To compete with industrial agriculture, organic agriculture needs a support infrastructure, too, and Tim Page of Crozet has stepped up with a company that can revitalize impoverished soils with liquid doses of biological nutrients and minerals.
Living Soil Solutions LLC is a year old now. “Our main focus is balancing soil,” said Page, “getting the chemistry and biology where we want it. Those two things influence each other quite a lot. If you can get the chemistry in order, the biology is likely to follow.
“A lot of times we’ve focused over the years on NPK: nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium. This can cause issues over time. It’s not a long-term strategy. Say you’re farming corn. With [NPK] fertilizer, you can tie up trace elements. You can boost yields, but you burn out the organic matter in your soil. That’s what holds the nutrients. You can force the plant to grow faster and larger than it’s meant to, which weakens it and leaves it susceptible to disease and pest pressure.
“One important benefit of trace elements is they allow the plant to produce enzymes that strengthen the plant and create what are called secondary metabolites. Those influence flavor and color. For example, compounds like caffeine. Plants use them as communication signals, so when you plant in a living, well-balanced soil it’s much better able to grow to its genetic potential.
“This is so dynamic. These processes have been happening for millions of years and we’ve screwed it up in less than half a century. We’ve produced a lot of food, but our topsoil is in the Chesapeake and so are the nutrients.
“Any time you rip up soil you destroy fungal networks. Nature has its own system. We need to learn to mimic the system, not try to control it. One way to look at it is feed the soil, not the plant. Let the soil feed the plant. The more in-depth we look at soil biology, the more we understand that soil feeds the plant and it has a regenerative system.
“People see some plants as weeds. Often that’s a consequence of the state of the soil. If you’ve applied uncomposted manure over and over again, the potassium is excessive. What will happen is you have an environment where certain weeds will thrive. They can out-compete the plants you’re trying to grow. A herbicide deals with the symptom. Looking at the nutrients in the soil deals with the problem. We’re trying to get to the root of the problem, not deal with its symptoms.
Page’s company makes a compost “tea” from a raw material of worm castings from worms that Page grows. “It’s rich in biology, protozoa especially. What ends up happening is you create a web of life where your foundations are consumed by larger organisms, such as bacteria. Bacteria contain more protein than protozoa can hold onto, which is released as nitrogen—ammonia—which is a plant-available nutrient. The idea behind compost tea is to create life through micro-organisms that support soil and the plant. Micro-organisms live in the leaves of the plant, too. So spraying beneficial organisms on the plant you help protect it and reduce the chances that pathogens will occupy the leaf. It’s checks and balances. The same idea works in soil. Healthy soil sequesters a massive amount of carbon.”
Depending on the situation, an acre of land could require 20 to 25 gallons of tea, Page said. Tea can be made to be fungal-dominant or bacterial-dominant, depending on what is needed. “First we soil test to see where you are and then we decide on an approach.”
Page has a 250-gallon tea tank he pulls on a trailer. For homeowners he brews and brings it to the yard. For farmers, he tries to create a site on the farm where tea can be brewed. So getting to know the client is important because everything has to be customized. Besides the tea, he offers amendments like humic acid, which makes nutrients more available to the plant. It stimulates microbiology.
Amendments can be used by themselves or added to tea. Another product is a seed inoculant comprised of specialized microbes that go on a seed before it’s planted to improve germination, protect from pathogens and solubilize nutrients in soil. All the amendments are certified organic products. “If I spray a yard, the dogs and the kids are safe,” he said.
“I don’t work with animals, but I work with farms that do, and we try to get animals managed in a holistic way. The Polyface way has proven to heal land,” he said, referring to Joel Salatin’s famous “grass farm” in Swoope, Virginia.
“There’s a symbiosis in nature. We have to understand how plants and animals operate so we can use it to our advantage.”
Page was a history major at Radford University. His ancestors owned Page Florists in Charlottesville, which once had greenhouses on 14th Street near where Boylan Heights restaurant is now. “We were always big gardeners,” he said.
He worked for a food coop in Charlottesville, then for farms in the Valley. “I wanted to farm on my own,” he said. So he and his wife moved to Hawaii, where he worked on a farm in Maui that was dedicated to a perma-culture system. He spent five years as the farm manager, then he came home. “I was able to learn it. I had never really understood plants and terrain before, or how to work with land to create a sustainable environment. I really got into forestry and forest restoration. There were a lot of invasives. We composted them and planted high densities of diverse plants. The idea is to speed up natural succession from 100 years to 50. These are long-term systems. They’re thinking 100 years ahead. I hadn’t been exposed to that type of thinking. It stuck with me and it makes so much sense, so I hold to that.” Page is a certified arborist now and a member of the Virginia Association of Biological Farmers.
“When I work with farms we want to look 100 years down the road, not just at this harvest. The problem with farms is they have become dependent on fertilizer. They have to keep applying more and more to get the same yield. With genetically modified crops, it’s so backwards. The more you use, the more resistant things are. It’s a downward spiral that nothing good can come from. It’s bad for the health of the land and bad for our health.”
The cost to treat a half acre is about $100. “We try to make it affordable for everybody. The goal is to educate and provide a public service that benefits the next generation (Page has a young son now.) If I go at it trying just to make money, you lose the focus on what you’re trying to do. I’m tuned in to the business, but I want to stay up with the science and serve the community.
“We work in the Valley and around Charlottesville. We’ve even gone out of state. I can teach some of it to people and get them set up on their farms so they can create a proper biological system in their soil. It really works. We’re not making stuff up here. This is like building up our bodies’ immune response.”