This interview series has proven popular, so we may continue from time to time until Rob exhausts his questions or Graeme struggles for eloquent responses. That may take a while, so strap yourselves in my friends, as this may be a long ride.
In this week’s interview we discover the vast potential of beneficial anaerobes – in our gut, in the soil, on the plant, in the animal and as an extractive medium for protective herbal brews.
Rob: I thought we might focus on microbes this time around. Let’s talk about beneficial microorganisms in the soil, on the plant, and in our body. You have become increasingly fascinated with beneficial anaerobes in recent years. What do you find so exciting about these guys?
Graeme: Many years back during a National tour involving Jerry Brunetti, Gary Zimmer and myself, Jerry allocated a full 60-minute segment to the potential of beneficial anaerobes. As always, he was ahead of the game. Jerry was a major mentor, and his book, The Farm as Ecosystem, remains one of my all-time favorites. These anaerobes offer such a diverse range of benefits, it is hard not to get excited.
Rob: I understand they can fast-track composting. How does this work?
Graeme: A standard aerobic composting process takes between three and six months, depending upon whether it involves windrows or static piles. Windrows are the 12-week option, but I often wonder if anyone has researched the carbon footprint of this approach. There are many turnings involved, each of which oxidises some of the carbon component. There is considerable diesel required, and the other two greenhouse gases, nitrous oxide and methane, are also released with each turning. There is also more water involved due to the dehydrating effect of the repeated turning, and this may sponsor more vaporisation and leaching. This must impact the relative value of the end-product. It may well be that there is little net carbon gain at the end of this process. I sometimes wonder if researchers are too scared to check.
Rob: Wow! That’s a bit controversial. However, even if you’re right, the biodiversity from the added compost can trigger much more carbon building than what you have actually applied. Doesn’t that compensate?
Graeme: Yes, it certainly helps. In one US study involving the addition of just one tonne of compost per acre, over three years, there was an average increase of 1.35% humus in the top six inches of soil. The amount of carbon applied as compost should technically have only lifted organic matter by 0.15%. There was nine times more carbon created, because the biodiversity in the compost helped reclaim the soil’s humus-building capacity.
Rob: Compost is a hugely important humus-building tool in these desperate times. However, if we are comparing windrow to static pile composting, isn’t the static model less disruptive and maybe more productive?
Graeme: In my opinion it is. The constant turning with the window model can compromise the beneficial fungi. It takes twice the time with static piles, but once you have some piles decomposing, it is only really the first three months that you lose. Then you have an ongoing supply, as the various compost heaps ripen. My favorite approach involves aerated static piles. This requires enclosed fans that can suck or blow. They are attached to lines of 100 mL drainage pipes that lie beneath the compost. The fans use minimum power and they can be programmed to alternately suck or blow, to provide complete aeration management of the pile. There is none of slicing and dicing of the fungal component associated with windrow composting, so the end product is typically fungal-dominated. Most of our farming soils are lacking fungi, so this is the better outcome. Fungi create the stable carbon that lasts for a minimum of 35 years in our soils (removed from the atmosphere), so these creatures are major players in countering climate change.
Rob: Where do the anaerobes fit?
Graeme: The average conversion rate for both static and windrow composting is 670 kg of compost per 1 tonne of raw materials. Anaerobic composting can produce an average of 910 kg per tonne. That’s over 20% more productivity. The pile is never turned, so there is no loss of the off-gassing volatiles, much less water required and no biological disruption. The whole process takes just 8 weeks, so you produce more compost, with much less effort, in less time and with a far smaller carbon footprint.
Rob: That sounds like an impressive option, but surely there are some downsides?
Graeme: I can’t really think of any negatives here. The only cost consideration is the large tarp or silage cover that is needed to create anaerobic conditions. You can minimise this by building the composting pad into the side of a hill. Then you just need a cover large enough for the top and the front of the heap. The compost end-product, packed with these beneficial anaerobes, smells sweet, stimulates growth, and can be a great contribution towards creating a disease-suppressive soil.
Rob: Can you describe how to build an anaerobic heap?
