If you have ever heard of Korean Natural Farming, you understand that indigenous microorganisms play a critical role in sustaining Hawaii agriculture. Founded by Cho Han Kyu over fifty years ago, Korean Natural Farming encourages the cultivation of indigenous microorganisms to reduce expensive external inputs. This methodology provides farmers with ways of propagating these organisms using simple inputs like rice and brown sugar. In so doing, Korean Natural Farming doesn’t just help farmers build better soil. It also restores the autonomy of the small farmer by reducing dependence on corporate manufacturers. At the intersection of permaculture and social justice, Korean Natural Farming promises to help small organic farmers rediscover their competitive edge and fight back against corporate organic enterprises.
At Gingerhill farm, we utilize several principles of Korean Natural Farming. Using just a few of Cho Han Kyu’s many recipes for cultivating indigenous microorganisms, we promote productive Hawaii agriculture. This week we explore the nature and benefits of these extraordinarily beneficial little microbes.
What Are Indigenous Microorganisms?
Indigenous microorganisms (IMO) are just that—tiny organisms that are native to the environment they inhabit. More specifically, IMO’s are types of bacteria, fungi, and yeast that live in and around all existing life forms. IMO’s exist everywhere—on our skin, in our digestive tracts, on plants, and in animals. In most cases, IMO’s possess a symbiotic relationship with their host climate or life form. In fact, most life would not exist in absence of these critical little organisms. What we are most concerned with for Hawaii agriculture is the health of the IMO’s that inhabit our fertile soil. Ensuring that our soil is rich with healthy IMO’s has been key in catalyzing phenomenal plant growth at Gingerhill.
IMO species have occupied their respective soils for thousands of years. They have thus evolved to thrive in the unique properties of that climate, adapting to its nutrient and moisture content to continue to propagate and, by extension, foster healthier Hawaii agriculture. Because indigenous microorganisms are biologically equipped to survive in their respective environments, they are far more likely to adequately proliferate than exogenous microorganisms, which adapt very poorly when introduced into new soil.
The Benefits of IMO’s
A healthy IMO population is critical to the creation of a healthy garden for several reasons. IMO’s primary function is to instigate a chain of natural events that fertilize the soil, eliminating the need for expensive, artificial inputs. When you introduce IMO’s into an ecosystem, the plants in that ecosystem will begin to produce exudates, which they release from their root system, to attract the specific IMO’s they require for survival and optimum growth. In this way, the plants and fungi create a network through which the plant communicates its nutritional needs. As IMO’s proliferate, nematodes and protozoa flock to the plant in search for sustenance. Their excretions nourish the soil and, by extension, provide plants with essential nutrients critical to growth.
IMO’s also eliminate toxic elements in the soil that enable the proliferation of pathogenic organisms. They do so through a process of decontamination called mycoremediation, a unique form of bioremediation. The pervasive use of fossil fuels has, over the years, led to the introduction of toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic, nickel, and tin to the soil. Soil that is laden with toxic heavy metals, in addition to harmful pesticides and herbicides, is conducive to pathogenic overgrowth and thus threatens Hawaii agriculture. IMO’s actually consume these heavy metals, which share a carbon-based structure that IMO’s are attracted to. In so doing, they create the conditions in which other IMO’s are able to thrive and out-compete pathogenic organisms. IMO’s thereby reduce the likelihood of plant disease and enable further fertilization.
Without IMO’s, organic materials would never break down into the nutrient-rich compost that allows so many small, organic farmers to prosper without utilizing expensive inputs. If you turn a compost pile, you will likely see a lot of white, soft-looking material. This material is mycelium, a type of IMO and the vegetative element of a fungus. The small strands of mycelium, known as hyphae, produce enzymes that break down organic material and absorb its nutrients. Thus, in seeking to feed the fungi from which it originates, mycelium enables the decomposition process. In forests, this process happens naturally, yielding indigenous mulch that nourishes the local ecosystem. At Gingerhill, we emulate this natural process by practicing composting with materials like comfrey, leaves, and manure.
A healthy population of mycelium can also help to prevent soil erosion. Healthy hyphae will grow through and around root systems and air pockets to bind the soil. When faced with heavy rains, soil that is well populated with mycelium is less subject to erosion than other soils. Additionally, specific populations of mycelium actually allow plants to consume water and nutrients more efficiently.
Unadulterated, organic soil should naturally contain a healthy population of IMO’s. However, most soils today contain poisonous heavy metals that compromise the health of these populations. Thankfully, you can actually cultivate and preserve IMO’s for soil inoculation.
In collecting IMO’s for propagation, you want to choose a location in or around your garden—anywhere that possesses the same soil qualities as the area into which you plan to introduce the IMO’s. You also want to ensure that the area is biologically active, which you can confirm if organic materials in the area are breaking down efficiently. Place a selection of mycelium into a wooden box with cooked rice and leave it in the area. As the mycelium continue to feed on the rice, they will also grow on and through it, binding the mass together. Once the mass is tightly bound into a single unit, add brown sugar to draw out the moisture and render the organisms shelf stable. For greater diversity, you can propagate IMO’s from multiple areas in your given climate. Finally, adding sources of carbon and carbohydrates will feed your IMO’s, allowing them to multiply.
In selecting your mycelium, you want to ensure that you select beneficial microbes instead of pathogenic organisms. You want a selection that is white, not red or black. You also want to avoid foul smelling samples, which likely contain pathogenic bacteria.