Soil Analysis and Sustainable Agriculture



Below is the text of a speech I (GK) recently gave to the Nutrient Management Class at the Evergreen State College. I thought perhaps my readers would find it interesting as well as informative.


Presentation to the Nutrient Management Class

at The Evergreen State College, May 16, 2012

by Gary Kline

Good morning. I want to thank Dave Muehliesen for inviting me to come speak to your class on soil nutrient management. This is something I very much enjoy doing.

Since there is about a two and a half hour block of time allotted, my plan is to use about a third or half of that on a prepared lecture – – – or you could call it a sermon – – – and devote the remaining time to discussion. I think of myself as more of an informer and interpreter than an entertainer. Accordingly, my speeches are information dense. For that reason, and because of memory problems, I have to speak from a prepared text to get everything in I feel needs to be said and to keep me on track. After the stage is set, I’m capable of rambling in all directions in response to questions or comments.

Before getting into my speech, I want to do a little survey:

1. How many of you have grown a garden? ______

2. How many consider yourselves organic? ______

3. How many plan to go into farming as an occupation?______

4. How many have heard of each of these people?

a. J. I. Rodale _____

b. Sir Albert Howard _____

c. Dr. William Albrecht _____

d. Dr. Weston A. Price _____

e. Justus Von Liebig _____

f. Charles Walters _____

5. How many people are here today? _____

I want to take note of the fact that this course falls within the Practice of Sustainable Agriculture program, and that a specific focus for today’s class is on how I go about reading soil test results and developing recommendations for applying fertilizing materials. I’ve also been given license to speak about my philosophy on maintaining optimal soil fertility, which both opens the subject wide and serves to warn you that you are likely to hear some rather wacky ideas relative to soil science.

I decided to title my presentation “Soil Analysis and Sustainable Agriculture”. As for my philosophy on achieving and maintaining soil fertility, I will point out that it is a borrowed philosophy from some giants of alternative agriculture. Very little is original with me, and I don’t profess to have any special knowledge. I do consider this to be the most important subject in the world. I am a convert from conventional organics to a particular brand of Ecological Agriculture which may be very different from what colleges teach under that banner, and I am simply a messenger on a mission. However, I did create a name for what I preach about, and that name is Mineral-Augmented Organics, which goes way beyond regular organics, and the distinction centers on the word “mineral”.

I should point out that I’ve been here before. In March of 2004 I gave a speech entitled “Practical Nutrient Management and It’s Implications For Nearly Everything”. Two years later, in March of 2006, I gave a speech to the Ecological Agriculture class titled “Simplified Soil Science and the Chemistry of Life”. Copies of those should be around here some place, and I’ll leave a copy of this speech. My plan is to put them and several other speeches and articles on the Black Lake Organic website for purchase.

“Nutrient Management” – – – that strikes me as a strange term. What does it mean? Two things came to mind: Municipal Composting and Farm Manure Management. These are basically waste disposal strategies with concern for real fertility value in growing plants or crops being way down the scale.

If what we are talking about is making and using compost and manure, we have a serious problem. Likewise, if you paid a lot of money to attend college to learn that the answer to fertilization for growing crops is to apply lots of compost or lots of manure to the soil, then I consider you have wasted your monetary resource. I’m not saying that is what you are being taught. Compost and manure have their role in fertility or nutrient management, but should not be over-emphasized or relied on exclusively in an organic growing program. This is an extremely important point, as I hope to illustrate today.

Besides seeing organiculture as a matter simply of avoiding harmful chemicals, there is a widespread notion that organic gardening or farming means simply applying lots of organic matter. However, to achieve a soil of truly high fertility that grows quality crops, at the minimum you will need to have, or else supply, a whole range of inorganic matter – – – which is to say, minerals, in addition to organic matter.

There are exceptions, but this will be the case in most places and situations, inasmuch as few soils will be found to be inherently rich in both organic matter and nutrient minerals and otherwise balanced in the full nutrient spectrum required by plants, as well as required for healthy human nutrition. You can call that “philosophy”, but I call it scientific fact. And, in fact, I refer to this as the Missing Mineral Message, and consider the message of mineralization to be “The World’s Most Important Message”, and I recently gave a speech up in San Juan County by that title.

To be abundantly clear, let me put this another way; there is such a thing as organic matter overdose – – – too much organic matter being put into garden or farm soil. That sounds heretical to what many organic zealots want to believe. However, it is part of the true gospel of organics, which I can establish with a quote from the 1955 book titled Organic Gardening, by J. I. Rodale, the father of organic farming and gardening in America. Here’s the quote:

“I wish to stress here that too many organic gardeners have been working to their own disadvantage and have produced an unbalanced soil. They have piled prodigious amounts of organic matter into it, and have neglected the mineral side – – -. Too much blackness in soil, if achieved at the expense of oversupplying the humus, may not be desirable. There is a point beyond which the application of organic matter in gardening may cause actual harm.”