Graeme: Actually, you set up the pile in layers, just as you would for an aerobic heap. In both strategies, you typically begin with the brown, or carbon layer. On my farms, we use single-ground, green waste from the council. It is a very low-cost, carbon-rich material. We build the first layer about 30 cm thick and then apply the additives and water. The additions might include highly paramagnetic crusher dust at 6%, a friable clay-based soil at 6%, some fine lime, some previous compost, 6% zeolite and the anaerobe inoculum. Then, we add the green or nitrogen layer. This would typically involve a combination of animal manure and fresh green material. At Nutrition Farms we used a nitrogen-rich pond weed, harvested with the excavator from the dams, along with a cane like grass that grows rampant in some areas of the farm. This is mixed with cow manure. Chicken manure is a cheaper option but it is only viable when phosphate is required.
Rob: I understand that you have fallen victim to your own cautions, by overdoing phosphate with composted chicken manure.
Graeme: Thanks for reminding me mate, hehe! It was a silly mistake, but it is all a learning experience, so there are never regrets. In fact, it made me aware of just how quickly you can build P levels with composted chicken manure. It is a much more cost-effective option than MAP/DAP or Super Phosphate, and it brings so much more to the table. We began the P nutrition journey on my farms with just 15 ppm of phosphate measured in the soil. I figured it would take several years to lift the P component to the luxury rate of 70 ppm, and I was pleased with the prospect of gradually building P levels with inexpensive, composted chicken manure. Chicken manure features the highest P levels of any animal waste. However, within just two years, our soil tests revealed an overdose of P, where the average soil reading was now 150 ppm. Now, the excess P is compromising uptake of iron and zinc, but as importantly, we are now forced to use cow manure as the manure base in our compost, and this input is five times more expensive.
Rob: I have previously heard you question the fact that chicken manure is available for as little as $20 per tonne, delivered. You see that as a potential lack of business acumen amongst growers, because they are not sitting down with a calculator and figuring what they are getting for that $20 investment. It is a crazy bargain, and the fact that it remains accessible at such a low cost suggests that growers are not truly evaluating this material. Can you elaborate upon this concern?
Graeme: Yes, certainly. Let’s assume that we could source a good quality chicken manure with minimum sawdust component. We might be looking at an analysis of 3% N, 2% P, 2% K, 4% S, 7% Ca, and then there are the trace minerals, microbes and carbon component. If we analyse the value of just these five key minerals, it might look like this. For every 1 tonne of chicken manure you would have: 3% N is 30 kg of N, which is equivalent to around 65 kg of urea. That is a value of $33. 2% P is 20 kg of P. DAP contains just 20% P, so this is the equivalent P found in 100 kg of DAP. That is a value of at least another $80. 2% K is equivalent to 45 kg of potassium sulfate valued at another $60. 4% S is 40 kg of elemental sulfur, valued at $30, while the calcium component is another $10. We are looking at a net value of over $200 per tonne, before factoring in carbon, trace minerals and microbes. How come it is available at less than 10% of its true value? I suspect that people are often not sitting down and calculating the true value.
Rob: And it builds phosphate so effectively. I just got my soil test results back this week and the composted chicken manure has boosted P levels considerably. Why are you adding crusher dust? I know the answer but our readers might not.
Graeme: Paramagnetism has been shown to dramatically boost biological activity. I was lucky enough to conduct one of the last major interviews with Professor Phil Callahan, before Alzheimer’s began to take its toll. He explained the prelude to his major discovery of the role of paramagnetic stimulation in the soil. Phil had been trying to understand why volcanic soils were always the most productive of any soils. He could mirror every parameter of a volcanic soil in terms of sand, silt, clay, humus and minerals, but the original volcanic soil would always outproduce the copy. His breakthrough came during a visit to Easter Island.
He was standing amidst the huge granite statues that adorn the Island’s foreshore, when the tour guide mentioned that the local farmers have a ballot system determining who can graze around the statues at any given time. Phil looked at the fertilised pastures surrounding this open, public area and wondered why on earth the farmers were lining up to graze on areas that had no applied nutrition. He has been part of the biological movement since the start, so he pulled his refractometer from his carry bag and compared brix levels of the fertilised pastures, compared to the grass around the stone monoliths. The brix levels of the pastures averaged 7 degrees, compared to 19 degrees around the statues.
Rob: That’s a big difference and it reflects an innate fertility coming from somewhere.
