Photography by Jenny Stufflebeam
Editor's note: In Part I of Saving our Soil, Jeremy Walther introduced us to an unsung, oft-overlooked hero: the dirt beneath our feet. Years of abuse and neglect have rendered our soils weak, infertile, even dead. But redemption awaits via natural supplements, mindful farming and conscientious grazing practices. Find Part I of Saving our Soil by clicking here .
The effort to understand soil microbes is like investigating the existence of God. Invisible to the naked eye, microbes are a powerful force—the very life of soils. And though most agree that microbes exist, knowledge of their specific workings remains varied and largely unproven.
Luckily, Central Texas has a high concentration of “soil theologians” working in a variety of associated fields to plumb the microbe mystery—from landscape restoration and organic farming to permaculture and ranch management. In unique contexts, these folks rely on soil microbiology to restore sterile soils, produce better quality crops and meats, increase plant and wildlife diversity and provide sustainable solutions to the challenges of development and population growth.
“We have a classical understanding of the physical properties of soils: structure and organics,” says Steve Windhager, director of landscape restoration at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center . “We’re only beginning to explore how soil microbes contribute.”
Windhager, an environmental scientist, says the complex relationships between the life that makes up soil microbes—bacteria, fungi, microscopic animals and plants—are, as yet, incomprehensible and the variables too infinite to isolate. We simply don’t know what’s going on in there.
“Until we see peer-reviewed publications that document the why and how, we will always remain scientifically skeptical on all the theories of soil microbiology,” Windhager continues. “The good news is that, at this point, I don’t need to know those answers. By focusing on soil structure and organics, we’re supporting microbial communities to do what they do—however it is that they do it—and that alone is good enough to see positive results.” Windhager calls it the “Field of Dreams” hypothesis—deal with compaction issues and organic material in soils, and the microbes will come.
On the other end of the spectrum are folks like Gary Freeborg, previously with the legendary (but now closed) native- plant horticulture mecca, Lowrey Nursery, near Houston. Currently, he helps Central Texas landowners restore biodiversity by optimizing productivity of native plant communities through his Austin-based business, BioDiversity.
Though both Freeborg and Windhager agree that microbes are key, Freeborg actively and aggressively attempts to stimulate microbial processes. He tests soils to identify baseline conditions, then restores mineral balances and monitors the effects of nutrient, mineral and organic amendments. He transplants soil from downstream to upstream sites in an effort to reestablish the original microbial populations that have eroded away, and he adds appropriate native seeds and plants to help increase biodiversity. Natural contours and drainage patterns are preserved during the process to help build wetland pockets, and the whole effort is tied together with a good dose of reverence. Freeborg pauses often to extend gratitude to the land.
“We’ve got a pretty big toolbox to draw from for land and soil restoration,” Freeborg says. “But it’s always my goal to make that toolbox even bigger. Using a mix of proven and experimental or even spiritual techniques is important to success.”
Whether leaning toward a scientific, experimental or spiritual approach, organic farmers rely on the health of mighty microbes, too. At Angel Valley Organic Farms, a certified organic produce farm in Jonestown, owners Jo and John Dwyer have been supporting the microscopic bugs on five acres of land for the past 11 years. The Dwyers use what’s known in agricultural circles as “green manure”—a cover crop that’s grown after harvest and eventually plowed under and incorporated into the soil to support and restore balance. “We do the best we can to diversify our cover crops each season,” notes Jo.
That diversity improves the chances of success for a cover crop at the mercy of Texas weather. Sudan grass is a much better warm-season cover crop in drought-plagued summers than lablab, for example. A more appropriate cover crop for a particular weather pattern will eventually provide more organic material to soils when plowed under, which in turn provides more food for the microbes.
With the guidance of soil tests and close attention to yields and crop health, the Dwyers constantly tweak their feeding program, and apply OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute)-certified products to maintain proper nutrient balances. Combined with thoughtful tilling practices, this helps protect existing microbial populations and promote the development of healthy new ones.
The practice of mindful management and respect for natural balances is also the operational cornerstone for one of the most demonstrative efforts of land stewardship in Texas: the Bamberger Ranch Preserve. The 5,500-acre ranch in Johnson City, purchased by J. David Bamberger over 40 years ago, is consistently awarded for its conservation efforts by agencies like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Forest Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Sand County Foundation, among others.
By controlling soil erosion, reducing grazing pressures, removing invasive species and controlling woody plants, the Bamberger Ranch Preserve has slowly but surely restored and preserved ranch soils, which now support a higher diversity of native grasses than most other ranches in the region. Springs that had been dry for decades are flowing again through efforts to reclaim grasslands from the uncontrolled spread of ashe junipers. Despite the successes, though, they recognize they’re only scratching the surface.
“Even by sectioning the ranch into pastures that represent unique microregions, we just don’t have much time to spend directly monitoring or improving soil critter ecology,” says Steven Fulton, a biologist for the Ranch. “It’s taken 40 years just to stop the erosion and bring back grasses that were here before overgrazing. We’ll never be done, but we’re hoping to at least stabilize the effects of previous damage so we can slowly shift our focus and dig deeper. A better understanding of soil ecology is definitely on the long list of things we’d like to do here.”
Maybe substantial, scientific proof is too ambitious. There is no silver bullet we can apply to every ragged, abused, neglected piece of land that magically restores the balances that were in place generations ago. It could take a few generations to truly understand the intricate universe of microscopic soil communities. Or, if we’re lucky, maybe it will be the next generation of sustainable producers who will have the answers—growers like Brad Stufflebeam and his family, who own Home Sweet Farm in Brenham.
“Our land was used for monocultures of cotton and corn, before it was overgrazed,” Stufflebeam says. “Erosion cut a three-foot deep gulley down the side of what would be our future vegetable fields. By using cover crop rotations, molasses and other biostimulants, soil tests twice a year, rock powders, poultry manure and especially rotational animal grazing over the last five years, we’ve seen some remarkable improvements.”
“Deep fissures, which are so common in Central Texas, are almost nonexistent now, even with increasing drought,” Stufflebeam continues. “When it does rain, the soils come to life with evidence of worm activity drilling to the surface, along with a large population of dung beetles grazing with the livestock. When conditions are right, manure patties dissolve within hours.”
Stufflebeam actively tests principles and applications that can be replicated, always with a low budget in mind. “I do a lot of research and reading to find ways to best apply these principles in the most practical sense,” he says. “The goal of the farm is to become sustainable enough to produce our own fertilizers, which absolutely requires animals. We try to study the soil web of fungi, protozoa, bacteria and other soil life in science, but they are all connected. It really takes more observation than anything.”
In other words, our soil theologians will continue to meditate on the mysteries of agronomic divinity, and to seek wisdom by perfecting their craft. In the meantime, we’ll continue to reap the benefits of their efforts as they attempt to untangle the underground web of soil life, one season at a time.
For resources found in this article, visit wildflower.org/action, buildbiodiversity.com, angelvalleyfarms.com, bambergerranch.org, homesweetfarm.com