Over 10% organic matter, by volume, is too much, and it generally won’t stay there anyway. Having 5% is more than adequate and is far more than most farmlands exhibit today. I find I have to harp on this point to get it across. So to rub salt in the wound, I’ll quote Rodale again from the same book:

“A good soil today must contain a considerable portion of minute rock particles to make it a proper medium for growing plants and to give it the necessary mineral content. Organic matter contains some minerals, but – – – Rocks are the main mineral suppliers. To be good, a soil must contain some organic matter, but its physical structure and lack of mineral [inorganic] elements [present] in the rock may militate against producing good crops.”

So, I repeat, 5% organic matter is enough! Over 10% is detrimental, particularly if you do not also add nutrient minerals to compensate for their dispersion in the soil due to excessive organic matter input. Indeed, if you disregard the extraneous water, you can not push more than 5% minerals into a plant or into organic matter. Just looking at the dry matter portion, 95% or more of a plant’s tissue or bulk is composed of the organic, non-mineral elements of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and a small amount of nitrogen that all originate from the air, rather than from the ground. Remember the letters COHN.

The point here is that only 5% of a plant, at most, is nutrient minerals; but it is an absolutely crucial 5%, and we must pay at least as much attention to the mineral requirements of soil as organic growers tend to pay to supplying organic matter. We know today that most plants require at least 19 or 20 nutrient elements out of the 92 natural elements that make up the entire material universe. Fifteen of those 19 are minerals, yet the importance of minerals in the fertilization of plants or crops is largely neglected and the consequences for plant health and for human health verges on the tragic. Remember, I have said nutrient management has implications for nearly everything. [HAND OUT PERIODIC TABLE OF ELEMENTS]

Now, here’s the capper. The organic movement, started by Sir Albert Howard in the 1930’s, began, in large part, as a protest against use of chemical pesticides. That battle has been waged mainly by efforts to ban their use, and has been only partially effective. In other words, the approach has been to use a big stick to get chemical farmers and gardeners to cease using synthetic pesticides, which certainly are environmentally detrimental and threaten everyone’s health.

But there is another approach which works better, if only we would embrace it and pursue it more. Instead of using a big stick, we need to use a big carrot in the form of nutritional pest control. In other words, we need to build health and resistance in plants and the pests will go away. In other words, no pests, no need for pesticides. And here’s the double bonus; we raise the nutritional quality of our food in the process. Why wouldn’t we do it, knowing that? Some additional bonuses for feeding crops well are greater frost hardiness, better taste, greater shelf-life and faster ripening or drying.

Minerals are the indispensable key to pest and disease resistance in plants. This is what’s been missing. It also largely explains the sky-rocketing rise in degenerative diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and a long list of other chronic, metabolic diseases that have cropped up in the last century or so. Why is it we don’t get this? I submit that the organic movement, with its misplaced emphasis on organic matter and banning pesticides rather than pushing health, nutrition and minerals, is partly at fault. Indeed, in all the thousands of pages of regulations governing organic certification, there is nothing said about improved nutrition as an objective. We need to redirect organics, and thus implement Mineral-Augmented Organics to emphasize nutrition. We also need to straighten out the general population on what is and is not truly nutritious food. It’s not what we are being told.

Here’s the interesting thing. Sir Albert Howard, the grandfather of organic farming, was a strong believer in nutritional pest control, and, indeed, it might be argued that this was the basis of the organic method, which he called humus farming. He stated that insect pests are our professors of agriculture because they tell us when we are doing something wrong, usually with the soil. Howard was joined in this belief by another giant of ecological agriculture and contemporary of his, Dr. William A. Albrecht, former Chairman of the Soils Department at the University of Missouri. Albrecht and Howard shared the strong belief that nutritional health originating from the soil was the proper basis of pest resistance, as well as vigorous health in plants, animals and people. This has a lot more to do with nutrients than it does with genetics.

But there was a fundamental difference of perspective between the two giants. Howard held the view that fertility meant a soil rich in humus, whereas Albrecht said, essentially, that it was a soil rich in minerals. Here are a few slogans of Dr. Albrecht’s:

“Insects and disease are the symptoms of a failing crop, not the cause of it.”

“To be well fed is to be healthy.”

“What is fertility? In the simplest words, it is some dozen chemicals in mineral and rock combinations in the earth’s crust that are being slowly broken out of these and hustled off to sea. Enjoying a temporary rest stop en route, they are a part of the soil and serve their essential roles in nourishing all the different life forms.”

Now, Albrecht was not oblivious to the role of organic matter in soils, or in nutrient management. In fact, he wrote the chapter on organic matter in the USDA’s monumental 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture – – – just before agriculture took a disastrous change of course into chemical, industrial mode.

So, who was right? Which is it, organic matter or minerals? Obviously, it is both, and can be summed-up in the term Mineral-Augmented Organics, which I coined in 1998 after reading the collected works of Albrecht, known as The Albrecht Papers, and having previously read Howard’s two major books, An Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health, published in 1940 (the year I was born) and 1947, the year Howard died. In his last book Howard came around to acknowledging a possibly equal role of minerals to humus.

