"As an agronomist, a central question for me is always: what is soil?", Simon Neufeld, Chief Agronomist, Earth Alive Clean Technologies tells us. "Some people believe it’s just the stuff that holds roots in place. Others think of it as a nutrient storehouse and supplier. In fact, soil is a complete ecosystem teeming with life, most of which is too small to see with the naked eye. Just one teaspoon of soil contains more bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes than there are people living on the entire planet. All those microbes are living and dying, hunting and being hunted, eating and being eaten, in a complex network of relationships called the Soil Food Web."
Simon explains how plants have evolved over millions of years in partnership with the Soil Food Web. "Plants help their microbial partners by providing specialized foods for them to eat, and microbes in the Soil Food Web assist plants by doing things like liberating and mobilizing nutrients in the soil. You may have heard about the “gut microbiome” in the human digestive system: it represents the populations of microbes we require for properly digesting our food. In the same way, the Soil Food Web can be considered the “root microbiome.”"
"Of course, the realities of commercial crop production are a far cry from the natural ecosystems within which plants and microbes evolved. Monocultures keep plant diversity to a minimum, synthetic fertilizers maintain soil nutrition in concentrated forms, and greenhouses allow growers incredible control over climatic conditions like temperature, watering quantity and frequency, and even exposure to sunlight. And in the most controlled growing conditions, even the soil is replaced with “inert” materials like rockwool, peat, and coconut fiber."
"Plants grown in these controlled environments can thrive, but their full genetic potential may not be achieved without the assistance of a vigorous Soil Food Web to support it", Simon continues.
"It may seem daunting to think about how to promote soil biology in a greenhouse production setting, especially when soil might not even be involved. But new tools and techniques are making it as straight-forward as any other fertilizer growers are already using."
That's why for example, Earth Alive Clean Technologies Inc. developed and manufactures a biofertilizer called Soil Activator™. It contains three strains of beneficial bacteria that solubilize phosphorus, fix nitrogen, and improve the availability of other macro- and micronutrients. The microbes in Soil Activator were selected for their range of modes of action, as well as their ability to thrive in all types of soil and soilless media.
Soil Activator is formulated as a wettable powder, making it possible to apply with most conventional sprayer and irrigation equipment. The microbes only need to be applied once per cropping cycle: once added to the substrate, the bacteria activate and begin multiplying through the root zone. Once established, they can maintain their populations as long as they have access to moisture, oxygen, and some roots to provide them with food.
Simon explains how, in some ways, growers working with soilless media have the most to gain from the benefits of the Soil Food Web, since their substrates do not come with a large supply of “native biology”. "We’ve seen this at Earth Alive first hand", Simon shows. "In Latin America, greenhouse producers often grow crops in soilless media such as rice hulls, and their results using Soil Activator have been excellent in a range of vegetable crops. One greenhouse grower saw tomato plant heights increased by up to 35% when using microbials. Another saw tomato yield boosted by 20-50%. A basil grower in Colombia saw productivity increased by 24%."
Medical cannabis is another crop usually grown in soilless media. "A licensed producer in Canada that grows in coconut husk ran a side-by-side test using some of Earth Alive’s microbial biofertilizer. The comparison was striking, with treated plants growing bigger and greener, and the final yield exceeding the untreated plants by over 30%. Medical cannabis growers have also seen improvements in product quality, indicating that plants are improving their micronutrient uptake as well."
Earth Alive’s business is centered around the conviction that productive and vigorous plant growth must start with the soil. "Everything we do is built on what we call our Soil First Platform. This commitment extends into the wider agricultural and horticultural community. For example, this year we partnered with DocTerre and the students in the Horticulture program at École Professionnelle de Saint-Hyacinthe, in Saint-Hyacinthe Quebec, to study the effect of microbial inoculation on the productivity of tomatoes and peppers."
Students treated the vegetable plants with Soil Activator, and compared growth and production to peppers and tomatoes grown without it. "What they discovered was that the inoculated soil produced plants with large, deep green leaves, compared to smaller and lighter leaves in the untreated plants. Treated plants were also more consistent in terms of vigor, color, and fruit size, while the untreated plants were of varying heights and color indicating inconsistent nutritional status. Leaves on the treated plants also remained green longer, while the lower leaves on the control plants began senescing earlier."
Overall, students were impressed by the visible difference between the plants that had been treated with beneficial bacteria and the plants that were not. "And the differences carried through to the final harvest, with both the peppers and tomatoes having better flavour profiles when grown with inoculant compared to the untreated controls."
Simon concludes his results. "Humans have been growing plants for thousands of years. For most of our history, we haven’t had tools to do more than manage the physical aspects of the soil – fix drainage, prepare a good seedbed. In the last century we’ve developed and discovered tools that allow us to manage the chemical aspects of the soil – for example by adding fertilizers that directly increase nutrient uptake by plants. Now we find ourselves at the dawn of a new era, where biology will become the primary management concern for crop production. New and innovative technologies and tools will allow growers to rebuild a vibrant Soil Food Web, to re-establish the vital relationship between plants and their evolutionary microbial helpers, and to do all this even in controlled greenhouse environments, without any soil to be found."