CEC values of various substances!  For example, if your soil is only 1% organic matter it does not contribute significantly to CEC values, when compared to the massive volume of the soil itself.  This is often called the buffering capacity of the soil and is also related to any attempt to change the pH of the soil!   On the chart you will notice that Humus and the organic matter of compost are not the same thing, as Humus is referring to the recalcitrant (persistent and resistant to decay) soil carbon substances that are powerful biologic chemicals containing the active ingredient of Humic Acids.  These substances have a huge CEC value and are very significant when it comes to plant nutrient availability.   If the Humic Acid is Supramolecular, the molecules are capable of amazing characteristics, including how they perform as a CEC factor.    The best way to increase CEC is to increase Humic Acid levels in your soil. This is good because Humic Acids are part of the recalcitrant soil carbon pool, which is resistant to decay; meaning Humic Acids are capable of lasting thousands of years in an undisturbed soil. Where as organic matter is labile carbon, which is subject to rapid changes; because labile carbons are unstable they decay easily and disappear from the soil quickly. 
  • CEC may be the limiting factor for having a fertile soil.  In order to improve the fertility of your soil when CEC is limiting you, add Humic Acids as the most effective tool.  However, don't be fooled by "New and Improved" formulations of Humic Acids that claim you only need a few gallons or pounds per acre, as that's not how the math works and CEC and the ability to hold onto the hundreds of pounds of nutrients needed by a crop is all about math.  

Please leave comments!

    Do Your Humic Acids have any Character?

    While Humic Acids may have a personality, what's really important is whether or not they work and how much of this active ingredient is actually in a given product. To determine this, Soil Secrets LLC,  initiated a study to characterize the Humic Acid molecule found in our products. 

    What do we mean by asking if a molecular substances has Character? The characterization process measures the geometry and the functionality of the targeted molecule, in this case Humic Acid. 

    So what does this mean to our clients or to the staff at Soil Secrets?   For us, it provides the evidence we need in order to talk intelligently and accurately about what the active ingredient is in our product.  For the client, its proof that the active ingredient is indeed present in the product and that it does function in the way we claim it should.  The "Characterization of the Functionality of the Humic Acids"  found in our products was performed in collaboration with Femto Chemists and a contract for  analytics performed by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.   The two National Labs have the unique ability to purify a molecular chemical from a whole sample without damaging the target molecule, necessary before you can perform the true chemical analysis.    No other commercial entity worldwide can produce this kind of evidence or efficacious study on their product!    The reason they can't is because the type of analysis technique used by commercial and university soil labs is not standardized, lacks the ability to purify without damaging the molecule, and most lack the equipment for analysis or the library data base to interpret the results.    If you would like to read more on this problem of analysis, contact us and request the paper:  Supramolecular Advances in Agronomy 2002.  

    Here's where we cannot be matched:  While many companies claim to sell Humic Acids with new and improved formulations or even just raw Humate, they cannot prove that their product contains any given amount of that active ingredient. The science and methodology to purify, from the sample, the active ingredient of Humic, Fulvic or Humin is not available to any labs other than Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sandia National Laboratories.  In typical labs, before these active ingredients are analyzed, they must separate them from the whole sample without harming them. Commercial or university soil labs cannot do that! The standard method of separating the Humic Acid from the soil or soil amendment sample does not work because it's a caustic chemical reaction that destroys any active ingredient that may have been in the sample. In addition, there's no standardized method used by all the university or commercial labs for doing the analysis of Humic Acid, therefore the methods used are estimates only.  How can our competitors claim that they have made a new and improved form of Humic Acid, if they cannot even measure what they've made?  We however, have full detail of all the functional characteristics of the Humic Acid molecule found in our product, including a full profile of the Functional Groups attached to the Humic acid fraction of our TerraPro and Earth Ambrosia liquid. 

    Let's be clear - We hang our hat on our Humic Acid products, because there is research to support them. This research will ultimately show how Humic Acids play an active role in plant nutrition and soil building. This is called the Bio-Geo-Chemical process of plant nutrient uptake and Pedogenesis. 

    Wednesday, January 4, 2012

    Gulf Coorperation Council

    On Kuwait:  That country is a member of the GCC, the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, also known as the Gulf Cooperation Council,made up of  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates and soon to join, Jordan and Morocco.    The good news and another feather in the cap of Soil Secrets is that we have passed a major hurdle in getting our product exported into those nations, by passing some rigorous tests conducted by the Environment Department and the Agriculture Ministry of Kuwait.  Since we have been approved in Kuwait, we are also approved for the entire GCC!   I'm sharing this good news with you because this is significant to you and your buyers because it demonstrates once again that Soil Secrets is proving the efficacy of what we are selling, so you can be confident and proud in representing the products of Soil Secrets LLC. 

    Characterization of Humic Substances

    I'm very excited to share with you this very good news, that once again demonstrates that Soil Secrets is indeed 'cutting edge' in our industry.  First I'd like to cover the recent completion of testing conducted at Sandia National Laboratories on the Humic acid that we are formulating into our products.    The tests were extremely revealing and educational for us, in terms of teaching us about our own product and providing us with information concerning the Humic acid fraction that's  contained within the whole Humic substance of our products.  This is information on the 'Characterization of Humic Substances', with data and evidence that no other commercial supplier of Humic acids can provide.  Keep in mind that this is research that has never been done before and is exclusive to our company.   I'm weeding through both the SANDIA REPORT and the LOS ALAMOS REPORT now, which contains several hundred pages of data, so that I can reveal to you and to all our customers some of this information.  The reports themselves are for official use only of Commercial Proprietary Information.