Utilizing Microscopic Testing Protocols to analyze our soil and compost to make the correct actions to improve our soil quality.

Progress report for FNC23-1374

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $30,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Baby Greens Family Farm
Region: North Central
State: Indiana
Project Coordinator:
Glenda George
Baby Greens Family Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

I am Glenda George of Baby Greens Family Farm and I have been growing food organically for approximately 8 years while homeschooling my sons for just as long. We've expanded into microgreens in the past year and now we've entered into a partnership with Pastor Allen Smith Jr. and his church family, Peter Rock Church of God in Christ to farm on approximately an acre of land in Gary, Indiana. I've taught gardening classes in corporate spaces to encourage new growers and help current growers improve their processes. I'm also a teacher for the Junior Master Gardener program sponsored by the Gary Food Council to engage children academically and practically in the field of gardening/farming. I am always seeking innovative and cost effective ways to remain an organic grower no matter our size. I am an active member of the Gary Food Council which allows me to be a food advocate with others dedicated to ending food related injustices throughout Gary, Indiana.

Baby Green's new and exciting partnership with Pastor Smith's church allows us to take the organic practices onto a much larger scale. Our goal is to remain intentional and positively impactful to people receiving the food we grow and the land we're growing the food upon.

Pastor Allen Smith Jr. since his childhood has grown food, which he learned alongside his father who was a sharecropper in Mississippi during the 1920s and 30s. He's now expanding his personal love for growing food to his church family as a way to increase fellowship, conduct community outreach, rid Gary of food deserts and expand educational opportunities to those interested in a variety of farm related methods. Pastor Smith, in partnership with Baby Greens, is dedicated to developing a space that encourages more farming within Gary. Projects centered on a community outreach approach is already a part of their church mission and now they are expanding into growing food and creating a space for education and research for projects like this one that will benefit the residents of Gary. Pastor Smith has financial and record-keeping experts that can help us maintain solid data as we progress through this project. He also as the space for us to host our events and store the equipment. Our team will also research the history of the spaces of the growers/farmers that join in on the project.


Northwest Indiana has a long history of heavy industry that has negatively impacted much of the soil within many communities along Lake Michigan.  We grow in Gary and we want to strengthen the biome of our soil on a microbial level and be more discerning with the soil amendments we select.  Overall, we’d like to stop guessing as to what our soil needs, do more than yearly soil tests, and build more effective composting and sustainable practices.   We focused our questions on (1) can frequent soil analysis on a microbial level help to quickly and accurately mitigate issues, (2) can frequent soil analysis reduce the cost to improve soil health, (3) can we find and share the existence of trends of contaminants (that are not indigenous to the region, i.e. lead and arsenic) that we can find creative solutions found in nature to remove, (4) can we take the Soil Food Web Course and create comprehensive protocols for local farmers that can speed the process of creating healthier soil, and (5) can our testing results aid in educating the community on the health benefits derived from our nutrient dense foods thereby promoting the consumption of local and organically/naturally grown foods.



Project Objectives:

We are farmers that utilize organic practices and we’re seeking to increase our knowledge as we expand our farming operation in partnership with another farm.  We seek to be educated on a deeper level of regenerative growing methods that will give us actionable scientific information as often as we need it. By taking Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Course, we will learn comprehensive methods to restore and invigorate our soil taught in ways that growers can do themselves. Her course can help us achieve our goals while placing us in the position to offer the same beneficial methods to other local socially underrepresented growers.  We believe having this skill set of literally knowing the health of the soil that feeds the food we grow encourages more people to grow in spaces such as Gary that is a food desert.  This will also help shift the negative perception regarding the safety of our locally grown foods throughout the region.  

Microscopic examination of our soil and compost provides an integral component for our local farmers who need immediate, frequent and consistent soil analysis results.  With completion of the course we will also be empowered to build effective responses to take the necessary remedial actions that will arise within the soil while collecting data that could help address the historical impact of industry to the region.  This, coupled with Dr. Ingham’s specific methods for aerated compost development, will allow us to create self-sustaining healthy soil biomes.  Additionally, microscopic soil analysis allows us to spend money on the correct soil amendments that will have the greatest impact on the soil.     

As Certified Soil Food Web Lab-Tech and Consultants we will create a laboratory space that houses the microscopes, beakers, testing tools, compost tea brewers, compost tea sprayers, thermometers, compost covers and other tools specifically recommended by Dr. Elaine Ingham. Eventually we will be able to open ourselves to additional lab related opportunities while supporting this initiative in our community. For example, we want to take our data regarding the contaminants found in the soil and and find partners interested in determining if there are microbial solutions that are capable of ridding the soil of those specific contaminants, i.e. the fungi, Pestalotiopsis microspora, has been found to eat plastic.  

Educational Objective 1: Attend Dr. Elaine Ingham's Soil Food Web School as soon as the funds are released in 2023.  These courses are intended to "dramatically accelerate soil regeneration projects by focusing on the soil biome. This can boost the productivity of farms, provide super-nutritious foods, protect and purify waterways, and reduce the effects of Climate Change. No background in farming or biology is required for our Foundation Courses. Classes are online & self-paced, and students are supported by highly-trained Soil Food Web School mentors."  http://soilfoodweb.com/about Upon completion we will be certified as soil food web technician, consultant capable of testing our soil as well as others. 

Educational Objective 2: Take initial soil samples (planting spaces and existing compost piles) from the four farms initially involved in our project.  Develop an action plan that addresses the inadequacies in the current soil that will rebuild the soil's biome over the course of three years.  Review each farm's composting methods and make the necessary changes.  Create and implement testing schedules for the farms.  

