Producing Carbon-Rich Soils

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Imagine if someone invented machines that could pull carbon out of the atmosphere — machines that were incredibly inexpensive, autonomous, and solar powered, too. Wouldn’t that be great? Well, we already have these devices — they’re called plants.

Unfortunately, plants die, leaving us with the dilemma of how to lock away the carbon in dead plants so that it doesn’t just return to the atmosphere. The obvious answer is to put the carbon into the ground. For years, scientists have been urging farmers to leave their crop residue (stalks and leaves) on the ground, so it could be incorporated into the soil. The problem is that when farmers leave residue on a field it doesn’t always turn into carbon-rich soil because it doesn’t break down. In fact, the process can end up releasing more greenhouse gases than it locks away.

The way that soil locks up greenhouse gas has been frustratingly mysterious, but the basics are clear. After plants suck up the carbon, microbes and fungi and insects teeming in the topsoil chew up plant molecules, subjecting them to one chemical reaction after another as they pass through a fantastically complex food web. If everything goes right, the end result is microscopic bricks of stable carbon, which form the foundation of rich black soil.

Andaman Ag has been a consistent advocate of improving soil biology by increasing the microbial activity in the soil. The best way to get carbon into the ground is to take plant residue and turn it into microorganisms. To grow microorganisms you have to feed them or, more precisely, create an environment for accelerated expansion. How to do that? Well, there are certain elements that all creatures on earth need to build the bodies of the next generation: carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, oxygen, and hydrogen. These six elements are the basic ingredients of living organisms. Leaving plant residues on the fields provides carbon, and oxygen and hydrogen come easily from the air, but what’s still missing for the microbes is the nitrogen in a usable form, sulfur and phosphorus.  It’s also apparent that these nutrients must be in the right balance to produce a microbial population expansion.

Conventional farming inputs have been more about addressing just the plant than the entire ecosystem including the soil. Organic matter in the soil, the key to healthy soil, is made of microbes. All the microbes in 1 acre-foot of soil weight more than 2 cows. This helps explain why organic farms often capture more carbon than conventional farms.

Can you supplement the soil, for example, with synthetic nitrogen and get the same results? The answer is yes and no. Applying nitrogen by itself will not contribute to the nurturing of the microbiome, but if other nutrients can also be included in the right ratios then there can be success. The challenge is getting the right balance, and with organic nutrient inputs the ratios are much more likely to be in a natural state that’s correct from the start.

Building organic matter in the soil produces a plethora of benefits. In order to continue to build organic matter, we must keep in mind that there is an entire world under the ground that also flourishes with the right balance of nutrients. We’ve lost about half the organic matter in land we’ve been using for agriculture. Connecting the soil microbiome with the build-up of organic matter is best supported by an appropriate ratio and amount of nutrients.

The driving force behind Andaman Ag products is creating superior soil heath and crop production by applying combinations of products in the right proportions. Please contact me today to find out more about our approach to crop formulations.