Graeme: Yes, granite is a highly paramagnetic material, as is basaltic rock. Phil was then able to postulate, then prove, that volcanic materials could attract energy from the atmosphere, much like an antenna. He theorised that this energy source was Extra Long Frequency (ELF) radio waves, that had originally been derived from the thousands of lightning bolts exploding, every 60 minutes across the globe. These electrical bursts are converted into more stable energy, in the form of these particular radio waves. He postulated that volcanic materials could convert that energy into tiny light particles, called biophotons, that would effectively provide light energy to stimulate the roots and the surrounding soil life.
Rob: That’s a pretty wild theory. How on earth could he prove something like this?
Graeme: He decided to visit the laboratory of Professor Fritz Popp in Germany. This was the man who originally identified these light particles, and he possessed the equipment that could measure biophoton emissions. Fritz was a little perplexed when this American professor arrived with a handful of basalt stones and asked that he measure their emissions. He was amazed when the paramagnetic rocks emitted 4000 biophotons per microsecond. Phil was delighted. His theory had effectively been proven.
However, in his hotel room that evening he began wondering why the addition of basalt rock dust to compost appeared to activate and improve the decomposition rate. He went down to a local hardware store, bought a hammer and crushed up some of his stones. He bought a bag of local compost and added that dust to the compost. Next morning he returned to the Popp lab and asked that Fritz check the compost for biophoton emissions. He discovered that 4000 biophotons had now become 400,000 tiny light particles per microsecond. Now he understood why the addition of crusher dust boosted compost. The light stimulation has since been shown to enhance biological activity in compost up to 3-fold. Now you know why we add 6% crusher dust to our compost.
Rob: I understand that, back in the days of a flourishing dairy industry in this region (before deregulation), local dairy farmers used to source basalt crusher dust from Moy Pocket Blue Minerals, a quarry near Kenilworth, and apply it to their pastures with great results. They thought that they were benefiting from the minerals in the rock dust, but it was probably the paramagnetic effect.
Graeme: Yes, I think you are right. The crusher dust would need to be micronised to release minerals in the short term. In one of Phil’s papers he showed a trebling of nodulation on legumes treated with paramagnetic materials. That would probably explain that pasture response. We use that Moy Pocket material on my farms. It is one of the most highly paramagnetic materials available locally and it is less than $20 per tonne.
Rob: How do you know which source is best? How is it measured?
Graeme: Phil invented a great little machine called the PCSM meter. It measures the paramagnetism of any material. It is pretty much like a fertility meter, because the higher your soil reading, the more productive that soil.
The machine measures CGS, which is the Centimeters per Gram per Second that a material moves toward a magnet. Paramagnetism is essentially a low level form of magnetism. We find that a crusher dust must have a reading higher than 1600 CGS to be of value. The level of paramagnetism appears to be related to the depth of the original magma when it was erupted from the bowels of the earth. The deeper materials are the most highly paramagnetic, so not all basalts are highly paramagnetic. However, there are quarries in NSW that measure over 6000 CGS, which sell for less than $20 per tonne, so they are a great bargain for food producers.
Rob: Returning to your compost recipe, why are you adding 6% of a clay-based soil in the mix?
Graeme: Yes, I need to clarify that recipe. We add that same group of additions to both the carbon and nitrogen layers. The pile is built in layers because that provides the opportunity to add the inoculum to each layer. It is also critical that you thoroughly wet down each layer, to ensure sufficient moisture throughout. This added moisture will also help transport the added microbes throughout each layer. When the layer cake is complete, we then mix the whole thing together with an excavator or loader, before covering it with the tarp. We hold down the tarp with concrete blocks attached to each other with ropes to create a web network so that no oxygen can enter. There is no further turning required. 8 weeks later you will have a beautiful compost.
I forgot to answer your clay question. That additive is based upon the work of Ziegfried Lubke, the Austrian compost expert. He determined that the 6% clay component allows the formation of a clay humus crumb, which stabilises the humus you have created. Stable humus, created in this manner, lasts for 35 years in the soil, in comparison to bacterial humus with a shelf-life of around 12 months. This is critical from a global warming perspective. If we can hold the carbon in the soil for longer, we keep it from thickening the blanket, trapping the heat and changing our world.
