Soil guru Dr. Elaine Ingham explains why conventional agriculture is ruining our soil and how we can fix it.

Why conventional agriculture is ruining your soil and how to fix it

Dr. Elaine Ingham talks with Beth Theuret during a break at the Organic Farming conference in Fallon on March 14.

Dr. Elaine Ingham talks with Beth Theuret during a break at the Organic Farming conference in Fallon on March 14.


To learn more about soil science and Dr. Elaine Ingham’s research, visit the Soil Foodweb Inc. website at, or call the group’s main lab in Oregon at (541) 752-5066.

Dr. Elaine Ingham is trying to reverse the effects of 60 years of chemical agriculture, acre by acre. Whether it’s a lawn in Boston, barren pasture in Texas or a nonproductive tomato farm in South Africa, the soil microbiologist has shown that the solution—though complex in the details—comes down to something basic: compost.

And not just any compost. A compost that’s the color of a chocolate bar that’s 70 percent cocoa, that’s free from chemicals and teeming with beneficial bacteria, protozoa, fungi and nematodes, to which she refers as “the good guys.” Without them, the soil is dead. It’s like an office building with no workers, a military with no soldiers, empty calories for plants that may fill them in the short term but leave them vulnerable to disease and other problems over time.

Pests, weeds, erosion, sedimentation, compaction, plant infertility and bad water quality are all symptoms that the soil doesn’t have the proper mix of biology—fungi, bacteria, etc.—to support healthy plants, she says.

“You have to get the biology back into the soil to get rid of the problems created through chemical applications,” Ingham, president of the international organization Soil Foodweb Inc., said last weekend at the “Organic Farming: Making the Transition” seminar at Western Nevada College in Fallon. “Once the biology is functioning, do you have to keep adding it? No. What we’re talking about is sustainable agriculture.” All you have to do is keep growing plants in it.

Contrast that with chemical agriculture, she says, which stays in business because farmers have to keep buying chemical products to fix problems those chemical products cause in the first place.

“Use a little Roundup [chemical herbicide], and you have to use more to deal with the problems it creates,” she says. “And who’s making money off that? …. Every inorganic fertilizer is killing the good guys in your soil.”

The answer? Compost and compost tea, she says. Throughout Ingham’s eight-hour talk, she delved into chemical reactions, various ratios of mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria for different soils and different plants. It’s all too much to explain here, though her research is available on the Soil Foodweb website. But she did offer a basic recipe for making thermal compost in 21 days, six to eight weeks, and the more relaxed three to four months, which may be easier for backyard gardeners. Here is her least intensive recipe:

Using chemical-free materials, start with a bottom layer of 50 percent woody material, which may include straw, paper, cardboard, leaves and wood chips. The next 40 percent of the pile is green material, like kitchen scraps and yard waste. The last 10 percent is high nitrogen material, like chicken manure. The pile should reach 160-165 degrees Fahrenheit within seven days, at which time you turn it once. In three to four months, the compost should be ready. Remember to keep the pile at 50 percent moisture, which you can test by squeezing a handful of it. If one drop of water comes out, it has the proper moisture. Also take care not to let the pile go over 165 degrees because that could cause it to go anaerobic, killing all of the good guys you’re trying to produce.