These tiny nutrient makers

Rocks break down slowly when CO2 dissolved in rain water forms carbonic acid. Chemists represent it as:

CO2 + H2O ,<=> H2CO3

When carbonic acid encounters calcium silicate rocks (like basalt or granite) react to form diverse forms of carbonates. This is one of the forms rocks break down to form soils and liberate minerals that support life of organisms. But if we would rely purely on chemistry, the forming of soils could take a long time. Life cannot afford to wait and found another wait of self supporting.

In 1989  D.W. Schwartzman and  T. Volk compared rock break down in sterile conditions and in presence of soil biota. In presence of life, decomposed  up to 1000 times faster in presence of microorganisms. Biology produces enzymes and acids, creates a protective environments and speed up the process of rock weathering. In fact, soil biology weather rocks fast enough to feed the ecosystems and to compensate the washing by rain and wind.

As result of the activity of microorganisms, soils are able to create a nutrient bank (humus) that enable the successful development of more complex plants, which we call food. Fertile soils are successful in keeping the soil life functional at extracting minerals to feed crops.

Ecosystems rely on these processes of bringing minerals from rocks to the biosphere. Rockin Soils encourage farmers to understand and use these natural principles to mimic biological systems, to reproduce soil microbes and use them to dissolve rocks aiming and get all fresh minerals. This allow farmers of any country to boost production of nutrient dense food while improving the soil fertility.

Reaching the trace-element age

A micro element to a plant is like a chip to a computer. As result of 60 years of N P K, our European

basaltic formation in Hidalgo, México

Basaltic formation in Hidalgo, México

soils are exhausted. Nowadays farmers are aware of the importance if micro-nutrients to ensure production and Industry sells them in small jars. They are the most expensive input in agriculture. 

In plants and animals micro nutrients are the key to endless enzymatic reactions, metabolic routes. They enable growth, development of flowers, fruits and seeds. The are not just an input to get quality product but there are essential to life. A decade ago this view was not so obvious.

First, industry created Urea, Phosphorus and Potash. After a few seasons, the first symptoms of crop deficiencies appeared. agricultural experts met. They agreed that calcium and magnesium and sulfur and silica were limiting the crop production. The market supplied, engineers calculated universities started to teach about these other “less important” elements.

Agro-minerals (basalt quarry at Solulta (Ethiopia)

Basalt quarry (Ethiopia)

Soon after, micro nutrients became the bottleneck. Iron, Zinc, Boron, Cobalt, Copper, Molybdenum, Selenium, manganese… Again the same response: Experts met, industry supply, sell and university teach to a new generation of micro element sensitive engineers.

Recent research points that the elements called rare earth elements play crucial role in the metabolism of plants and or symbiotic   microorganisms. Experts are meeting again. Industry is prepared already and so do Universities. The tendency now is to consider that crops need all elements, but in each one in the right proportion. Many igneous rocks in nature have high diversity of mineral elements in secondary and micro nutrients and can serve farmers to re-mineralize their soils in a affordable way.

Rocking soils works with farmers to build capacity, develop and share the skills to extract plant nutrients from rocks and regenerate exhausted soils.

Zinc scarcity for who?

baby volcanosUS Geologists are warning that we may face scarcity of traze-elements. They say reserves of Zinc will be the first to be emptied within only 21 years (USGS). Zinc is scarcer than phosphorous.

Zinc is an essentiatrace element, necessary for plants, animals, and microorganismsZinc is found in hundreds of specific enzymes... It is “typically the second most abundant transition metal in organisms” after iron and it is the only metal which appears in all enzyme classes.” Wikipedia,18/10/2013. In other words, Zinc is quite important for life in the planet as we know it now. 

Agricultural experts point to the dangers of scarcity of this element for agriculture and public health. After 60 years of green revolution agricultural soils lack zinc among other trace-elements. Crops, animals and humans are more than ever sensitive to new diseases. Public opinion is sensitive and decision makers at top levels mobilize resources to tackle this new threat. 

Scarcity or abundance?

 

Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg

Source: Infographic by Armin Reller of the University of Augsburg and Tom Graedel of Yale University.

Zinc as all other elements do not go anywhere after plants, animals and humans use them. They stay in the planet, normally accumulated in land fields , mixed in toxic concentrations or lixiviated. The Canadian Geologist Peter van Straaten, shows that Zinc is abundant in many rocks and soils in the earth. Zinc is actually the 24th most abundant element on the earth crust (Wikipedia,18/10/2013)

Scarcity refers to the difficulty of the industry to isolate a element with their current resources (money and technology). Isolation of micro nutrients is only interesting for industry (mainly for galvanizing processes, for batteries or making many alloys). Scarcity affects also to the fertilizer industry is also interested in isolated zinc to bottle it and sell it.

