Interest in soil microbes seems to be skyrocketing, and not just from organic farmers.
Internationally recognised soil scientist Dr Christine Jones travels the world giving talks on the benefits of the microscopic organisms and how they can help improve the quality of your crop — whether it be on the farm or in the garden.
She said with healthy soil biology, plants have been shown to become more resilient to frosts and diseases.
In addition, soil becomes less susceptible to weeds and it ends up costing less for the farmer or gardener without the added costs of inputs.
Dr Jones, who has been studying microbes and giving talks for 40 years, said over the past two years interest had gone through the roof.
“We’re seeing more and more big crowds coming to field days,” she said.
“Something that you would have had 20 people come along to in New South Wales is now getting something like 200.”
She believes this is a result of consumers becoming more aware of their food.
“Children’s health is just abysmal now,” she said.
“You can feed your kids with good food and find they’re still having health issues, so people are getting concerned with that.”
So what are they?
Soil microbes have been described by some as the ‘probiotics’ of the plant world.
A telescopic lens view shows new fibres of the plant root feeding off healthy soil. (Supplied: Phil Lee)
They are microscopic organisms that live in healthy soils and help with decomposition of organic matter, but they also play a role in returning nutrients to their mineral forms so that plants can take them up again.
There are millions of different types such as nematodes, protozoa, fungi, and bacteria.
Microbes occur naturally in soils but Dr Jones said that as a result of modern day agriculture, a healthy selection of microbes was often absent, promoting the need for fertilisers and mineral applications to make up for the missing elements.
She said, ironically, it was those same mineral applications that discouraged microbes from living in the soil and according to her, increasing the diversity of microbes in soil improves the quality of a crop.
“If we have sufficient microbes there they will alter the gene expression of the plant so it is able to defend itself from insects and fungi,” Dr Jones said.
“It will be able to extract, through stimulating various microbes around its roots, the nutrients it needs.”
Local demand on the rise
The science of soil microbes has long been popular among organic farmers and biological farms, but it seems it is also now gaining traction among more conventional farmers.
Brent Burns runs his own organic compost business in Vasse, Western Australia, and said he had been overrun with orders for his ‘microbe-rich’ compost.
He then prepares customised liquid-compost applications for his customers.
Dr Jones says if plant roots are not sticking to the soil, it is an indication of unhealthy soil. (Supplied: Phil Lee)
When he first started the business eight years ago it was slow but he said over the last two years demand had picked up dramatically.
“We’ve been extremely, extremely busy,” Mr Burns said.
“We probably average between 20 to 30 per cent growth at the moment, which is probably five to 10 new customers a week.”
His customer base is very wide as well, servicing football clubs, organic farmers, conventional farmers, mine sites, and even golf courses.
More on-farm trial work needed
Planfarm consultant Paul Omedei works with many conventional and biological farmers and said there was certainly merit to the science of soil microbes.
“Farmers are the first among all of us to know that if they look after their soil, that’s where the productivity gains come in the future,” he said.
But he said the reason many farmers were not willing to try it was a lack of rigorous trial results showing it would be profitable, particularly in the first few years.
“Farmers are under continual price squeeze,” Mr Omedei said.
“I think the trial work [currently done] is very ad hoc in that you get demonstration trials that aren’t replicated, and there’s no rigour around the results.”
“If [a farmer] does a trial [themselves] over a 100 hectares and the trial doesn’t work and yields less then they’ve lost income.”