Before going further, I want to mention that there is another very different approach to fertilization and growing crops using the minerals in seawater, and a form of hydroponics that effectively bypasses soil as the growing medium. It presents real challenges to how we think of fertilizing and the actual nutrient requirements of plants. For example, whereas nitrogen and calcium have long been thought of as the major requirements of plants and feeding of the soil, they may turn out to be almost unnecessary in pure fertilizing or nutrient management. It’s mind-blowing and I want to come back to that option later.

In actuality, I’m starting to see this Seaponics and sea solids approach as the most promising and practical means of achieving true agricultural sustainability throughout the world’s farmable soils and in gardening as well. Conventional organiculture I foresee as eventually failing if mineral-augmentation is not widely implemented to raise the nutritional content of foods and livestock feeds. Starvation is a reality in much of the world, but elsewhere malnutrition in the midst of an apparent abundance of food is now clearly the rule. We are world leaders in the incidence and growth of malnutrition and degenerative diseases, believe it or not.

This is serious stuff. You’re looking at a guy who’s had quadruple bypass heart surgery, and whose brother died of a heart attack less than a month ago. If things don’t change, half of you will follow suit, prematurely. And that’s just one of the degenerative diseases. This organic growing is about a lot more than just producing food; or clean and pure food.

Nutrient management might be interpreted to mean fertility management, but I think we should broaden the topic to soil management because there are other aspects of soil manipulation that need to be attended to in creating the right or ideal environment for growing the best plant or crop achievable. The same principles apply to growing ornamentals, but henceforth I’m going to speak of growing food crops. Soil science deals not only with the nutrients or the chemical aspect, but the physical and biological aspects and the synergy of all three. Some would throw in energetics, but I’m not going there.

The question comes down to this: What does it take to grow a superior plant? The answer is creating an optimal combination and synergy of soil chemistry, physics and biology. It’s hard to say which comes first. I’m a biologist by avocation and training, so I want to root for the biota to come out first in the competition as governing soil dynamics and crop growth, but I’d rather know and deal with what’s true.

There are those who say the microbes and other soil biota, as well as the plants themselves, and organic matter, determine the soil’s fertility or productiveness; however, starting with an ordinary soil and trying to raise its suitability for agricultural production, I believe begins with the chemistry, which regulates the physics, and those two together set up the conditions for stimulating the biology, which then permits a sort of perpetual motion ecology; that, however, still has to be managed if we are going to intrude upon it for cropping.

Perhaps the one chemical element that does the most to modify soil physical properties and foster its favorable biota is calcium, which commonly is supplied using calcitic lime or calcium carbonate. Calcium loosens soil, which is to say, opens it up for air and water infiltration and drainage, particularly where there is a high fraction of clay in the soil. Calcium’s sibling, magnesium, does the opposite. It tightens the soil, which makes a clayey soil worse, but which can improve a sandier, quick draining soil, apt to lose water and nutrients too rapidly and readily for plant roots to pick them up.

Calcitic lime is a high calcium, low magnesium lime; whereas, dolomite is a high magnesium lime. In our rainy climate, particularly, you don’t usually want to apply dolomite. However, in a properly balanced soil, there is an ideal ratio of calcium to magnesium needed, and some conditions will call for the use of dolomite, or perhaps another material containing magnesium. It is possible to overdo, or to have too much, calcium and/or magnesium, which creates a nutrient imbalance, an antagonism with other minerals, and drives the pH into the alkaline range, thus reducing the uptake of other nutrient elements. Instead, what you want to do is create the right nutrient balance, which results in a slightly acid pH, around 6.5, that is optimal for most crop plants. Here’s where the professional soil test comes in to determine how much is present or needed.

Supposing you need to loosen a heavy clay soil. The next best thing to add is humus or decayed organic matter. The texture of humus serves to aerate or push apart clay particles, and an organic material, (such as good compost or aged manure with litter), helps to loosen clay; but because it also holds water, which benefits sandy soils, and also enables sand to hold nutrients, (but not as well as clay does) it improves both soil types.

Compost or aged manure also serves to introduce conditioning or loosening materials, along with a modest amount of mineral and organic plant nutrients. Raw manure, on the other hand, can temporarily rob the soil of nitrogen, or cause a sucking-out of moisture from plant roots, which is referred to as root burning. Strong salts in manure, likewise, can “burn” or kill rootlets. The best way to deal with raw manure is to run it through a well- made compost pile.

Assuming you have enough of most of the needed elements, or put them into the soil, there likely will be a population explosion of friendly microbes, earthworms and other soil critters, which further function to free-up nutrients being held in reserve, and also effect a greater aeration of the soil. The microbes and worms produce glue-like substances that glue tiny particles of rock or minerals and particles of humus into small balls called aggregates or crumbs.

