Using the ordinary to cultivate the mysterious power of indigenous microorganisms


By Lisa M. Hamilton
Originally posted in April 2004

Who wouldn’t be suspicious? Right from the get-go this workshop is promising cure-all concoctions that bring new life to everything they touch. The potions work in ways that are difficult to explain and impossible to actually see. The man conducting the affair is fast-talking and charismatic—he even lives in a far-off land. The whole thing smells like snake oil.

Here’s the catch: Gil Carandang, this crafty man from the Philippines, is not trying to sell us anything. In fact, he wants us to buy as little as possible—that’s the point of this seminar. The lesson that’s officially on the agenda is the same as the event’s formal title: “Cultivating Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms.” But what’s really being taught here, the true objective, is the empowerment of farmers.

By learning how to cultivate microorganisms, growers become able to meet their needs with what exists on the farm and can stop buying amendments from chemical companies (purveyors who, some might argue, are the real peddlers in modern farming). The technology was born of ingenuity, but it has spread by financial necessity, primarily among farmers in developing countries for whom agricultural chemicals are painfully expensive.

“This technology can reduce your costs by 30 to 50%,” Carandang says. “It sounds amazing, but that’s the percent most farmers spend on pesticides and fertilizer. On my farm, we have only two medicines: Lacto bacillus and ginger-garlic extract. We make both ourselves.”

Learning how to do that is what has drawn a sold-out crowd to this vegetable farm in Bolinas, California, for one of Carandang’s rare seminars in North America. (The class covered both cultivating microorganisms and making fermented plant extracts. Only the former is discussed here.)

No high falutin’ nonsense, just affordable techniques that work
It’s a simple set-up, with chairs crammed into the barn and facing a makeshift stage in the packing area. At center stage stand two folding tables. On them lie the unexpected tools of this fantastic technology: A box of generic brown sugar and a bulb of garlic. A quart of milk, a cutting board, and some cooked white rice. A liter of the cheapest vodka in California, and a Miller High Life tall boy.

He sounds like a crackpot, but in fact Carandang has studied farming all over the world, including as a Fulbright scholar. (He now farms full-time back in the Philippines.) This odd display of un-magical ingredients is evidence not of a sham, but rather of his emphasis on making technology accessible. You see, discussions of beneficial microorganisms usually take one of two dangerous paths. People either get new agey with it and scare listeners off, or (for fear of being called new agey), they legitimize the concept using complicated scientific formulas—to much the same effect. Carandang takes the middle road.

“In the Philippines, I’m usually teaching people who have never been to school, and they get it fine,” he says. “We don’t need no high-falutin’ nonsense around here.”

With today’s distinctly educated, Western crowd, the message doesn’t sink in immediately. Everyone is scribbling madly to keep up with Carandang’s patter, careful to not miss a word of the lesson. But as we are figuring out how to spell “falutin’”, he catches us off guard. “What matters here is that you understand the very essence of this idea. So stop taking notes, just listen.”

We lift our heads, and I realize that Carandang has been talking for an hour now and hasn’t touched a thing on the table. With an American teacher we would have Xeroxed copies of a syllabus and be already on section 2b. Instead, our teacher is circling around the subject, peeling off the outer layers of meaning, waxing on about the macrocosmic workings of Nature.

We don’t know it now, but this conceptual approach is essential to the practice we came to learn. Understanding the idea itself works as a sort of inoculant; without it, the act of Cultivating Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms is more or less useless.

“This is rather than just ‘Oh, let’s spray this, and put on this fertilizer every two weeks,” he says. “Instead, you just need to open your eyes and pay attention, slow down the process. The plant will talk back. Not literally, but it will always tell us what is wrong, what is deficient. How could you know what it needs if you haven’t paid attention?”

Growing soil, not plants: Building up the soil’s life and biodiversity
Behind Carandang and the makeshift stage is an old forest so dense and tangled you can hardly make out its individual members. It turns out it is the perfect backdrop. Promoting health and growth are the objectives of this technology, and the forest has both in spades—naturally. It’s because of its biodiversity.

We all know the biodiversity spiel: the more life a place supports, the more variation it has; that variation means competition, which regulates populations into healthy numbers. The more a place is allowed to be natural, the more it balances itself out.

