Don't Treat Your Soil Like Dirt!

Ian Burke is a grown man who still loves to play in the dirt. Through his business, Hill Country Organics, Burke is committed to educating gardeners, farmers and communities about the very complex system going on beneath the surface. His holistic approach allows organic, transitional and conventional growers to achieve dramatically higher yields while drastically reducing the need for water, chemicals and fertilizers.

“There is a cultural shift going on now called regenerative agriculture,” says Burke. “An emerging science that deals with the soil environment in the root zone.”

The “living food web” feeds and sustains the creatures and microbiota within the soil environment, such as bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods and archaea, creating vital soil balance resistant to pathogens.

“People glaze over when I talk about this,” says Burke. “In layman’s terms, if you feed your soil, the healthy soil will feed your plants, and you will have healthier plants and better food for your body. It’s that simple.”

According to Burke, half of traditional salt fertilizer is taken up by the plant and the other half makes its way to the Colorado River. He feels we can do better. For obvious reasons, chemical companies are not supportive of what they call “citizen science” or “observational science.”

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“I spend a lot of time looking under a microscope counting microbes in living soil samples to determine soil health,” says Burke. “In one gram of healthy soil, you could have 300,000 individual bacteria all doing their work. It’s amazing.”

The key to regenerative agriculture is to understand that the microbes are creating air and water space in the soil and basically tilling it, resulting in a rich and diverse ecosystem. Plants are basically feeding themselves through a very complex relationship — sending signals through the roots to bacteria and fungi, then to the microbes.

“It can be challenging to understand the complexity, because we don’t speak plant!” says Burke. “But it doesn’t have to be that complicated.”

He challenges people to question: who is applying fertilizer at night to old growth forests or even a beautiful climax forest on top of the Grand Mesa? The food for these super-productive systems are being manufactured underground. Basically, when people get involved, we mess with the natural system.

“We have over 100 years of degrading the valley’s landscape,” says Burke. “It’s going to take time to reintroduce diversity and health back into the system.”

Hill Country Organics offers nine soil amendments that feed the microbes — the building blocks of good soil health. Burke works with small, diversified vegetable farms, sports turf, grass and pasture growers, orchards and vineyards. The largest growth in his business has been the explosion of hemp farms in the valley.

Burke is also an advocate for cover cropping, always keeping some living roots in the ground between rows of field crops.

“Always keeping some living roots in the ground is important, because it’s the habitat where the food for your soil lives,” says Burke. “You’ll decrease erosion, increase water holding, suppress weeds, provide a home for beneficial insects and pollinators, reducing the need for pesticides and chemicals.”

This applies for the winter months as well. Diverse cover crops produce air space and insulation during the cold months, continuing the soil-building and decomposition process. Oxygen and water are both plentiful in the winter, when microbes are their busiest.