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On the contrary, isolation is not desirable for the farmers. Therefore, scarcity for industry is not the same as scarcity for agriculture. Farmers prefer to have low concentrations of micro nutrients in the soil and well balanced proportions to avoid toxicity. Hence for agriculture there is not such scarcity of Zinc. Basalt rocks and Shale have on the average 100 mg/kg of zinc. Granite has 40 mg/kg. Farmers can apply zinc only adding rock dust to the soil (van Straten, 2007). This zinc might not be bio-available to plants but it can be easily extracted by soil microorganisms. The scarcity is in the educational programs that do not train farmers nor engineers to make abundant agro-minerals available to plants.

Rocking soils support farmers to develop their own strategies with simple technology to achieve self-supply of nutrients and water. Technology affordable to all pockets of all countries. A farmer who spread rock dust in a living soil (with air, water and organic matter) will have no problems with Zinc.

After the dust comes the mud

The burn-and-plow strategy has severe negative impacts for the African farms. Eroded soils can barely retain rain water and crops suffer stress. Regenerative farming combines organic amendments with soil improvement measures increase the retention of water and nutrient in the productive soils and regenerate them each season. 

Just before the rain season, the activity in he Ethiopian countryside is frenetic. Farmers must get the land ready for the rains. Heavy clay soils need to be plowed between 3 and 4 times to receive the rains.  Plow, sow, add fertilizer when they can afford it, and clean the fields. Normally by cleaning they mean burning the vegetable rests from the previous crop.

My good friend Atle, a farm manager in the area of Rema, told me that farmers have their reasons to burn the crop rests just before the rain is coming. They might have it though they cannot tell me why they do it. They cannot tell me also why they plow so much. The motto seem to be to keep the land clean and rationally ordered, to make it look similar to the land of the photos in the folders of the products they can barely afford.

The combination of plowing again and again and burning all crop rests before the rains ends up with millions of tons of fertile soil in the rivers. More over, by adopting this strategy, farmers work many times more:

  1. first to break the compacted lifeless soil and
  2. second to gather all rests and burn them
  3. third to build all there anti-erosion structures to divert the water, infiltration ponds.

In the end, farmers work hard trapped in a -rat race- management system that only makes it poor. So if there is a reason for the plowing and burning system, it must be very powerful because the price farmers pay is very high probably too high. I ask my self: How about land management to improve soil fertility? How about mulching+ green manuring + use of microorganisms+ rock dust minerals system?

These are the simple technologies that can make the farmer work less and regenerate his/her natural capital -that is soil-

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Water harvesting and the time machine

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getting water from the first rains in Tigray, EthiopiaImage

Women know all about fermentation. They make beer and bread for generations. They have the skills to brew fertilizers. But women spend up to 6 hours a day on the average collecting water. Collecting rainwater task giving time to start a business, for example to brew organic fertilizers.

There is no African landscape without women carrying heavy loads of water.The lack of infrastructure for water supply in rural areas, forces women walk to fill their Jerry-cans and carry them for kilometers. A 20l Jerry-can is not enough for the household thus often the trip to the water source has to be done two or three times a day leaving no time for other things.

It is a fact. Soil fertility projects as well as many other development projects need to deal with the burden of lack of labor. Contrary to what it is normally reported the biggest burden is time, not skill. Women master the art of making honey wine, beer or cheese. During the workshops we find that women are much more aware of the process than men.  They can make compost and brew bio/fertilizers easily. They have the skill they just need to adapt it to soil.

Actually, on the average, a women spends 4,5 hours/day to carry water.water housekeeping and children. This leaves no time for something else. Saving some time to eliminate the burden of the time could allow women to make fertilizers, for themselves and even for their communities. But how to save  time?

We can make time in two ways: First, by using composting techniques that require less labor to compost (heap system) and the second is to less time in transporting water by harvesting rainwater.

A simple rain water harvesting water system of 1.000l. could save at least 550 wo-men hours. If only the half of this time would be used to produce and apply organic fertilizers at house hold (or community level) every single household could produce more and better food.

Moreover the quality of rainwater in rural areas is much better than any surface water source and many ground water sources.  Rainwater is a resource underused. A 1000 water tank, some pipes and a water-filter means an investment of 200 euro, per household (one year salary of a farmer). Where credit is not an option, the quest for cheaper designs reusing local materials, seem to offer the most promising alternative.