In addition, earthworms produce small pellets or castings (worm manure) of just the right size as typical aggregates. The pellets are an intimate mixture of humus and available minerals. These crumbs contain air spaces. They collect and hold moisture and nutrients, as well as house and protect microbes. Because of these properties, the soil takes on ideal structure, and the crumbs resist leaching from rainfall or watering, so that nutrient minerals and organic elements or compounds are not easily washed away, and thus remain in place for plant roots to pick up, largely by cation exchange, as the plant needs them. The overall result is excellent tilth or workability of the soil and high fertility, which is what you are shooting for. A soil of good tilth represents optimum chemical, physical and biological properties – – – in other words, an ideal growing soil.

Of course, a number of other nutrients, other than calcium and magnesium, need to be in the soil or added to it; ideally, in the correct amounts, balance, and complete array. This is what I refer to as the ABC’s of correct soil fertility; or to state it backwards, you need the complete array (C) of all the elements, in correct balance (B), and in adequate amounts (A). So it’s amount, balance and completeness of the 19 or 20 known plant nutrient elements. We humans need about 5 more, obtainable from the soil via plants. In all likelihood, many more are needed for prime health, and maybe all 90, or possibly 92, elements on earth. All of them are in seawater. I could name all the known plant nutrient elements for you, but they are listed on a Chart of Composition of Vegetation that is in the handout packet I’m giving out [SEE VEGETATION HANDOUT]. We could talk about what’s on that chart. Notice, also, the chart on the same page showing a comparison of the mineral composition of typical soils in Western Washington versus those in Eastern Washington, which are much higher, largely owing to the difference in amount of annual rainfall.

Over the eons of heavy rainfall, minerals have been washed or leached out of the soils on land, aggravated more recently by erosion off agricultural soils and other man-caused disturbances, and made their way down the rivers into the oceans. Sodium and chlorine were the fastest to go. This is why the ocean is salty. Ocean water is about 3.5% minerals, and around 98% of that is sodium chloride.

But all the mineral and the 4 organic elements are in the ocean, and, remarkably, evenly distributed so that they are all present in approximately the same amount in any given bucket of water taken from the open ocean. The oceans, or seawater, represent a treasure-trove of minerals that can, and ultimately must, be brought back to put on the land to remineralize our soils. And, on a small scale, this is already being done with great success. That’s what I call real nutrient management geared to the sustainability of a new agriculture for the future – – – the future of the planet and society; or what soil scientist, John Hamaker, referred to as remineralization in his book, The Survival of Civilization.

The Ideal Soil of the textbooks for farming and gardening is a loam made up of half solids (minerals and organic matter) and half voids or pore spaces. The pore spaces should be about half filled with water and half with air. The solid half would be 90% inorganic matter and 10% organic matter, which means 45% of the total inorganic and 5% organic matter. So the textbooks are saying that just 5% organic matter, by volume, is ideal; thus, more than 5%, or possibly 10%, organic matter is undesirable.

What the text books don’t make clear is that most of the inorganic portion is minerals, but non-nutrient minerals. The nutrient minerals are only about 10% of the inorganic fraction, or 5% of the total soil volume, based on the known or identified plant nutrient minerals. So what we have is that in an ideal soil, only about 5% will be nutrient minerals. I have illustrated this in a set of 3 pie diagrams that are being handed out. [SHOW AND DISCUSS PIE DIAGRAMS]

Another very illuminating diagram or chart that I developed for the 2006 Soil Science lecture, or rather just after it, is one that I titled Top 10 Hit Parade of Elements that shows the elemental composition of 10 different environments on earth (including one on the moon). It is a multi-colored chart listing the first or top 10 or so elements in soils, the air and sea and so on, so you can get an idea of the similarities in composition of all the major earth elements, and which of those are main mineral nutrients and organic nutrients or building blocks. We could spend all day talking about that chart. I mainly throw it out for your entertainment and possible later inspection and discussion. [HAND OUT AND DISCUSS TOP 10 CHART]

Elsewhere, I spoke about mineral reserves. I came across some very revealing figures on minerals in the 2011 book titled Advancing Biological Agriculture by Gary Zimmer. In it he reveals that a typical laboratory test only reveals or measures about 29% of the full amount of calcium in a soil; about 1 to 5% of the magnesium; one-hundredths of the phosphorous reserve, and only a minuscule percent of the potassium reserve in the soil.

I want to read you something I came across recently that was written for a speech at a conference on Bio-Char by a fellow named David Yarrow, who describes himself as a healer, and subscribes to Biological Agriculture; another name, essentially for Ecological Agriculture. The statement, under a heading of Balanced, Full Spectrum Minerals, concisely captures the dynamism involved in creating an ideal soil, and what soil testing should encompass and lead to: Here’s the quote:

“Biological Agriculture is a more complex, exacting discipline than organic or chemical farming. Nutrient Dense begins by boosting and balancing the elements in soil. Not just 3 or 5 minerals, or 25 trace elements, but all 90 elements nature needs to build biology. Not just enough minerals to get a crop out of the ground and off to market, but an abundance of elements to assure fully healthy plants. And these elements must be in proper proportions, in specific ranges of ratios – – – 7 major minerals at parts per thousand, trace elements at parts per million, but others at parts per billion, and a few at parts per trillion.

