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Regenerative Agriculture Podcast

Apr 14, 2018

In this episode, I had an awesome time interviewing Dr. Michael McNeill, who is an agronomic consultant with several degrees in soil fertility, plant physiology, and quantitative genetics. We discuss how fertility and genetics impact plant response to disease invasion, what causes the suppression of soil health, Michael’s experience quickly regenerating soil, how farming has changed since the green revolution, and how to develop a plant profile that protects against disease.


Mentioned In This Episode:




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Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, Episode 3 Timestamps:

4:10 - Michael’s background


  • Michael’s seen the transition of his farm going from all horses, to the GPS guided tractors they use today.
  • He sees a need to bring back certain aspects of the type of farming he learned from his grandfather, especially In terms of improving soil health and maintaining soil fertility.
  • Michael’s operation has gone completely organic.
  • Around 42,000 acres of organic crops in Michael’s area, with farmers ranging from 320 acres to 15,000 acres of organic area.


6:50 - Michael’s professional work


  • Michael left the farm for a few years for a degree at Iowa State University, majoring in agronomy for a B.S. degree in soils and soil fertility. Michael has a masters degree in plant physiology, and a PhD in quantitative genetics.
  • After university, Michael studied the impact of diseases as weapons and how to defend crops against diseases.
  • Michael learned about how fertility and genetics can create environments that can defend against pathogenic invasion.
  • Michael had experimented with GMO’s and moving genes from different species into plants, which he chose to step away from. This lead to focus on a quantitative genetic approach, and more into soil fertility and health.
  • Michael has moved into agricultural consulting as well

11:00 - What is the scope of Michael’s work?


  • Most of Michael’s work is working with soil health and soil fertility.
  • Michael says soil health never used to be a big issue compared to today

11:30 - What has changed with soil health?


  • Michael noticed plants in old photos looked much healthier
  • Michael asked: what changed from back then? He says it’s due to use of herbicides.


14:30 - Production dropping on farms


  • Michael has observed a drop from 200 bushels per acre to 70-80. Michael has seen this across many farms.


16:10 - How do you go from depressed yields to back up to larger numbers

  • Michael advises to firstly figure out what is going wrong, and stop doing that.
  • “Get the food right” for the soil.
  • There is no magic bullet solution


19:00 - What is causing the suppression of soil health?


  • Excessive tillage doesn’t seem to bother soil. However, you must be careful with which tillage tool to use.
  • Tillage does not cause the same damage as herbicides, anhydrous ammonia, or high sulphur fertilizers


21:40 - What are the damaging effects of herbicides on soil health?


  • Michael thinks we haven’t paid enough attention to soil micronutrients
  • They are important to plant growth, and easily chelated by pesticides.


23:00 - What did Michael learn from his grandfather would be relevant today?


  • Crop rotation is lacking.
  • Michael’s grandfather had to grow oats for his horses, which are great at improving soil health.
  • Michael says we should think of oats as an excellent cover crop.
  • No better fertilizer than animal manures.


26:00 - What did Michael learn from studying diseases as a weapon?


  • Diseases can continue to kill crops for many years.
  • Antibiotic type products can strip soil protection
  • It hard to fix contaminated soil. There is microbial life in soil that will keep everything in balance, provided you can provide the right nutrition.


29:40 - Is it possible to grow crops that don’t have disease?


  • Michael says yes! It’s very hard to get disease to invade a perfectly healthy plant
  • An unhealthy plant cannot convert sugars into complex sugars, which disease can’t use.


33:10 - What has been something that has puzzled Michael?


  • Michael’s answer: The impact of lack of micronutrients in crops.
  • Minerals are being chelated inside the plant tissue by herbicides
  • Sap analysis correlates more with what plants are showing visually


36:20 - What are the things Michael believes to be true that others don’t believe to be true?


  • Michael believes soil can grow healthy and high yielding plants with minimal additional inputs


37:10 - How to grow healthy, high yield crops without fertilizer


  • Creating healthy soil that allows plant roots to go deep into the soil for access to needed minerals


40:10 - What does Michael not believe to be true?


  • Michael’s answer: Most people believe you have to put a lot of inputs in to get decent yield. Most people don’t understand how the system works and are trying to swim upstream.


41:20 - What technology or ideas is Michael excited about?


  • More involvement in food production
  • Wasting too much good soil


42:10 - Where is the biggest opportunity in agriculture?


  • Growers that are looking to improve sustainability of their operations


43:00 - What is the one book Michael would recommend for growers?


  • Mineral Nutrition and Plant Disease - Lawrence E. Datnoff, Don M. Huber, Wade H. Elmer
  • Books relating to microbial life in soil


45:20 - What is the one action Michael recommend growers take?


  • “Stop poisoning the soil”
  • Transitioning vs. stopping all at once
  • Michael has had total success with other farmers implementing this



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