2014 Keynote Program

Elaine Ingham to Keynote NOFA Summer Conference

by Nicole Belanger
From The Natural Farmer, Spring 2014

Dr. Elaine Ingham is the keynote speaker for the 40th Annual NOFA Summer Conference, August 8-10th in Amherst, MA. On Friday, August 8, 2014, she will lead a preconference seminar titled "Changing Dirt into Soil: Specific Approaches for Different Soil Types and Crops." She will also lead three workshops during the conference: "Biologically Managing Weeds"; "Compost versus Extract versus Tea"; and "Microscope Assessment Demonstration."

How can people repair damage done to the environment and avoid causing it in the first place? This question is in the forefront of Dr. Elaine Ingham's work. Trained as a microbiologist, she brings a unique perspective to her work with farmers.

Her goal is to develop soils that foster thriving microbial communities. Her simple approaches to building soil biology make more robust plants, require less labor and off-farm inputs, and ultimately help save farmers money, while reducing adverse ecological effects.

Ingham believes that farmers need to rely neither on chemical fertilizers nor on costly soil amendments to build soil fertility. She maintains that by building soils teeming with the right kind of biology growers can mitigate plant pests and diseases. According to Ingham, proper soil management fosters interactions between soil bacteria and their corresponding predators, which produces plant available nutrients that would otherwise need to be brought in from elsewhere.

Instead of replanting annual cover crops and then weeding them, Ingham suggests developing regionally appropriate, perennial understory cover plants. She uses this strategy to preempt early succession plants that take root in bare soil. To Ingham, healthy root systems, allowed to grow over multiple seasons, are essential for fostering plant-protecting organisms in the soil.

Before consulting directly with growers, Ingham worked in academia for several decades. She did academic research on soil biology in Texas and in the pine forests of Virginia and the Carolinas, completing her doctorate at Colorado State University, where she researched the impact of grazing on the root systems and soil biology of pastureland.

In the late 1990s, after having served on the faculty at Oregon State University since 1986, Ingham took a vocal stand questioning the integrity of industry-sponsored research on GMOs.

She argued that much of the research was invalid and favored self-serving conclusions. According to Ingham, "the controls were laughable... purposely to obscure the ecological effects [of GMOs]." She also stressed the impossibility of knowing how genetic modifications will be expressed in different habitats, conditions, and environments.

After speaking publically against GMOs at the United Nations, Ingham witnessed first hand the influence of agribusiness on academia. According to Ingham, Oregon State University made a "business decision" to favor millions of dollars in research donations from Monsanto over the $2 million per year she was bringing in, making it uncomfortable for her to continue to work there. In 2001, Ingham left Oregon State University.

Though most public land grant universities are influenced heavily by agribusiness, Ingham is hopeful that young people who are now stepping into influential roles in academia will foster research and sound science independent of the demands of private funders. "It's amazing how few people are being taught about soil biology," says Ingham. "Soil people are not being taught about soil life, which so directly flies in the face of the toxic chemical approach that they're taught at the university."

After leaving Oregon State University, she started her own consulting company, Soil Foodweb. Though she spends much of her time consulting directly with growers outside of academia, she also teaches at Southern Cross University in Australia and Maharishi University of Management in Iowa.

Motivated to educate others, she travels frequently from her home in Oregon, teaching people what they need to know to be successful organic growers--such as tailoring compost and compost tea to a soil's unique needs, identifying the color of healthy soil, and creating root systems that support beneficial bacteria and fungi.

Ingham boasts the success of simple solutions to common needs on the farm, demonstrated through her work with 300,000 people on 22 million acres. By developing strong and deep root systems on the pasture of a 300 acre dairy, the dairy was able to save $150,000-$200,000 in labor, chemical, and veterinary costs in one year. She also claims that complex root systems, populated with communities of bacteria and fungi, can build water stores in the soil, reducing water use by 70%. When implemented before its onset, such management approaches can drastically decrease the negative impact of a drought.

In addition to her decades of work and publications, she has also gained notoriety for her appearance in the 2012 film Symphony of the Soil, by Future of Food director, Deborah Koons Garcia. In the film, Ingham is featured among scientists and farmers conveying both the importance and the potential of soil.

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