Using the ordinary to cultivate the Mysterious power of Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms

Who wouldn’t he suspicious? Right from the get-go this workshop is promising cure-all concoctions that bring new life to everything they touch. The potions work in ways that are difficult to explain and impossible to actually see. The man conducting the affair is fast-talking and charismatic—he even lives in a far-off land. The whole thing smells like snake oil.

Here’s the catch: Gil Carandang, this crafty man from the Philippines, is not trying to sell us anything. In fact, he wants us to buy as little as possible—thats the point of this seminar. The lesson that’s officially on the agenda is the same as the event’s formal title:

“Cultivating Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms.” But what’s really being taught here, the true objective, is the empowerment of farmers.

By learning how to cultivate microorganisms. growers become able to meet their needs with what exists on the farm and can stop buying amendments from chemical companies (purveyors who, some might argue, are the real peddlers in modern farming). The technology was born of ingenuity, but it has spread by financial necessity, primarily among farmers in developing countries for whom agricultural chemicals are painfully expensive.

“This technology can reduce your costs by go to 50%,” Carandang says. “It sounds amazing, but that’s the percent most farmers spend on pesticides and fertilizer. On my farm, we have only two medicines: lacto bacillus and ginger-garlic extract. We make both ourselves.

Learning how to do that is what has drawn a sold-out crowd to this vegetable farm in Bolinas, California, for one of Carandang’s rare seminar in North America. ( The class covered both cultivating microorganisms are making fermented plant extracts. Only the former is discussed here.)

No hifalutin nonsense, just affordable techniques that work.

It’s a simple set-up, with chairs crammed into the burn and facing, a makeshift stage in the packing area. At center stage stand two folding tables. On them lie the unexpected tools of this fantastic technology: A box of generic brown sugar and a bulb of garlic. A quart of milk, a cutting board and some cooked white rice. A liter of the cheapest vodka in Claifornia, and a Miller High life tall boy.

Rodale Institute research spotlight

Ongoing research at the Rodale Institute sheds light on one important component of the soil community-myeorrrhizal fungi- and its impact on agricultural  production, Under the leadership of Dr. David Douds, a soil microbiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, field trials have shown yield gains of as much as 50% in the presence of healthy mycorrhizae populations. Now Douds is developing a practical, low cost method for on-farm production of mycorrhizal soil inoculants, promising higher yields with lower nutrient inputs.

He sounds like a crackpot, but in fact Carandang has studied farming all over the world, including as a Fulbright scholar. (He now farms fulltime back in the Philippines.) This odd display of unmagical ingredients is evidence not of a sham, but rather of his emphasis on making technology accessible. You see, discussions of beneficial microorganisms usually take one of two dangerous paths. People either get new age y with it and scare listeniners off, or (for fear of being called new age y) they legitimize the concept using complicated scientific formulas – to much the same effect. Carandang takes the middle road.

“In the Philippines, I’m usually teaching people who have never been to school, and they get it fine,” he says. “We don’t need no high-falutin’ nonsense around here.”

With today’s distinctly educated, Western crowd, the message doesn’t sink in immediately. Everyone is scribbling madly to keep up with Carandang’s patter, careful to not miss a word of the lesson. But as we are figuring out how to spell “hifalutin”, he catches us off-guard. “What matters here is that you understand the very essence of this idea. So stop taking notes, just listen.”

We lift our heads, and I realize that Carandang has been talking for an hour now and hasn’t touched a thing on the table. With an American teacher we would have photocopies of a syllabus and already be on section 2b. Instead, our teacher is circling around the subject, peeling off the outer layers of meaning, waxing on about the macrocosmic workings of Nature.

We don’t know it now, but this conceptual approach is essential to the practice we came to learn. Understanding the idea itself works as a sort of inoculant; without it, the act of Cultivating Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms is more or less useless.

“This is rather than just ‘Oh, let’s spray this, and put on this fertilizer every two weeks,” he says. “Instead, you just need to open your eyes and pay attention, slow down the process. The plant will talk back. Not literally, but it will always tell us what is wrong, what is deficient. How could you know what it needs if you haven’t paid attention?”

Growing soil, not plants: Building up the soil’s life and biodiversity.

Behind Carandang and the makeshift stage is an old forest so dense and tangled you can hardly make out its individual members. It turns out it is the perfect backdrop. Promoting health and growth are the objectives of this technology and the forest has both in spades-naturally. It’s because of its biodiversity.

We all know the biodiversity spiel: the more life a place supports, the more variation it has; that variation means competition, which regulates populations into healthy numbers. The more a place is allowed to be natural, the more it balances itself out.

Natural balance is not the goal of the farmer, his work being the cultivation of select members of the ecosystem. But again: single crops, tight geometry, and insects and weeds eliminated, altogether mean a sterile environment that can’t keep itself in check. But a farm with variegated fields and wild plants and insects that feed sparrows that feed hawks is one that begins to balance itself.

Now, few farmers import hawks to strengthen their farm ecosystems. You just can’t insert something that high up the food chain and expect it to survive. Instead, build the system that supports it, and the hawks will come on their own.

“It’s not all about NPK here,” Carandang says. “It’s not all about sun, air, et cetera, it’s all about all. It’s all about one, about a whole unit. The more you are able to understand this, the more you’ll be able to practice good farming.”

Rather than grow plants, Carandang advocates growing soil. Not multiplying dirt, but building up the soil’s life and diversity—that is the foundation of this system. And the building blocks are microorganisms, whose most essential work is to break down nutrients into forms that are accessible to plants and animals. Without them, the planet would be bare rock.

“There is a Chinese proverb that goes, ‘Add humility to intelligence, it becomes wisdom. Add passion or fire to wisdom, it becomes enlightenment,” Carandang says. “In soil fertility, it’s the same basis, that’s my opinion. It’s the fire that makes the living soil, and the fire is the microorganisms.”

This is the part where most of the world shakes its head. No amount of microorganisms could be as effective as bringing in a load of compost or spraying fungicides. They are too small to be powerful, too unfamiliar to be essential.

And yet farmers rely on them all the time. That pink dye on legume seed, for instance, is there to tell you the seed will fix nitrogen because it has been doused with the necessary inoculant—itself a beneficial microorganism. Anyone who has ever watched a compost heap steam has seen the strength of beneficial microorganisms, and anyone who has ever taken acidophilus recover from antibiotics felt them at work.

Any farmer who has suffered Phytopthera or Verticillium is familiar with microorganisms, but not the good kind Luckily, as Carandang explains, these pathogens comprise only three to five percent of all microbes. If it wre more he says, wed all be dead.

Plants and humans are protected from pathogens by diversity-it leads to competition, which prevents any single microbe from going out of control. In the forests, this diversity comes naturally as different plants and animals attract and support different microorganisms. But if you have , say, just grapes and cover crops planted, you’re not encouraging diversity, in fact you’re discouraging it. That is why you introduce microbes.


Source: MARID 2007,  Lisa Hamilton

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