Natural balance is not the goal of the farmer, his work being the cultivation of select members of the ecosystem. But again: single crops, tight geometry, and insects and weeds eliminated, altogether mean a sterile environment that can’t keep itself in check. But a farm with variegated fields and wild plants and insects that feed sparrows that feed hawks is one that begins to balance itself.

Now, few farmers import hawks to strengthen their farm ecosystems. You just can’t insert something that high up the food chain and expect it to survive. Instead, build the system that supports it, and the hawks will come on their own.

“It’s not all about NPK here,” Carandang says. “It’s not all about sun, air, et cetera, it’s all about all. It’s all about one, about a whole unit. The more you are able to understand this, the more you’ll be able to practice good farming.”

Rather than grow plants, Carandang advocates growing soil. Not multiplying dirt, but building up the soil’s life and diversity—that is the foundation of this system. And the building blocks are microorganisms, whose most essential work is to break down nutrients into forms that are accessible to plants and animals. Without them, the planet would be bare rock.

“There is a Chinese proverb that goes, ‘Add humility to intelligence, it becomes wisdom. Add passion or fire to wisdom, it becomes enlightenment,’” Carandang says. “In soil fertility, it’s the same basis, that’s my opinion. It’s the fire that makes the living soil, and the fire is the microorganisms.”

This is the part where most of the world shakes its head. No amount of microorganisms could be as effective as bringing in a load of compost or spraying fungicides. They are too small to be powerful, too unfamiliar to be essential.

And yet farmers rely on them all the time. That pink dye on legume seed, for instance, is there to tell you the seed will fix nitrogen because it has been doused with the necessary inoculant—itself a beneficial microorganism. Anyone who has ever watched a compost heap steam has seen the strength of beneficial microorganisms, and anyone who has ever taken acidophilus to recover from antibiotics has felt them at work.

Any farmer who has suffered Phytopthera or Verticillium is familiar with microorganisms, but not the good kind. Luckily, as Carandang explains, these pathogens comprise only three to five percent of all microbes. “If it were more,” he says, “we’d all be dead.”

Plants and humans are protected from pathogens by diversity—it leads to competition, which prevents any single microbe from going out of control. In the forest, this diversity comes naturally as different plants and animals attract and support different microorganisms. But if you have, say, just grapes and cover crops planted, you’re not encouraging diversity, in fact you’re discouraging it. That is why you introduce microbes.

Making microbes
But first you must have the microbes. And that, hours later, is why we are in the barn, rather cold after sitting here for so long, but patiently learning how to Cultivate Beneficial Indigenous Microorganisms.

The act itself, in all its variations, might take 15 minutes to demonstrate. It’s a basic formula: Set out carbohydrates to attract microbes from a place—its air, its soil, its plants and animals. Feed the microbes sugar so they’ll multiply (or in the case of Lacto bacilli, feed them milk to encourage a specific population). Dilute the potion and apply it to whatever needs help.

If sheer diversity is the objective, then the microbes are collected from the wildest place one can find. The owner of this farm, Dennis Dierks, has wilderness at his doorstep, and so collected his microbes from the woods behind Carandang’s stage. Where there is no forest, the objective is still to find the place with greatest diversity. This could be even on the farm itself—a wild area behind the compost pile, or a healthy hedgerow. In fact, the closer to the farm, the better, as the most beneficial microbes are those naturally adapted to the ecosystem.

As the microbes are attracted and arrive to eat the carbohydrates, they go from invisible to visible, but just barely. Forest microbes are collected using cooked white rice, and success is marked by the appearance, after a few days, of mold. Lacto bacilli are heralded by the curdling of milk, other microbes simply by a sour smell to the liquid they’re in. Add some sugar, though, and the transformation is mind-blowing.

Last year, I saw Dierks’ brews as they came to life in his potting shed. They weren’t pretty, mostly soupy brown liquids in jugs and buckets, but the life inside them was astonishing. He went to give me a smell of one, labeled “Root Brew,” only to find the bottle cap had been sealed on by liquid seeping out from inside. He wrenched the plastic bottle between his hands, pulled, and bang! The cap popped off and liquid exploded all over the shed.

We stood there for a moment, our bare arms and faces and shirts brown and wet, Dennis holding what had become a sated volcano, calm but still dribbling out lava. “If this were chemicals we would be totally poisoned right now,” he said, “not to mention out of a lot of money. But that’s the beauty of it. Instead, your skin feels soft. It feels alive. And it’s free. I haven’t been this excited about farming for 25 years.”