Rob: Sounds like a good reason to add a little clay to the mix. Compost boosts the number and diversity of good guys in the root zone (or rhizosphere). The leaf surface is also smothered in beneficials, or at least it should be, if we haven’t killed them off with the chemicals. Is there a gain in boosting these beneficials with inoculums or stimulants?
Graeme: There most certainly is! The surface of the leaf (the phyllosphere) is an ocean of activity. Just as the plant exudes sugar from the roots, in a “give and you shall receive” relationship with soil life, there are also sweet exudates produced to encourage life on the leaf. These leaf-dwelling organisms can protect from disease and fix nitrogen directly from the atmosphere into the plant. One of our more exciting microbials, Nutri-Life Bio-Plex™, does exactly this. It can provide supplementary nitrogen, when foliar sprayed, at just a few hundred mL per hectare.
Rob: Yes, I have used it. It is really effective on a nitrogen-hungry crop, like corn. Why is it that you always push for the inclusion of some nutrition with every foliar application involving microbials?
Graeme: I guess I can sometimes be a bit of a pushy bastard but, in this case, there is good reason. When we apply nutrition to the leaf, we are targeting the underside of the leaf that houses the thousands of stomata. These are the tiny pores through which the plant sucks up CO2 for photosynthesis. They can also provide a direct entry point, to fast-track the delivery of nutrients. Stomata can be stimulated to open up to seven times larger and that open mouth obviously absorbs more nutrition.
Rob: And how do we get those little mouths agape?
Graeme: There are three key factors that influence stomatal opening. The first of them is potassium. Potassium deficiency compromises stomatal efficiency and reduces access to CO2 for photosynthesis. There are other prices to pay when you neglect the “money mineral”. You will struggle to size up your seed and fruit, and stem strength will suffer.
The second factor is fascinating, because it reflects the wondrous, interrelated dynamics of Nature. Rachel Carson wrote a best-seller called A Silent Spring, which chronicled the loss of birds associated with the widespread use of DDT. It was noted, during that time, that regions where the birds had disappeared seemed to be less productive. At first, this yield decline remained a mystery, and then it was recognised that the frequency of birdsong, during the dawn chorus, triggers the opening of the stomata. The plant drinks a little dew, laced with dust, containing soil minerals. In the absence of this bird-sponsored, morning snack, yield was compromised.
Rob: Wouldn’t that make the early morning the best time to foliar spray?
Graeme: You nailed it! It is always best to work in with that natural cycle. Foliar spraying at dusk, or in the evening, can also be effective though, because the nutrition will be there in the dew in time for that morning feeding time.
The third stimulus for stomatal opening is CO2. After all, that is the purpose of those little mouths. A sudden influx of CO2 triggers stomatal opening. When you spray out several hundred litres of compost tea, or any microbial, there are trillions of organisms per litre breathing out CO2. The plant thinks "you beauty!" and opens to receive. If you always combine the nutrients needed at that time with your compost tea or inoculum, you will maximise nutrient uptake.
Rob: That’s a pretty cool concept. How much will uptake be increased?
Graeme: I am not aware of any published research on this, but from what I have observed, I would guess that it is substantial. If you needed to foliar spray 4 litres of chelated zinc per hectare, for example, to counter the antagonist effect of an overdose of phosphorus, I am thinking that one litre per hectare would do the job, if it was combined with a compost tea or microbial spray.
Rob: That’s impressive! A 75% saving is no small thing. We have a vast community of good bugs living around the roots and on the leaf surface. Is there any gain in feeding or stimulating the life on the leaf?
Graeme: Yes, there is. I often wonder how much of the benefit associated with foliar applications of fulvic acid is linked to stimulation of leaf life. Fulvic is such a powerful biostimulant of bacteria, and these creatures tend to dominate the phyllosphere. You would imagine that both nitrogen fixation and resilience would both be increased.
Milk powder is a powerful controller of powdery mildew. In fact, it outperformed the fungicides in one South American study. I suspect that the milk powder may be feeding up the Lactobacillus found on all leaf surfaces, and they may be partially responsible for disease control.
Rob: The same thing may be happening when milk is combined with BAM. It certainly seems to boost the performance of that Lactobacillus-based biological. Let’s talk a little more about beneficial anaerobes. When we listen to people like Dr Elaine Ingram, we tend to think of anaerobes as the undesirables. Many of the pathogens can thrive when oxygen is lacking. Can you enlighten us about the beneficial anaerobes?
