TRAVERSE CITY — Ken Engle is like most farmers: he spends plenty of time tending to plants and trees that produce fruit at his 300-acre farm in Acme Township.
He’s also increasingly paying attention to the soil that blankets his farm.
Engle is part of a growing number of farmers who more closely study the natural biology of farmland soil in northern Michigan, specifically the presence of natural biological elements such as fungi, amoebas, nematodes and naturally occurring nutrients in the dirt.
Engle said chemical or synthetic fertilizers commonly used by many farms, when used too much, can kill the beneficial biological organisms in the soil. Engle wants to take a different approach because he believes doing so will protect the region’s farmlands over the long-term.
“We are talking about our biological farming system so we can improve the soil,” Engle said. “What we are doing is trying to get the soil to be as alive and as healthy as possible.”
Engle is one of two regional fruit producers who now rely on a Michigan-based consultant for help in promoting natural biological elements in their dirt. Chateu Chantal in Old Mission Peninsula also uses Bio-Systems of Marlette for help.
Bio-Systems founder Joe Scrimger said damage to Michigan farmlands by overuse of salt-based fertilizers and nitrogen is both real and measurable.
“As we use herbicides, we don’t kill that system overnight, but if you take herbicides and salt-based fertilizer and you are using too much elemental nitrogen, then we start to impact the land negatively,” Scrimger said. “It might take 15 years for the damage to be measurable comparing to a plot that didn’t have the same thing done to it.”
Chateau Chantal Winemaker Mark Johnson said his vineyards are targeted every year with a long-term strategy for increasing biological materials, a strategy recommended by the consultant. The primary approach is to spread compost, up to two tons per acre, across the farm’s grounds.