“The soil is the ‘creative material’ of most of the basic needs of life. Creation starts with a handful of dust.” -Dr. William A. Abrecht
William Albrecht, arguably the father of the science of soil fertility, was a professor at the University of Missouri. During his working life he, and his students, performed painstaking experiments to find out just what constituted a fertile soil in terms of balanced mineral and organic matter content to grow healthy plants which, in turn, provided nutritious food for stock and people.
He was a prolific communicator, publishing many scientific papers and also expressing the science in layman’s language in articles for farming and health magazines. He was also a constant critic of the stupidity of the N-P-K system pedalled by the fertiliser companies, the land-grant universities and the US government and for good reason; his predictions are now painfully true for all to see around the world.
William A. Albrecht was born on a farm in 1888 in the Mid-West United States. He was the foremost authority on the relation of soil fertility to human health and earned four degrees from the University of Illinois. He went on to be emeritus Professor of Soils at the University of Missouri. Dr. Albrecht saw a direct link between soil quality and food quality – a link which necessarily lent itself to human health. His work made clear that health stems from the soil. He drew direct connections between poor quality forage crops, and ill health in livestock. He developed base-level requirements for soil nutrients which are still being used.
Throughout his life, Dr. Albrecht looked to nature to guide his research and learn what optimizes soil, plant, animal, and even human health. Fairly early on in his research, Albrecht attributed many common disease conditions found in livestock directly to those animals being fed poor quality feeds. In Albrecht’s mind, that meant forage grown on soils that were deficient in essential elements. Put yet another way, Albrecht insightfully observed that “Food is fabricated soil fertility.”
Rumor has it that Albrecht was forced out by chemical and fertilizer companies that bought off and took over ag schools like the University of Missouri. Fertilizer companies easily retooled WWII munitions plants into fertilizer factories. This fertilizer was of the N, P, K variety (nitrogen, phosphate, potassium), key ingredients in munitions. With his knowledge, Albrecht knew that focusing just on N, P, K was a very shortsighted fertilizer program, and he wrote extensively about it. It must have been frustrating to have mounds of N, P, K to sell, and the leading soil scientist is instead touting calcium, magnesium, and micro nutrients like zinc.
Unlike many organic farming circles that tend to just focus heavily on soil biology (organic matter and microbes), AM also emphasizes the importance of soil structure and soil chemistry. Diving into AM is sorta like going back to high school chemistry. You’re enlightened by the importance of each mineral, for example, potassium, and how it interplays with other minerals to provide food for plants. There’s so much that’s still unknown, but so far it’s pretty clear that ideal soils are 50% air and water, 5% humus (organic matter), and 45% nutrients. Of the 45%, great soils have about 65% calcium, 15% magnesium, 4% potassium, 2% sodium, 10% hydrogen, and the remainder is chock-full of micro nutrients: sulfur, phosphorous, zinc, copper, iron, manganese, etc. Soils with this breakdown have ideal pH levels, are very friendly to soil life, and, with some time, can produce very nutritious crops at high yields.
AM starts with testing your soil to find its Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC), which is the amount of sites in your soil that can attach and hold minerals. Minerals and nutrients are held in the soil by humus and tiny clay particles. AM helps you to focus on getting the nutrients you do have into the right balance so soil life will flourish and help free up more nutrients to plants.