Innovation Beneath Our Feet
The world’s soils are disappearing, which is why farmers are finding ways to work with beneficial bacteria to help crops and entire ecosystems thrive together.
Microbes are helping farmers regenerate the soil
Imagine losing twenty years of work in just a few days. It’s unfathomable, but this is precisely what happened to Australian farmer Robert Hinrichsen following a massive flood.
Hinrichsen’s company, Kalfresh, is one of Australia’s leading vegetable producers: a year-round business producing 1,400 hectares annually in the Queensland area. Since Hinrichsen and his father started the company in 1992, production thrived until Tropical Cyclone Oswald, which brought eight straight days of regional flooding. Over one-third of Kalfresh’s farmland was “catastrophically degraded,” he remembers. As Hinrichsen’ farm faced devastation, he realized the only solution formidable enough for such a large-scale restoration was right beneath his feet: microorganisms.
Surviving a farming nightmare
Kalfresh rebuilt its farmland through soil biology. Soil contains three components: the physical (the soil itself, composed of rock, sand, clay and/or silt), the chemical (mineral nutrients) and the biological (beneficial and pathogenic microorganisms). Hinrichsen transplanted physical soil to his land, then added fertilizers with chemical-based minerals. But soil biology must be developed and maintained, he explains: “The right microorganisms are vital for soil to be viable over the long-term and for crops to flourish in a given area.”
The countless varieties of beneficial bacteria that exist in soil perform many vital and complementary services to support healthy ecosystems, including farms.
Microorganisms support farmers by:
- Maintaining Soil Moisture and Fertility
- Helping Crops Absorb Vital Nutrients
- Preventing Soil Erosion
- Suppressing Plant Disease
- Sustainably Breaking Down Crop Protection
Power in numbers
Biodiversity is the foundation for all life on our planet—and soil is a hotspot for it. When properly managed, the dynamic and ever-changing interactions between organisms in the soil creates conditions in which crops—and entire ecosystems—can flourish.
To rebuild his farm, Hinrichsen added chicken manure-based microorganisms and sowed grain crops, which are less demanding on soil since they require lower mineral levels. He also produced specific crops like chickpeas, a crop that lives in symbiosis with nodule bacteria that improve nitrogen-poor soils and help maintain soil fertility. Finally, Hinrichsen was able to add biologic products with the bacteria genus Bacillus subtilis, which fixes nitrogen. “But no single process or product rebuilt the soil,” he adds.
For Hinrichsen, the revitalization of Kalfresh Farms wasn’t just a one-product, one-solution goal, but an ongoing effort that is revealing perpetual benefits for his operation. His evolving success stems from a dedicated balance between intensive land management practices and a healthy dose of help from the multitude of microorganisms he supported throughout his fields. And it’s this unique balance that offers a compelling case study for how farms around the globe can partner with microbes to save our world’s soils.
Life below our feet
Experts in soil and biologicals provide a crucial source of information and knowledge for farmers, whether they face immediate challenges or simply want to grow crops more sustainably. Dave Lanciault, the CEO of Agricen Sciences in Frisco, Texas, is fascinated by how stronger soil leads to more bountiful harvests. He explains that healthy soil is teeming with life forms that sustain it, whether it’s the community of microorganisms that already exist in the soil, or those that can be added to strengthen those communities.
Through his work with Agricen, Lanciault supports agricultural clients across a variety of soil and climate conditions worldwide. The challenges many farmers face are hyperlocal—and not always easy to recognize. For example, while a farmer’s soil may have nutrients present, they may not be accessible to plants due to the soil pH or other factors that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
That’s why Lanciault and his team develop biostimulant products that help farmers manage these conditions based on science fundamentals. For example, one of the most significant chemical processes on Earth is nitrogen fixation: a bacterial process which converts atmospheric nitrogen gas (N2) into a form usable by plants and other organisms. Biostimulant products, as well as practices aimed at promoting soil health, can enhance this process. The outcome, he confirms, is worth it. “We are talking about taking a long-term approach to managing the soil environment so it can sustain itself – and produce stronger, healthier crops.”
A broad perspective
Lanciault has a kindred spirit in Dr. Denise Manker, who helped found AgraQuest, a biotech company that created some of the first commercial microbial soil solutions. Today, Manker is a Senior Science Fellow in biologics at Bayer where she has been researching individual biologicals with proven soil benefits.
Manker is particularly excited by collaborations alongside her Australian and Brazilian colleagues, which are revealing spectacular benefits of diversifying soil microorganisms. She clarifies, "it’s not just harvest and general quality. These are healthier plants, born out of healthier soil." These crops also have a longer shelf life, she adds. "If you have produce that can naturally survive up to ten to 14 days, whereas in the past it might only survive for seven days, you’re reducing crop loss." And there’s additional good news. Manker elaborates that scientists are only just beginning to see how these healthy crops have higher levels of iron, calcium and other minerals.
For Manker, working with microbes leads to sustainable farming: "With biologicals, farmers, consumers and the environment benefit. We are really learning how to take care of the soil that is taking care of all of us."
Countless microbes—and possibilities
There’s no limit on what we can achieve by partnering with microorganisms. Farmers are healing their soil following natural disasters and positioning it to be more resilient in the future. Experts are understanding how microbes help plants harness and metabolize nutrients that would otherwise remain inaccessible to them. Innovators are developing microbial solutions that improve biodiversity and soil fertility for better harvest potential. Taken together, these partnerships are promising. And best of all, we’ve only just scratched the surface of what humanity can accomplish alongside our many microbial collaborators.