Authored by Ee Peng, co-founder of Soil Social
A friend warmly invited us for a soil consultation session with a coconut palm plantation that produces coconut flower aminos for various products such as coconut syrup, vinegar and sugar. The land is approximately 2000 hectares and we were tasked to analyze the soil at the plantation and to propose an effective compost-making process and recipe to increase flower sap productivity. Despite growing a high number of coconut palms, production was not consistent across all 6 farms.
Products made with coconut aminos
And typhoon Karding hits
We arrived at a raging typhoon that delayed all flights coming in and out of Manila. As I looked at the screen in disbelief that our flight to Palawan (alongside many other flights) was cancelled. That leaves us with no choice but to leave the chaotic airport and stay over in Manila for the night.
Got up and checked the flight status on Manila airport’s website at 3 am to ensure that our rescheduled flight to Palawan is indeed leaving from Manila at 5 am. My friend and I got a taxi which brought us smoothly to Manila airport. While we slept through most parts of the flights and arrived in Puerto Princesa on a grey drizzling morning.
We finally arrived! But… not our luggage :P
With both our microscopes and clothes lost somewhere in the world, we could only wait at a restaurant nearby. Flashing back to difficulties we had in clearing customs with the microscopes… :/
Then lo and behold! We got our luggage back, 6 hours later!
We began a 5-hour ride into Rizal, south of Puerto Princesa where the farm is and started chatting with the operations manager about operational challenges, fertilization routines, layout arrangements for palms. It is important to interview farmers, all stakeholders involved to understand habits, cultural practices and limitations that determine their daily routine work on the farm. Comprehending existing methods will help strategize for the least amount of effort for the biggest visible results so that change can be motivational.
One of the biggest challenges for farms in rural areas is having easy access to a diversity of composting materials in large quantities. For example, spent grains are not easily accessible near the farm, since the nearest brewery is 4-5 hours drive away.
Abundance of paddy rice fields
Throughout the ride, there were numerous rice paddy fields and a small rearing of animals. So it might be safe to assume that rice husks and manure are easily accessible as composting materials.
Full day of storms. Muddy roads and falling branches made it impossible to access the routes to the farm with vehicles.
Day 3 - Samples collection
The skies are finally clear. We got to the composting facility to collect compost samples for analysis. There is a processing area beside the composting facility that turns rice husk into biochar that would be added to their compost.
We moved ahead further to the first farming area of the day’s visit. As we can see here, most parts of this area are low-lying with highly clayey soil, causing water-logged conditions. Palms in these areas were not doing their best. We collected soil samples and noted down the companion plants grown naturally around the palms before moving to the next farming area.
Areas easily flooded with high compaction of soil
We continued our journey to the second farming area of the day to collect more soil samples. Production yield is higher compared to the previous area. The soil was observed to be sandy loam. The farm operator has commented that they believed the high yield was due to the regularity of maintenance practices.
Day 4 - Microscope analysis of compost & soil samples
Soil samples of different farms and terrains
Setting up a makeshift microscope area for the samples right in the living room of our villa
We counted and identified microorganisms for 9 samples, here are microscope images of 3 for reference:
Above: Microscope image of a clayey soil sample from palms with inconsistent, low yields. A low diversity of microorganisms was observed, and only bacteria were detected through direct counting under the microscope.
Above: Microscopic images of sandy loam soil sample next to water bodies, where there were high-yielding palms. Regular counts of fungi stands were observed.
Above: Microscopic images of compost samples. Fungi strands and bacteria-feeding nematodes were detected.
Through the microscope analysis, we aim to determine the diversity of microorganisms in the soil and compost. Having different types of microorganisms with different roles balances the ecosystem. A balanced ecosystem ensures the suppression of diseases and high nutrient cycling activities. It is similar to a well-functioning corporation where different roles, personalities and skill sets are utilized to create balance in a healthy working environment.
Some plants such as palms would require higher fungi biomass to grow well in comparison to other early successional plants such as brassicas, grasses and weed-like, shallow-rooted plants which will do well on lower fungi biomass.
We determined that even though fungi strands were detected through a direct count method in the compost piles, the fungi-to-bacteria ratio was still too low for farming coconut palms.
In contrast to Soil Social’s compost which is regulated with a diversity of compost materials and compost-making processes, we have created recipes with high fungi biomass that with these benefits:
Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships by transforming unavailable nutrients i.e. phosphorus to become accessible for plants
Produces ammonium, the form of nitrogen that is required by late successional plants
Retains water during drought periods
Limits the growth of weeds
One of best-performing Soil Social’s compost piles with the presence of 4 groups of microorganisms alongside high fungi-to-bacteria ratio
Soil texture makes a difference to plant and soil health. Clayey soil with high compaction discourages the growth of fungi which thrive in an aerobic environment. An intervention method of mulching the rhizosphere area of the plants will prevent soil compaction from rain and increase organic matter in soil, increasing aeration in soil. While biochar helps to aerate the soil, it is too labour- and material-intensive to make such an amendment for a big plantation.
We proposed to increase the biodiversity of soil microorganisms in the farming areas by changing the method and materials for their compost production. The microbiology of the soil will be closely monitored to optimize for the growth of palms. Diversity is the key to healthier plants and soil. We look forward to having more consultancy projects in the Southeast Asia region and helping more farms unlock their productive potential by optimizing their soil microbiology. Let us know your thoughts! Tags: #SoilSocial, #SoilFoodWeb, #SFWLabTech, #BioComplete #Compost, #SFWAsia, #SFWSEA