Once all the physical elements are present, balanced and available, then the soil can be inoculated with the biological organisms – – – bacteria, fungi, mycorrhizae, algae, actinomycetes, protozoa and all the soil food web. Once the biology is in place, soil has the resources and intelligence to manage itself; such as maintain stable pH, fix nitrogen, accumulate phosphorus, recycle minerals, and spoonfeed plant roots. This is the paradigm shift to a sustainable 21st Century agriculture – – – from a chemical view of soil, to a biological approach and energy insight.”

Wow! There’s a lot crammed into those two paragraphs for extended contemplation. Note that Yarrow says the right physics and chemistry has to be in place before the biology comes into play, and there is a sort of perpetual ecological system set in motion.

My understanding of Bio-Char is that it is a form of charcoal that acts like a giant colloid, capable of adsorbing cations and holding them for a very long time. It also provides protective housing for the beneficial microbes. We know that seawater provides all the elements Yarrow talks about. Extract most of the sodium chloride and soak Bio-Char in the remaining concentrated mineral water and what would you have?

Agricultural sustainability is a rather nebular term, not well-described or defined. One thing is clear, if we don’t achieve agricultural sustainability, we won’t achieve sustainability of any sort. Agriculture is the most important, basic, and largest economic activity of any society. Beginning in October 2007, and running through October 2011, I wrote four articles on sustainability, starting with “Saving the World: Part 2” on “Understanding Biological Agriculture”, primarily as espoused by agronomist Gary Zimmer, who wrote a book entitled The Biological Farmer in year 2000.

What I was trying to do was nail down what sustainability meant and whether it was actually attainable. Can you reach a point in farming and gardening where you no longer have to bring in fertilizers and other substantial inputs, and thus achieve a sort of perpetual homeostatic food-growing operation?

Zimmer has a system of incorporating manure, and certain purchased fertilizers and, with the help of microbes and earthworms, continuously digging down into the subsoil, tapping into mineral reserves, making them plant-available, and generating new topsoil from below. After reading his second book, Advancing Biological Agriculture, written in 2011, it became clear that Zimmer had expected to continue bringing in fertilizing materials indefinitely. I concluded my fourth article, “Chasing After Sustainability”, by saying “the problem is not yet solved.”

Now, I feel ready to write Part VI on Saving the World as finally having solved the problem of sustainability. Seawater, seaponics, sea solids (salt) and seawater extract or concentrated sea minerals is the answer. We simply reclaim the minerals lost to the sea and bring them back to the land, recycling them as a primary means of fertilizing. Possibly, this could be combined with Bio Char, which sequesters carbon and retains mineral nutrients for a very long time. Also, seawater extraction has low environmental impact compared to mining.

The sea and its minerals is essentially inexhaustible, covering about 72% of the earth’s surface. It should become economical to extract the minerals and distribute them inland. Very small quantities are involved per acre, and it may be shown that such small quantities make a big impact and reduce overall fertilizing needs.

I also have a concept for a campaign, which I’m calling Project Rebound, to revive small family farms, start-up more small organic farms, put people back on the land in meaningful livelihoods, and improve the local and national economies. All the signs are there that it’s ready to happen if given a good nudge. The only growing sector in American agriculture is organiculture, at 10 or more percent annually.

One of my ideas is to put all the idle and unproductive pasturelands of Western Washington to use by giving landowners incentives to allow start-up farmers to use those lands under contractual arrangements with new farmers in exchange for property tax relief by the counties under something like open-space and agricultural set-aside programs.

There would be a catch under my plan. The fertility of the land must be brought up to par, in accordance with set standards based on approved professional soil tests evaluated by authorized professionals. Demonstration and research farms could also be set up, and the use of sea mineral sprays or sea solid applications could be tested to determine how they might substitute for standard fertilization techniques. Incidentally, I have a plan for how to do that too; sensibly, economically and with low environmental impact. [SHOW AND DISCUSS SEA-CROP™]

We are supposedly trying to create jobs, and I can’t think of a more sensible and beneficial program than growing healthy food to make a big dent in the nation’s run away, so-called healthcare system. Maybe this is what needs to be done under a saner national agricultural subsidy program. It would be a very wise investment, or call it a stimulus plan for the little guys.

Now on to the soil analysis part. My own experience growing plants, and my research, tells me that 75% of gardening success goes back to the soil and how it is treated. All you really need to do to grow almost any landscape ornamental or vegetable crop well is to create a properly and fully fertilized loam or a soil with the characteristics of loam, such that it is well-aerated, drains well, yet retains enough moisture to support the plant’s water needs. Then you have the complete synergy for creating good tilth and strong growth.

However, about the only way to truly know what your soil needs to be fully and properly fertilized is by getting a professional laboratory test that is analyzed and interpreted by a trained or knowledgeable soils expert.

Someday I hope to see a network of local people trained to do that and give advice to gardeners and farmers on soil treatment. These people would be certified and known as Community Soil Physicians, and, ideally, would link-up with trained Nutritional Therapists. Toward that end, I have begun offering courses on soil building and ecological agriculture as I understand it, and on nutrition fundamentals.

What is the purpose of soil testing, after all? It is to grow a better plant or more nutritious and tastier food crop, and plenty of it. Soil tests have their limitations, but they are the best tool we have for hitting the bulls-eye of perfect soil fertility, and, otherwise, we are just guessing at what the soil needs, nutrient-wise. The trained eye can roughly gauge what nutrients are deficient, based on signs or symptoms in plant foliage, or on the kinds of plants growing in a particular area, although you may not know by how much or what to do about it.

There are situations where a professional soil test is impractical, and for that you can take a shotgun approach by applying compost and a complete organic fertilizer, preferably mineral-balanced, such as Black Lake Organic’s fairly famous BLOOM blends, which also contain friendly bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi. You probably won’t hit the bulls-eye, but you should hit the target, and that often is good enough. Our complete organic fertilizer blends typically contain over a dozen natural and organic fertilizing materials and every known plant, animal and human nutrient element on the planet.

Analyzing soil test laboratory reports was one of the most valuable exercises in my learning about soils. I began in 1998, and started out using the services of A and L Western Agricultural Labs. This is one of the biggest companies in the country and takes a conventional approach to soil chemistry that is geared to chemical farming. Their approach hinges on pH, although they do understand the cation ratios needed to structure an optimum pH.

A and L offers both a “basic” test of NPK, calcium, magnesium and pH; and a “complete” test that includes the standard trace elements (iron, copper, zinc, manganese and boron, plus the secondary element sulfur). Doing just a basic test is practically worthless and presumes either that trace elements are always present and sufficient or are not important enough to bother with. That thinking should not be promoted. If I’m not mistaken, that is the test offered, still, by the Conservation District, and I think it is a disservice, even if it is cheap. Furthermore, most clients can’t figure out what to do with the information the Conservation District gives them.

One thing that can be said about the complete test by A and L is that they give a bar graph showing how much of each nutrient element (or simple compound) is present in the soil and rating it as very low, low, medium, high, etc. Then, if you pay a little more, they will give you the figures on how much more of each element to add and a brief narrative on what else to consider or to avoid, and so on. In other words, they do the math for you and also you can request recommendations put in terms of organic materials to be applied. It’s pretty straight forward and easy for the typical gardener or farmer to comprehend. Plus, they will give you a nitrogen figure (in the nitrate form). From there it’s just a matter of converting the numbers to an amount of given fertilizer material that satisfies the deficiency. However, you have to take into account all of the major nutrients in the material and not just the one you want.

One of the early soil test evaluations I did was in 2003 for the community garden here at Evergreen, and I did an extensive write-up on it and applied my interpretation based on my recently acquired understanding of what I’ll call the Albrecht approach that is keyed to cation exchange capacity (or CEC). Here, the chief cations of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium are to be supplied in an optimum ratio to each other and are seen as governing soil fertility, as well as producing an optimal pH, when in balance, or in the optimum ratios.

It will be useful to examine that particular 2003 soil test and the write-up report. Additionally, there was a follow-up test in 2005 and a test of the original untreated soil. Unfortunately, I do not have a Power Point projector, but I am able to provide copies of some lab reports for all of you to follow along. I understand that the class has had some experience in reviewing and studying examples of A and L lab reports and is also conversant in the chemistry that is involved. [REVIEW 2003 A & L REPORT AND WRITE-UP]

The question arises as to how I go about interpreting a lab report, developing the numbers, deciding on which materials to use, and determining how much of the different optimal materials are to be applied to a given site or area. I think the picture can be adequately conveyed if I review the write-up on those lab reports mentioned and then we pick a few of the test parameters to examine, or work through, to show how I or my associate came up with the specific recommendations. Better yet, I have two reports on my own garden that would illustrate what was done in two consecutive years of treatments, and I can run through the calculations I did on the second year report.

Let me just add here that in 2007 another test sample was submitted for evaluation from one of the community garden plots and was analyzed by a different lab using a very different approach, and the evaluation report suggested that I had hit it right on the head, assuming my recommendations were carried out as advised. I have that report with me also.

In the 2007 small plot test I had switched over to using a different lab called Logan Labs in Ohio. I did so at the urging of my associate at the time named Michael Astera, and I actually had turned over the job of conducting the analysis and recommendations to him. I presume this plot was within the area treated in 2003, although it might have been given additional feedings and, likely, compost. At any rate, here is what Astera said about it after reviewing the lab results: “This is an excellent and nicely balanced garden soil. I would guess that it produces very well.”

Astera noted that phosphorus was low, but could not recommend any organic or natural phosphorus material that did not also contain substantial calcium, and the calcium level was already slightly higher than the lab’s desired level. Astera concluded by saying, “all this soil really needs is a little boron and zinc”, which he recommended in the form of solubor and zinc sulfate.