Later in the season, several of Dierks’ long-time customers commented that his produce tasted better than in years past, and was keeping for longer. Meanwhile, Diane Matthews, another local farmer who had learned Carandang’s techniques, was using her own microbe brew to fight off the Phytopthera that was decimating her raspberries. “The plants were supposed to die,” she said at the workshop. “I didn’t know what would happen, but I figured I’d try the forest microbes. What happened was the Phytopthera disappeared. I got a crop at Thanksgiving! The berries were small, but their taste was excellent.”

The specific power of Lacto
Carandang explains that one can also home in on specific microbes for targeted results. The most useful is Lacto bacillus. This microorganism is the workhorse of the human digestive system (though luckily it is also found elsewhere). On the farm it’s used for similar tasks of digestion, something Dierks was relieved to hear last winter after the NOP had mandated that all manure be fully broken down before use. He applied his Lacto bacillus culture to the mound of manure beside his field, and the composting was faster than ever. Similarly, when sprayed on plants, Lacto bacilli will digest the biomass on the leaves and stems—dust, for instance, or mud—thus making that free food available to its host.

“Lacto” is the only microbe Carandang will mention by name, but it is only one of millions that can be collected and used. His instructions are characteristically simple: walk around the farm, find elements you want to reproduce, and collect the microbes that surround them. You could get the microbes from around a particularly robust tomato plant and spray that on next year’s crop. (These concoctions last for months, even years.) To make a growth promoter, find a beanstalk growing like mad, clip the leaves at the top of vine (where all the growth is happening) and make a brew of the resident microbes. Do it with bamboo, or even kelp, which grows inches each day.

“In the Philippines, we use water lettuce,” Carandang says. “We spray it on the cucumbers and boom! You can do that and be three or five days ahead of the other local farmers. If you’re a market gardener, that can be a big deal.”

After talking for nearly seven hours straight, Carandang ends the workshop because the daylight is starting to fade. The energy in the barn only rises. Despite the chill in the air and the stiff legs it granted us, we are all now bustling about, discussing how we plan—already—to put the technology to work.

Alan Mart does organic landscaping and soil management plans. His first thought is to collect the microbes from willow roots, which suffer no transplant shock, and apply them to other, more fragile specimens that he’s planting.

Patty Salmon is a goat rancher who has been turning her farm organic for years, but has always hit a wall when it comes to feed. With only 8 acres, she can’t possibly grow all the grain and forage for her herd of 100. Carandang explained that his brother, a chicken farmer, ferments his feed and applies Lacto bacillus to it. This causes a pre-digestion that makes a greater percentage of the nutrients available to the chickens, and results in their eating less. Salmon thinks maybe she can extend her reach by doing the same.

Also conferring are Doug Gallagher and Annabelle Lenderink, from Star Route Farms, one of the oldest and most venerated organic farms in the country. Gallagher heard about beneficial microorganisms 25 years ago, and the farm is already using some store-bought varieties to combat lettuce drop and mildew. They’ve had moderate success, though Gallagher admits they continue using them less because of quantifiable effects and more because he believes in the concept. He’s hopeful that will change with microbes collected from the farm’s forested acreage, which have evolved to thrive in that particular piece of land. And if not, well, at least they’re free.

Of course Carandang is swarmed with students and their questions after the talk. While waiting their turns, a few pick up the two clean brown bottles on the larger folding table. They contain Carandang’s own Lacto bacillus culture, made back in the Philippines. He brings them along to demonstrate a finished product, but he also has a few for sale. Frankly, though, for all his charms, he’s a terrible businessman. One workshop student carries a bottle over to him and asks the price.

“It’s ten dollars,” Carandang says, “but you don’t need to buy it. Just make your own. I guarantee it will be better.”

Gil Carandang offers workshops and, for those who cannot attend, detailed booklets on indigenous microorganism cultivation and other innovative technologies. Carandang has also written a book on the topic, Indigenous Microorganisms – Grow your own: Beneficial indigenous microorganisms and bionutrients in natural farming. To order write to: Gil Carandang
Herbana Farms, Km. 59 burol, Calamba City, Laguna, Philippines, email: gil_carandang@hotmail.com

Lisa M. Hamilton is a California journalist and fine-arts photographer with a flair for explaining regenerative agriculture themes.

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