Assessing Soil Health on your Farm with a Microscope, April 21

Press release from Living Web Farms: 

As organic farming soars in popularity, and both growers and consumers become more aware of the impact of food and agriculture on human health, techniques and philosophies abound for growing food in a way that focuses on the soil. “Feed the soil, not the plant” is an axiom well-circulated in organic farming and gardening circles, but often, growers can’t really tell how the soil is doing, except by looking at plants. And if something goes wrong, even organic farmers are often reacting to the problem by then treating plants according to their symptoms. How can a farmer or gardener know how to feed the soil, when you often can’t see what’s inside of it?

“There are some markers of healthy soil that we can see with the naked eye. For
example- good dark chocolate color, or a crumbly, aerated texture”, says Living Web Farms’ Meredith Leigh, who spends time coordinating education and herding sheep,but also looking really closely at soils. She adds, “But the really juicy aspects of how the soil is doing are actually invisible to the naked eye.”

She is speaking of microorganisms, sometimes up to a billion in a few pinches of healthy soil, and for the past four years, she has been peeking in on their world, through the lens of a microscope. Using the methodology of world-renowned soil scientist Dr. Elaine Ingham, Leigh can sample soils, compost teas, and even the brine in her sauerkraut jar to see what life abides there. “It is by far the most exciting and most fascinating thing about my work,” she says. “Mostly, I feel like its none of my business, but looking in and seeing what organisms are present help me quickly assess the health of a system, and inform management decisions,” she says.

On April 21st, 2018, Leigh will facilitate a workshop with local farmers and
gardeners at Living Web Farms, in which she will assess samples in real time,
allowing class participants to view the life underfoot in their own gardens, while also learning from looking at a range of soil types. The process will mostly be qualitative, in other words, “getting a sense of whether you have a dynamic food web in your soil, which would be a good thing—or if you are lacking components of a system that will allow your soil to thrive.” The microscope can give participants a sense of how their management is informing impacts above ground. For example, Will there be weeds? Will the plants get enough minerals? Will diseases be a problem in the garden?

Attendees will look at past samples Leigh has captured that show markers of both good and bad soil health, and some will get a chance to have their soil viewed and assessed. The number of samples from students is limited to 10, and will be on a first come first served basis.

Regardless of whether participants bring soil, there will be a lot to learn from looking at the samples provided, and the samples from neighboring farmers. Leigh, as well as other farm staff will be on hand to recommend management practices to ameliorate lagging soils, and to encourage continued soil health.

For growers who don’t have a microscope this will be a very informative class, Leigh assures. “Ingham’s methods have been the single best tool we have at Living Web Farms to immediately inform management decisions. I am looking forward to sharing that with the larger community.”

To register for Assessing Soil Health Using a Microscope, visit:

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