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Life from light – stimulating photosynthesis important for soil health

Soil health is directly related to the amount of nutrients found in our food according to Dr. Christine Jones an Australian soil ecologist.
Soil Health
Local producer, Neil Dennis, and Australian soil ecologist, Dr. Christine Jones, look at the soil aggregates, indicating healthy soil, attached to the roots of this specimen.

            Soil health is directly related to the amount of nutrients found in our food according to Dr. Christine Jones an Australian soil ecologist. Whether we're eating vegetables, fruit, or meat the nutrition levels of our foods have diminished over the years and it is up to those managing the land to find ways to improve soil health as a way to rectify this. Additionally, farming and ranching practices are said to be able to extract carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil.

            Although holistic management brings with it other benefits to those in agriculture, the two thoughts above help inspire farmers and ranchers who are environmentally conscious to pursue better land management, which will build up our soil that has slowly been depleting in nutrients over the years.

            Jones has been touring Canada to discuss these topics of restoring soil carbon and rebuilding topsoil after being contacted by Neil and Barbara Dennis of Sunnybrae Acres.

Opening speakers’ thoughts

            Speaking prior to Jones taking the podium Dave Pattyson with the Upper Souris Watershed provided a summary of information regarding the Farm Stewardship Program.

            Also speaking was local rancher, Blaine Hjertaas, from west of Redvers. Hjertaas, a holistic land manager, was there to talk about his practices and about Regenerative Agriculture in general.

            “Regenerative Agriculture is a system that builds soil, people, communities, and healthy food,” Hjertaas stated. “This [the land] is our grandkids heritage that we're playing with. We have to change, we have to build.”

            “Soil health and human health are the same thing; if the soil is crap our health is too and if the soil is good then our health is good.”

            Hjertaas explained that over the years our food has become nutrient deficient which correlates to our health with 30 percent of the population said to be obese, increased diabetes amongst the population, and early onset Alzheimers – what was once something that people suffered from in old age is now being found in people much younger.

            In order to improve soil health, add nutrients to foods, and become healthier, Hjertaas says it is essential for people in agriculture to understand and enhance life processes: energy flow, community dynamics, the water cycle, and the mineral cycle.

            Hjertaas also spoke of three holistic management success stories including a farm in Zimbabwe, one in North Dakota, and his own.

            “Neighbours now say I waste grass,” he said. “We have cattle and sheep on our operation and have been operating for 15 years, and I still have questions.”

            These questions have led Hjertaas to the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which is a compilation of satellite images from each year dating back to 2008 of Hjertaas’ homestead and the township surrounding it. The darker the green on the image the more photosynthesis is happening in that area annually.

            “Every year I've been ahead of the average of the township,” he said.

            Since the satellite imagery is a compilation of a year's worth of photos, Hjertaas' land was greener because he explained that his plants even in mid-December photosynthesizing for a short amount of time because it is still green: “It might only be for an hour out of the day, but they’re still photosynthesizing.”

            The additional vegetation which others say he is wasting is used as a blanket which insulates itself, while the bugs and processes in the soil because photosynthesis is feeding them gives off heat in return.

            By doing this and managing his land holistically, Hjertaas says, “I've gained a month of growing time and I'm still making my soil health better.”

            Hjertaas has also been monitoring carbon on his land. In 2011 there was 221.07 tonnes/hectare of carbon, while in 2014 there was 239.61 tonnes/hectare of carbon within his land. This means an increase of 6.18 tonnes/hectare of carbon/year, which translates to 22.88 tonnes of CO2 sequestered/hectare/year.

            “The key word is change,” Hjertaas stated. “It's a tough word for people, change. I had to change, to be different than my neighbours, which was difficult. But, I believe that we can put together the life processes correctly and it's unlimited what we can do.”

            “Why change? Because of them,” Hjertaas said as he showed a photo of his grandchildren. “This is their future, if we don't turn the land over in a better condition than we got it, then we are doomed as a society.”

Dr. Christine Jones

            “There is something fundamentally wrong with our food and this has been happening for quite a long time,” Jones said. “The nutritional value of today's food is lower than any point in history. You would need to eat twice as much meat, three times as much fruit, and four or five times as much vegetables to get the same amount of minerals as in 1940.”

            “You'd have to eat 10 times as many tomatoes today as one tomato about 50 years ago.”

            “If you were to take a prime piece of rump steak from the same kind of animal, at the same age, and under the same conditions now and 50 years ago it would only have half the amount of iron in it. So, it's things that we take for granted, we assume meat will have iron in it, we eat meat for iron, there's actually 54 percent less iron in it than it had 50 years ago.”