Logan Labs, at that time, was a newly founded lab that came out of the Albrecht tradition of basing its recommendations on the cation ratios of calcium, magnesium, potassium and sodium, rather than on a pH number, like A and L does. I refer to these four nutrient elements as “The Fab Four”, because they largely govern soil fertility. Their ratio ideally would be about 65% calcium, 15% magnesium, 4% potassium and 1% sodium, which adds up to 85% of the total exchange capacity of the soil, leaving about 5% for trace mineral cations and 10% for hydrogen ions.

The hydrogen ion is a non-nutrient, but when present at around 10%, serves to make the soil slightly acid, which is what’s desired for growing most crops, including vegetables. It is the hydrogen ions exuded in weak acids by plant roots that primarily effects the exchange of cations from the soil particles into the plant roots, and can be thought of as acting like cue balls. The soil particles that adsorb cations are known as colloids, and are chiefly clay and humus. Hydrogen ions serve to knock nutrient cations off the colloids.

I’ll give those key cation ratio numbers again, which I refer to as the Albrecht ratios. The numbers are 65; 15, 4, and 1. Another 5% should be trace mineral cations that include copper, zinc, manganese and iron. This leaves about 10% of the cation exchange to be filled by the hydrogen cation that acidifies soils. When the hydrogen ion level becomes very high, the soil is quite acid, but more importantly, it is infertile because the major nutrient cations have been lost from the soil, either by leaching or by being taken up by vegetation or by both. Only an extremely acid soil does any harm to plant roots.

In contrast, with the A and L format or protocol, Logan Labs does not give you a level rating or tell you how much of a given nutrient needs to be added to achieve balance – – – except for the Fab Four. For them, they give the amount found, the amount desired and the CEC percentage. The rest of it you have to figure out yourself. Another thing they do not give you is a number for nitrogen, because nitrogen levels fluctuate greatly, and because of the theory that if you get all the other elements in place and balanced, the nitrogen will show up. It will be taken from the soil air by nitrogen-fixing microbes, and thus you can grow your own nitrogen supply. In conventional soil fertilization practice, nitrogen is the most expensive nutrient to buy. This way it’s free. That alone should cause conventional agriculture to think differently. To manufacture nitrogen fertilizers we need giant factories that consume huge amounts of energy to do something that invisible microbes do effortlessly.

Michael Astera wrote a book titled The Ideal Soil, which is a self-help guide to interpreting soil tests and arriving at your own prescription for what to give the soil and how much. I think of it as a college course in soil fertility, and I’ll be using a couple of excerpts or charts from it to demonstrate how to go about determining what is needed, what the ideal levels of individual nutrients need to be, what materials to use, and how to calculate the quantities. [HOLD UP IDEAL SOIL BOOK]

I got Michael started in all this from a newsletter I did back in 2001. In fact, he dedicated the book to me and to Charles Walters, now deceased, who largely headed the Ecological Agriculture movement. I furnished a lot of the information that went into the book. There is an interesting story about how it came about. Michael and I used to meet weekly for lunch and discussions. One day, at a restaurant in Lacey, we asked ourselves just what is the optimum level of various nutrients in an ideally balanced and fertile soil. I supplied a few scraps of data and Michael went on to compile and pull it all together and self-publish his book.

So far as we know, nothing comprehensive like this had been done before. Michael was able to reduce all the essential data to a single page titled The Ideal Soil Chart, also known as Agricola’s Best Guess, in 2008, and revised in 2010. The book is a masterful piece of writing, but it is not without its errors and shortcomings.

Publication of the book precipitated all sorts of research and critiques, and I’m starting to see a rash of different charts stemming from different assumptions about high and low range cation exchange numbers and interactions with higher and lower acidity levels. There is a whole group of people collaborating on this on the internet, and I just received a secret set from Steve Solomon, who authored the series of editions on Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades. Steve is coming out with his seventh edition late this year, emphasizing professional soil testing, whereas he used to advise not wasting your money on soil tests, which I always disagreed with. However, soil testing was a different animal back in the days when Solomon first took a hard look at soil tests done throughout the state of Oregon.

For purposes of our exercise in how to perform the calculations for a soil test evaluation and recommendations, I decided to print out two examples of actual soil test reports from Logan Labs that were evaluated by Astera. One is for a very good soil and the other for a very poor soil. This way we can all read and study the reports together. I also have the two test reports of my own garden that we can use to go over a few examples of how to do the calculations. To do this we will also need to refer to the Ideal Soil Chart and a chart listing a whole range of suitable organic and natural fertilizing materials that gives their percentages for the various nutrient elements or simple compounds.

