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Indiana farmer builds soil with worms

(April 17, 2001 --Cropchoice news) -- Bob Neidigh plants cover crops, avoids the tiller, and utilizes worms and beneficial bacteria to improve the soil and increase crop yield on his 108-acre farm in Bremen, Indiana.

The retired mechanical engineer, whom LG Seeds Inc. praised last year for achieving an average of 65.6 bushels of soybeans per acre on eight test plots, says he has "made it my mission to determine how the small farmer can be more competitive by increasing yields and building up the soil with lower inputs."

Between seasons of wheat and soybeans, he plants a winter cover crop of oats, clover or rye to suppress weed growth and prevent soil erosion. Corn is absent from the rotation because he doesn't want to harvest it in the cold, and has neither drying equipment nor livestock to eat it.

All the straw from the wheat and cover crops goes back into the soil, which he says, has helped him to achieve a level of 3.8 percent organic matter in the soil as compared to an average of 1.9 percent on surrounding farms.

One of his goals is to abandon fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, but Neidigh admits that he's not yet there: "I could probably get by without spraying, but I don't want to take the chance of weed pressure later."

He applies about 1 ounce of Roundup herbicide (glyphosate) per acre prior to planting soybeans -- the Roundup Ready variety.

Although Neidigh sees nothing wrong with the transgenic beans that Monsanto engineered to resist Roundup, he says they're not responsible for his yields. In fact, many farmers claim that conventional varieties outperform Roundup Ready beans, which they resort to for easy weed control.

Weeds developing a resistance to Roundup is a concern, though. Neidigh remembers his son, a microbiologist at the University of Mississippi, telling him: "It's just a matter of time before the weeds figure a way around the Roundup."

In addition to planting cover crops, Neidigh has practiced no-till farming since 1994. Going this route can avoid bringing weed seeds -- viable in soil for six to 40 years -- to the surface where they're more likely to germinate.

Perhaps more importantly, tilling would destroy the homes of the wiggly, burrowing creatures Neidigh credits with building his soil -- worms.

About 50 thousand of the creatures inhabit each acre of the average tilled farm in the area, he says. In contrast, about 2.3 million worms have burrowed little cities in each acre of his farm.

Satisfying a need to "put figures to things," Neidigh has calculated how many pounds of beneficial elements he gets from worm castings and burrowing activity. They produce 9.4 pounds of nitrate, 70.5 pounds of phosphorous, 169 pounds of potassium, 212 pounds of magnesium and 1,176 pounds of calcium per acre, per year. The magnesium and calcium have helped to increase his soil pH level from 6 to 7.5. Worm activity also adds trace elements such as manganese, zinc, iron and copper to the soil.

He avoids the common inorganic nitrogen fertilizers because the anhydrous ammonia kills worms. They also dislike the high salt content of popular granulated fertilizers.

Just worms are not enough, though. Neidigh needs something for them to eat so they'll grow and multiply. Those would be bacteria. He applies one pint per acre of a product called BioRich. The enzymes it contains enhance the beneficial microbial population in the soil, which benefits worm development. Although not registered as organic because its production involves chemicals, Neidigh says BioRich is refined such that most of the salt is eliminated.

He buys BioRich from its only licensed distributor in the United States, RichAgri Distributors in Wayne City, Illinois. The base material in BioRich is an enzyme-hormonal product that California-based Petrik Laboratories produces.

Some of the ingredients in BioRich are humic acid, adenine, thiotic acid, cytokinin, vitamins, minerals, the enzyme complexes of hydrolase, desmolase, transferase, and microbial metabolites, says Larry Rich, owner and operator of RichAgri. They and other proprietary components that he wouldn't name are carried in a clear fertilizer base composed of, among other substances, phosphoric acid and potash from potassium hydroxide. The nitrogen source is feed-grade urea and aqua ammonia.

In addition to the benefits that the enzymes confer, Rich says the constituent growth hormones improve and enhance plant root structure and growth. He noted that since 1993, farmers who applied BioRich at planting have seen a marked decline in cases of Sudden Death Syndrome, a big problem in southern Illinois and Indiana.

He charges $7.25 per acre for the product, noting that Neidigh and many Amish farmers apply more because they're trying to get away from the usual nitrogen- potassium-phosphorous fertilizers.