Testing Methods to Develop a Soil Food Web in Clay Soils

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2020: $14,860.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2022
Grant Recipient: Ecosystem Farm
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Kirsten Simmons
Ecosystem Farm



  • Vegetables: beans, tomatoes
  • Additional Plants: herbs


  • Crop Production: crop improvement and selection, foliar feeding
  • Soil Management: composting, soil quality/health

    Proposal summary:

    Both Elaine Ingham and John Kempf have been working on this issue for decades in different parts of the country.  Both view plant pest and disease pressure as a nutrient deficiency – if the plant had what it needed for optimum health, the pest and disease organisms wouldn’t be able to cause damage to the plant. 


    Elaine Ingham is based in the Pacific Northeast, and focuses entirely on the soil.  By creating and applying biological compost, she restores the soil food web to health and lets the organisms in the soil support the health of the plant.  


    John Kempf is based in the Midwest, and focuses entirely on the plant.  By providing foliar feeds and using plant sap analysis to support plant health, he lets the plant attract the organisms for a thriving soil food web.


    Both have demonstrated significant improvements in plant health via their methods, and both methods appear to allow for reduced inputs and increased yields over time.  I have studied the methods of both in detail, and have also spent time with Jairo Restrepo to learn how to make John Kempf’s foliar feeds.  I would like to formally test both methods on my farm next year and compare soil health, plant health and organic matter over two years.


    Project objectives from proposal:

    I will split one field into four sections and measure baseline soil organic matter and soil food web density.  Each section will measure approximately 3ft by 65ft and come from a field that sits on a south-facing slope and receives 8+ hours of sunlight per day.  These sections will be next to each other to minimize base variation between the rows, and will start with a stale seedbed. Each section will be planted with a polyculture of sungold tomatoes, Neapolitan basil and purple majesty bush beans. 

    The sections will be treated as follows:

    • Control - seedlings will be transplanted with fish emulsion, mulched with organic straw after planting, and will be given 1-2 foliar feedings with fish emulsion throughout the season as needed.
    • Soil Food Web Methodology - treated with biologically active compost and organic straw prior to planting, with additional foliar applications of compost tea as needed.
    • Foliar Feeding Methodology - seedlings treated with foliar sprays based on sap analysis 
    • Combination - space prepared with biological compost and organic straw, then given foliar sprays based on sap analysis


    Over the course of summer 2020, I will take the following samples at monthly intervals: soil food web analysis, brix count, check of nodules on bean roots, and plant sap analysis from tomato leaves, basil leaves and bean leaves.  I will also record time spent removing weeds, as well as yields of harvests from all sections.  The timing of samples may change depending on conditions - i.e., if I've just transplanted basil, I'll need to wait a few weeks for the results of a plant sap analysis to represent the conditions in the test area instead of in the seed starting mix.  I'm not going to be testing simply because the calendar says to test.


    In the fall I'll plant all sections with head lettuce and radishes, and continue monthly testing and yield measurements.  The spaces will be tracked without intervention through 2021 to measure the persistence of the effects on the soil food web and plant health. 


    I am currently enrolled in Dr. Ingham’s Soil Health Consultant training program and have been trained to conduct soil food web analysis. I anticipate doing the majority of the soil analysis myself, but would like to submit 4 samples in the first year to confirm my work. 


    I’ve also studied with Jairo Restrepo, who has been able to create many of John Kempf’s foliar sprays. We have a local network of growers who work together to create the sprays and purchase ingredients in bulk to share the cost.  I anticipate being able to source supplies and create my own foliar sprays for significantly less than the cost of purchasing John Kempf’s sprays.

    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.