            Minerals including copper, zinc, manganese are also diminishing in our food according to Jones: “In some foods there is no longer any trace of copper. Copper is very important in our bodies because we have to transform compounds from one state to another, we need an enzyme – we need a whole lot of enzymes to make those transformations – and every single enzyme has a catalyst, and that catalyst in our bodies is often copper, or zinc, or manganese. These things have declined significantly to the point that the foods that were once high in zinc, there is absolutely none now.”

            “As we're going on our food is getting less and less nutrients in it.”

            Jones posed the question of why this was to those at the presentation with the answer being: “Bacteria and fungi are not functioning anymore to make those minerals available to the plants.”

            Essentially she says that fertilizers are blocking the natural symbiotic relationship of the plant and soil organisms.

            “The plant isn't asking the biology to interact anymore because we give the plant some nitrogen, we give it some phosphorous. Those are the main things it needs to grow, and it can grow on those things, it doesn't function effectively in terms of its immune system, but it can grow.”

            “We've taken away the plants job by putting on synthetic fertilizer, that's one of the things we've done. Tillage is another. Microbes in the soil go to an enormous amount of trouble to modify the soil environment, to make it favourable for them. They produce sticky substances that glue soil particles together in little lumps we call aggregates... If we were to come in and cultivate it, and cultivate it, and cultivate, we would come in and basically bust up their homes which makes it difficult for things that live in the soil to survive.”

            Healthy interaction of soil and plants is self regulating according to Jones, the plant can ask for up to 90 percent of what it needs through mycorrihzal fungi.

            “Mycorrihzal fungi can extend where plant roots can't,” Jones said. “They can bring water from 20 meters away. Have you ever seen trees growing in rocks without soil? That's because of a myorrihzal fungi interacting with the rock because they're incredibly efficient in getting minerals.”

            These are important biological pathways because a plant is stuck in one place for its entire life.

            “If we supply things like nitrogen and phosphorous to plants we actually take away their [the soil organisms'] job,” she said.

            “If the roots aren't signalling to the microbes to bring minerals to it and we shut off that pathway [with fertilizers] that communication doesn't happen.”

            So, how can soil be corrected by using the natural pathways of the soil biology and not simply treating a symptom of the bigger problem? By instead stimulating photosynthesis – not only by encouraging plants to photosynthesize at a higher rate – and to increase a plant’s photosynthetic capacity.

            Therefore, any bare ground showing is not assisting in increasing the photosynthetic process, which is why companion crops are becoming more popular amongst grain farmers who are utilizing holistic management.

            “We need green plants for CO2 and water, we need good plant roots, deep roots, branched roots, roots with lots of little hairs; lots of excretion of carbon around these plants,” Jones said. “When that is all in place we can build soil.”

            Additionally over the years, according to Jones, we have cut down on the amount of light that is intercepted through raising monocultures, using vegetation with short growing seasons also hinders the amount of photosynthesizing within a year, and by spraying things like nitrogen on the plant can also disrupt the light a plant uses.

            By diversifying the types of plants on a section photosynthesis can increase: different shaped leaves, increased ground cover, and utilizing plants of varying heights to assist in capturing sunlight energy for photosynthesis.

            It's also important to build ground cover according to Jones. More microbial activity in the soil will increase organic matter in the soil, which will produce CO2 that comes up from soil. The increased organic matter adds to the amount of carbon dioxide the plant takes in, which improves photosynthesis.         “We want to recycle it [CO2] before it reaches the atmosphere,” Jones stated. She added that plants are more efficient recycling CO2 from the ground because plant leaves are built with stoma, the part of a leaf that takes in CO2 for photosynthesis, on the underside of it.

            The photosynthetic rate has been altered over time as well. Photosynthesis is used for a plant to feed itself and to feed the soil. By providing nitrogen in the form of a synthetic fertilizer the plant's photosynthetic rate is cut in half because it now only has to photosynthesize enough to feed itself, the symbiotic relationship is interrupted by human intervention.

            “[If nitrogen is added] it'll still look the same and it will still grow, it might grow more leaves, but that extra growth won't have trace elements or minerals in it, so animals will have to eat more of it. There's more there, but it will have essential things missing from it.”

            This is why she says nutrients in our food today has declined to the point it has.

            Ultimately, Jones said that no matter what kind of agriculture one is practising that at the core farmers and ranchers of any kind, whether raising cattle, sheep, bison, or growing wheat, sunflowers, or corn, at the core they are all light farmers. Healthy soil is dependent on how good light farmers are at stimulating photosynthesis in their practices because the symbiotic relationship between soil microbes and plants is dependent on creating life through light – photosynthesis.

            “There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together,”Jones quoted Charles E. Kellogg – a naturalist from the early 1900s.

            For more information on Dr. Christine Jones visit her website: