When you ask someone to picture essential farm tools, they might say a tractor, a greenhouse, perhaps a pitchfork… But probably they wouldn’t say a microscope?
Perhaps at first it seems like something that is more suited to scientists who wear white lab coats than farmers in muddy dungarees and wellies - but here at Mazi, we believe that a microscope is perfectly at home on a farm and should become a key part of any farmer’s toolkit.
It is well recognised that soils are comprised of physical, chemical and biological properties. However, in recent times there has been disproportionate attention given to the chemical and physical side of soils, without due respect given to the biological aspects. This has given rise to the idea that soils are a chemical medium, and that all that is required for plants to thrive is to give the right dosage of certain chemicals at regular intervals.
However, we are moving away from the idea that their management is simply a chemical balancing act, and acknowledging instead that soil is a living, dynamic ecosystem comprising a complex diversity of life, which the basis of the fertility of our soil. We are therefore entering a new era of understanding soil as a function of it’s biology.
Although chemical tests and geophysical analysis of soil are useful, adding biological analysis to the mix will allow us to ecologically and effectively manage our agroecosystems. So how can we do this?
The magic of life under the microscope
Microscopes allow farmers a glimpse into the magical world of soil microbiology that has previously been very abstract and difficult to interact directly with. You don’t need a PhD to master the microscope - far from it! With a microscope and a patient eye, you are able to see the fungi, protozoa, bacteria and nematodes that play such a vital role in the health of your soil with (relative) ease.
So why might this be of interest to a farmer? Well, analysing your soil in this way will allow you to:
Analyse the quality of your compost/ compost tea
Analyse compaction and anaerobic conditions
Find out about diseases before they become a problem
Find out about changes in your soil and how effective your techniques are
Analysing your soil can be as simple as taking weekly samples and taking a quick peek at them down the microscope. This could then be all it takes to figure out what management techniques are needed, which can then be administered and adjusted accordingly.
Analysing your soil in this way is efficient, effective and helps you to get more in touch with the biology in your own soils, enabling a deeper understanding of soil functioning. Furthermore, doing this analysis yourself is much cheaper in the long run, as there is no need to send costly samples of soils away to laboratories for analysis. And, crucially, knowledge of your soil will empower you to make the right decisions for you, instead of being dependent on third parties that may not have your best interests at heart.
What do I need to get started?
You don’t need a really expensive, high-tech piece of kit to get started sampling your soils. A simple compound light microscope with magnification of at least 400x is sufficient to see the major groups of microorganisms, and will set you back around €200- €250.
There are a wealth of resources available online for keen microscope amateurs. We would recommend starting out by taking a microscope course aimed specifically at farmers- we have been following an online course by Dr Elaine Ingham, of the Rodale Institute, who offers a comprehensive microscope course which can be found here.