There are two dozen materials in all on the latter chart, and more could have been included; in particular, plant meals. I’ll point out that all these materials, plus complete blends, are available through my business, Black Lake Organic Nursery, south of Olympia, and also through the internet at [HAND OUT SOIL TESTS, CHARTS, AND BLO PRICE LIST]

Let’s look at the two Logan Lab reports on my garden. The first one, done for fertilization in the spring of 2011, was evaluated by Astera, and I did the calculations on the second one, which tells me what to apply this spring before the garden gets tilled. The second test provides a few real world nutrient application examples that I calculated just recently and can walk through to show what I did and what my reasoning was. As a convenient bonus, I prepared a comparison chart for what materials were chosen and what happened to the soil from the first year to the second. That chart is included in the soil test report handouts. [EXAMINE AND DISCUSS ALL SOIL TESTS]

I have some concluding remarks and observations:

The ancient Greeks first came up with the idea of everything being matter composed of atoms. The ancient Chinese invented gun powder. Two and three centuries ago, perhaps the first chemists were the alchemists in Europe who wasted a lot of time trying to turn base metals into gold. They also tried to make the universal solvent that would dissolve anything, evidently without thinking about what they would put it in. The going theory of fertility back about then was the humus theory. Farmers knew that crops benefited from putting manure and other forms of dead organic matter into the soil. Some thought that somehow there was a dormant life principle that transferred from the humus into living plants that caused them to come alive and grow and fostered their growth. Of course, none of them had ever seen a microbe.

Other early soil scientists said, no, that what plants fed on were minute, inorganic particles of soil from mud that plant roots would somehow pick up and build into tissue. So there were, even back then, versions of the humus versus minerals debate.

Agricultural chemistry really began in about the 1830’s. In 1840 the prominent Austrian chemist, Justus Von Liebig, wrote a book entitled Chemistry in its Applications to Agriculture and Physiology, which he evidently revised several times. I happen to have a copy here of the 4th Edition, published in London in 1849. [HOLD UP LIEBIG’S BOOK]

Liebig disputed the humus theory. He took some wheat grains, burned them, and analyzed the ashes. He knew that carbon, nitrogen and oxygen went off as gases. What he found in the ashes was phosphorus and potassium (which the Germans called Kalium, with a K), and probably some calcium. Analytical chemistry at the time probably was incapable of detecting trace minerals.

From the elements he found in the ashes, Liebig deduced and pronounced that all plants needed to have put into the soil to foster growth was nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or our old fiends N-P-K. This became the NPK mentality that largely hangs on to this day and has so misdirected agriculture. Early results from applying synthetic N, P and K fertilizers admittedly produced some spectacular results, and seemed to confirm Liebig’s claim, which came to be a Big Lie.

Liebig refused to believe that microbes had anything to do with brewing beer or making cheese, or affecting soils and crop growth. To his credit, though, Liebig propounded the Law of The Minimum, which held that plant growth was limited by the nutrient in least supply compared to the plant’s overall needs. That theory or law is still scientifically valid.

It was a long while before any other nutrient elements were identified, and the list grew from 3 to 5 to 10, not so long ago. Now it’s up to 19 or possibly 20 elements known to be required by most plants, with 3 being carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Those 3 are seen as free and given, and so mostly are disregarded in the formulation of fertilizer materials and blends.

What has happened as a result of the simplistic NPK focus in conventional chemical agriculture and its application, plus liming (for pH control) over the decades has been an overdosing of those few elements, while plants or crops were pulling the other dozen or so, mostly trace minerals, out of the soil and exhausting them. The resultant nutrient imbalance tended to destroy microlife, harden the soils, and cause an ever-growing inefficiency, requiring more energy and more NPK to whip the plants into producing, and thus giving rise to ever- greater pest and disease problems, and thus application of ever-more powerful chemical pesticides. Along the way, nutritional content and complete proteins in crops plummeted, while degenerative metabolic diseases in people skyrocketed. And don’t think the NPK mentality was absent from organic farming and gardening, because it wasn’t and it isn’t.

We still have what amounts to the modern day humus or organic matter-does-all theory, and a widespread, almost willful, ignorance of the role of nutrient minerals in nourishing microbes, plants, animals and people. Nutrient density and real nutritional health is where it’s at and where we need to go. A new mineral mantra, rather than a singular organic matter obsession is what’s called for. Likewise, we are being fed a great deal of diet and nutritional misinformation that needs to get straightened out. For that I advise reading Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price and Nourishing Traditions by Fallon and Enig.

About now, you may be coming to the realization that this is not really about nutrient management for fertilizers, or even about food – – – it’s about you and about your health and your future. You may think that since you are young, you don’t need to pay attention to this, but middle and old age come fast and you have to plan for them and get on the right, nutritionally-correct, course before it gets to be difficult to direct where you will end up. Don’t go to the hospital, the food is lousy.

I point out to people who think it is too difficult or unnecessary, or too expensive, to fertilize and mineralize correctly, that you can pay now, or pay the hospital and doctors later. I can recall when deaths from hospitals, drugs and doctor’s errors was ranked 8th in total cause of deaths in the U.S. It’s now up to 3rd. This is not about a college credit, it’s about the quality of your life and future, and we all need to get it right. Read, study, discern, internalize, personalize and apply. Nothing is more important than this subject; nutrition rules! It all begins in the soil. Thanks for your attention. GK

© 2012 Gary L. Kline

All Rights Reserved

Black Lake Organic
4711 Black Lake Blvd. S.W.
Olympia, WA 98512