Educational Objective 3: Conduct ongoing courses to community farmers so that they can take the same steps to develop regenerative soil and compost.  Collectively discuss trends, best practices and results that are unique to our urban spaces.


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  • Allen Smith, Jr. - Producer


Materials and methods:

The main part of the project is for me to conduct microscopic testing on soil samples collected from the farmers participating in the project.  Secondarily, I am sharing key points of what I am learning with our farming collective so they will understand their soil’s microbial biome and the benefits of the compost teas we suggest they utilize.  Essentially, at the heart of my project is to educate farmers and advocate for changes that improve and expand our soil health and food web.

Without the understanding of how to conduct the microscopic testing just yet I’ve still learned a great deal for other farmers to utilize and strategically add to their winter planning for the coming season:

  1. It is vital for us to find ways to not till the soil because all degrees of tilling causes compaction.
    1. A few of our beds are too wide for us to tend to without stepping on them so we plan to split them up and create walking paths made from primarily cut cover crops from the winter.  
  2. Aerobic composting is necessary to cultivate healthy bacteria while suppressing bad ones.
    1. We’re designing vertical cages on top of pallets to be sure there is airflow on all sides of the compost to ensure it remains aerobic.  
  3. Working with local fungal communities is important to beneficial nutrient cycling and weed suppression. Soils that have increased fungal domination will experience less to zero weeds because weeds cannot survive in a fungal dominated microbiome.  
    1. A part of the classwork is to learn about how to make a fungi slurry to add to compost teas, but I will research a version to make and apply right when the snow officially stops in order for it to begin the process of improving the farm soil.  I will also add it to the spaces where we aren’t growing but plan to so we can see if this can help improve those future growing spaces.
    2. Our initial farmer collective meetings will be focused on this topic and will hopefully lead to us planning some foraging field trips lead by a few foraging experts we know locally.
Research results and discussion:

Unfortunately, we don't have results thus far.  We haven't been able to start the microscopic testing because the courses for that specifically on how to do it haven't begun.  I have been trying to do as much of the coursework through the winter while farm load is lower.  To make up for this inability to do the testing this past year we plan to extend our relationship with the participating farms into 2025 and possibly 2026 just to be sure they are able to experience successful changes in the soil biome.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
2 On-farm demonstrations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
3 Tours
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
2 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

4 Farmers participated
Education/outreach description:

We gathered the bulk of our farmer information at a conference called the Black Loam Conference held in the spring of 2023.  We had the opportunity to explain our farming collective and our SARE grant research.  At the same time we put out Facebook and Instagram posts to invite farmers to our meetings where we’d also discuss our SARE grant opportunity.  

During the farming season starting in May we held a farming collective meeting each month on Saturday mornings.  Unfortunately our attendance went down each Saturday as farmers ramped up their growing season, so with this being our first year of meeting its been inconsistent engagement.  

We’ve also started a group email through google that has been very helpful and engaging.  We’re considering shifting to active field days for farmers to learn and apply the soil remediation that we’re sharing with other farmers.  We’re developing a schedule with a stronger soil activity learning plan. We also share project updates online: 

2023 NWI Times Article (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
2023 NWI Times Article part 2 (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
2023 NWI Times Article part 3 (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
2023 NWI Times Article part 4 (Article/Newsletter/Blog)
2023 NWI Times Article part 5(Article/Newsletter/Blog)

Learning Outcomes

1 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

With winter upon us, I’ve been able to tackle a lot more of my Dr. Elaine’s Soil Food Web School coursework than I was able to during the farming 2023 season.  Because we also grow microgreens we stay very busy indoors as much as we are outdoors.  The coursework is very extensive and complex, but organized into small bites to allow me to focus on individual concepts that are new to me, such as carbon sequestration and the carbon cycle.  

During the 2023 farming season we began a farming collective and hosted meetings to offer advice and support to one another.  A part of the meetings allowed me to share what I’m learning from my coursework with a special emphasis on the microbiome within the soil.  We’re currently preparing our spring meetings and will resume our shares.  We also were able to identify farmers that are interested in our one-on-one consultations for their individual farms.  While I wasn’t able to collect samples and begin testing them for my initial four farms, I was able to discuss with each farmer their soil management practices.  The coursework is also shifting how we are preparing our farm for the spring growing season.  We’re planning how to make and spray a fungi intensive compost on the farm.  We will offer that to the four farms we’re working with as well.  

The advantages of this project is that I am able to learn so much of the biology and chemistry of healthy soil through the initial foundational courses I’m taking.  The disadvantage is that it’s a lot of coursework to get through and each class I must get a 70% on the 1st attempt because there isn’t a 2nd chance.  Granted, I’ve been getting 90-100% on average, but it’s pretty stressful and time consuming nonetheless.  

Ultimately, what I am learning I will be focused on sharing with other farmers in order to change and/or add to their practices.  Chiefly, I’d suggest ways to prevent compaction of their soil and to find wild growing fungi near their farms to add to their compost teas.  I haven’t learned Dr. Ingham's method of doing this yet, but I can explain to the farmers I’m meeting with the benefits of fungi alongside bacteria in their soils' microbiome. 

Currently, we have an average participation of 4-5 farms participating in our farmer collective meetings.  Three farms have agreed to participate in the microbial testing phase.  My goal for this coming season as I get deeper into the coursework is to begin soil testing for those farms and continue the quarterly testing into the 2025 farming season and potentially 2026 as well.

Project Outcomes

1 Grant received that built upon this project
5 New working collaborations

Information Products

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.