TRAVERSE CITY — Ken Engle is like most farmers: he spends plenty of time tending to plants and trees that produce fruit at his 300-acre farm in Acme Township.
He’s also increasingly paying attention to the soil that blankets his farm.
Engle is part of a growing number of farmers who more closely study the natural biology of farmland soil in northern Michigan, specifically the presence of natural biological elements such as fungi, amoebas, nematodes and naturally occurring nutrients in the dirt.
Engle said chemical or synthetic fertilizers commonly used by many farms, when used too much, can kill the beneficial biological organisms in the soil. Engle wants to take a different approach because he believes doing so will protect the region’s farmlands over the long-term.
“We are talking about our biological farming system so we can improve the soil,” Engle said. “What we are doing is trying to get the soil to be as alive and as healthy as possible.”
Engle is one of two regional fruit producers who now rely on a Michigan-based consultant for help in promoting natural biological elements in their dirt. Chateu Chantal in Old Mission Peninsula also uses Bio-Systems of Marlette for help.
Bio-Systems founder Joe Scrimger said damage to Michigan farmlands by overuse of salt-based fertilizers and nitrogen is both real and measurable.
“As we use herbicides, we don’t kill that system overnight, but if you take herbicides and salt-based fertilizer and you are using too much elemental nitrogen, then we start to impact the land negatively,” Scrimger said. “It might take 15 years for the damage to be measurable comparing to a plot that didn’t have the same thing done to it.”
Chateau Chantal Winemaker Mark Johnson said his vineyards are targeted every year with a long-term strategy for increasing biological materials, a strategy recommended by the consultant. The primary approach is to spread compost, up to two tons per acre, across the farm’s grounds.
“It’s less than a millimeter thick and it’s full of biology,” Johnson said. “It gets things working.”
Johnson said specially crafted compost is hauled in from a farm in Sears and has been spread in the vineyards for seven consecutive years. The goal is to develop a soil composition with 4 or 5 percent organic matter. When he started the project, organic measurements were at 1.7 percent. Today, they are at 2 percent.
“It’s slow-going, but that’s a 25 percent increase,” Johnson said.
At Engle Ridge Farm, the strategy involves compost and also increasing calcium in the soil. The compost used is more stable than manure, and allows for a slower distribution of nitrogen.
“You also have to raise your calcium levels by applying a couple of different types of limes, gypsum and things like that that,” Engle said. “We do it on the whole farm. It’s all or nothing.”
Engle’s pursuit of healthier soils headlined a recent speech to more than 120 farmers, food distributors and others at the Farm Route to Prosperity Summit in Traverse City. The event was sponsored by the Food & Farming Network.
Johnson said he believes the emphasis on spreading compost is making a difference in grape quality. An analysis of grape juice at the farm two years ago found grapes’ nutritional value on the rise. He said added organic material in the ground helps prevent soil erosion.
“It protects big-time against drought,” Johnson said. “The water holding capacity is so much better.”
But the most important question for Engle is whether all farmers can find a way to afford spreading compost. The process is more expensive than more traditional approaches to fertilizing.
“It’s all about economics,” Engle said. “I can do chemical farming for half the cost, but if you don’t look at it from a long-term perspective ... you can destroy the system in a hurry.”