Eliminating the Need For Synthetic Fertilizers with Kris Nichols


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Dr. Kris Nichols has conducted innovative research on soil biology, understanding how to regenerate soil health quickly. She is the founder and principal scientist of KRIS (Knowledge for Regeneration In Soils) Systems Education & Consulting Services. Dr. Nichols has also been the Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute and a Research Soil Microbiologist with the USDA.

In this episode, Kris and I discuss how to harness the power of fungi to decrease the use of synthetic fertilizers, the symbiosis between bacteria and water retention, and climate-resilient crops.

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Episode 11 - Kris Nichols - Highlights

3:00 - What are some of the highlights that have lead Kris to where she is today?

  • Kris researched mycorrhizal fungi at the University of Minnesota
  • Kris worked with USDA and fell back in love with agriculture, especially when seeing concepts from the lab being practically implemented

7:00 - Not being able to regenerate soil to full potential when using synthetic fertilizer

  • Organisms in the soil have huge potential to resolve nutrient issues in plants
  • In a lab, Kris could see this to be true - but many growers were still relying on synthetic fertilizers
  • Need to put the tools in place to optimize organisms in soil (mycorrhizal fungi especially) to maximize effects on plants

10:10 - Applying soluble phosphorus fertilizers removing the need for a symbiotic relationship between plants and mycorrhizae

  • Timing is very important when adding amendments - making sure the plant needs are being met when it has those needs
  • Many times, plants are unable to make use of all the fertilizer applied
  • Can’t “outsource” the job of mycorrhizal fungi

17:10 - What other fertilizers could have a damaging effect?

  • Soluble fertilizer does the most damage in “outsourcing” the jobs of the microbial community
  • Organic fertilizers are broken down by the microbial communities, and so they do not cause this same damage

19:20 - Plant and root absorption of amino acids and proteins

  • The untruth of using synthetic fertilizers to avoid “mining” the soil

27:10 - Water use efficiency

  • We have no idea how much water a plant actually needs!
  • There are cellular water needs, but also in the rhizosphere around the plant
  • Getting efficient mycorrhizal fungi (especially early on) allows the creation of a network for water and nutrient delivery in plants

34:10 - Layers of efficiency from mycorrhizal fungi

  • Able to extend beyond the root system
  • Phosphate soluble bacteria interactions with mycorrhizal fungi
  • An analogy for how this bacteria helps: Plants are figuring out how to get water “from the driveway to the house”, instead of “from the neighboring town to the house”
  • Nutrients moving between plants in a system through mycorrhizal fungi

43:00 - What has been something that has really surprised Kris?

  • Kris’ experience with cancer lead her to think about how essential carbon exchange was in plants
  • Stopping the flow of carbon - “What is stopping the payment from flowing?”

46:30 - What does Kris believe to be true about modern agriculture that is not a mainstream view?

  • Regenerative systems allow us to “have our cake, and eat it too” - meaning are able to feed 14 billion people nutrient dense food while having a high quality of life and while maintaining and enhancing ecosystem services
  • Incredible potential to do so much more than we are

50:00 - What is the impact of biology on producing higher levels of plant secondary metabolites?

  • Many compounds are coming directly from soil compounds which find their way to plants - which end up in the food chain
  • There has been so much focus in plant nutrition on nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus
  • Building up a more resilient network - making more soil aggregates
  • Creating a mycorrhizosphere
  • Making a good network allows for making secondary compounds

59:20 - What are some resources that Kris would recommend?

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42 episodes