Graeme: Beneficial anaerobes, like Lactobacillus, have been used to stabilise and store food for centuries. We now understand that these organisms can dramatically magnify the nutritional value of the food they ferment. In fact, it is suggested that all nutrients in fermented food are five-fold more effective. However, these organisms are also found in large numbers on all plant surfaces, and in our soils.There are no accidents in the perfect blueprint called Nature. When we examine the roles of these creatures more closely, we soon learn that they can form a consortium of beneficial anaerobes in the soil, and provide many of the similar benefits provided by the aerobic good guys. There are organisms called Purple Non Sulfur Bacteria (PNSB) that can photosynthesise, just like algae. They can provide glucose for other soil foodweb inhabitants and they can also fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. There are fermenting fungi and Actinomycetes that can team with multiple strains of Lactobacillus to protect from disease, create humus, deliver minerals and stimulate aerobic organisms. We have seen some wonderful results around the world with Nutri-Life BAM™, our blend of over 80 different anaerobes. Many of these organisms are actually facultative organisms, which means they can also perform many functions in the presence of oxygen. For example, BAM™ can be sprayed onto stubble to speed the breakdown and associated humus conversion. This is obviously an aerobic function.
Rob: Can’t they also be used to extract the actives from herbs, to create your own bio-control tools and plant growth stimulants?
Graeme: Yes, this is the exciting new potential of these kinds of inoculums. Many Asian countries have discovered the benefits of these blends in the soils and as crop protectants. However, the idea of using them to extract the actives from herbs is relatively new. There is a progressive group of Indian agronomists, working with table grapes on a large scale, who are pioneering some productive combinations.
Rob: Can you share any of their recipes and their functions!
Graeme: I could, but then I would have to shoot you! No, I am just joking. You know I am happy to share everything. These recipes involve common, easily sourced ingredients, and they should prove of great value to growers seeking to reduce reliance upon chemicals. We actually teach some of them during the five-day course, where we spend a day on my farm learning practical skills. Here is a recipe that can be used to control both insects and fungi, while also stimulating plant growth and resilience. It is often called “The Ten Leaf Formula” in India.
Ten Leaf Recipe for 200 Litres
Roughly chop up the following herbs and add them to a 200 litre drum:
2 kg of custard apple leaves
2 kg of quince leaves
2 kg of pawpaw leaves
2 kg of Tasmanian Blue Gum leaves
2 kg of lantana leaves
2 kg of castor oil plant leaves (seeds can also be of value)
1 kg of chilli fruit (the hotter the better)
250 grams of turmeric powder. Curcu-Life™ from Nutrition Farms is the best local source.
1 kg of ginger rhizomes
1 kg of garlic bulbs
Also include 2 litres of molasses, 30 litres of BAM™ and 150 litres of clean water.
Seal the drum and fit the lid with an airlock vent sourced from a beer brewing shop. Then leave standing for several weeks
When the pH has dropped down to pH 3.5, there is sufficient lactic acid accumulated to signal the end of the brewing process.
Rob: Do any of these herbs have specialist functions?
Graeme: Together they create plant growth stimulation, but they also discourage insects and counter disease. Chilli and garlic have long been used to counter sap sucking insects and caterpillars. Lantana is very effective against leaf miner. Castor oil plant leaves can reputedly counter aphids, weevils and caterpillars. Turmeric is a generalist and the gum leaves apparently control jassids, aphids and scale.
Rob: Thanks for sharing mate. This time you are fresh home from your five-day event in Bali. How did it go?
Graeme: It was really memorable. I was impressed with this part of Bali. It is really like a half-price Hawaii, but with more relaxed locals and better food. It was a bit of a gamble to personally organise an offshore five-day course, as we have never done this before and we really didn’t know what to expect. However, there were attendees from several countries and they were a great bunch. There is something special about a group of like-minded souls being cooped up in the same hotel on an island. We all dined out together every evening and there was some really productive networking and bonding. In fact, I suspect that many of the students will be friends for years to come. My only other experience of something like this was a four-day course we held on Norfolk Island, several years back. I am still friends with many whom attended that particular event. We will definitely repeat the Bali five-day course next year. In fact, several participants have already notified us that they intend to return to repeat the Bali course next year, and they intend to bring some friends.