It takes vision to enter Cherryle Prew’s world – microscopic vision in fact, as it’s the world beneath our feet she studies.
Bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes “swimming” across her microscope’s slides fascinate and delight Cherryle because, in the right ratios and levels of activity, they tell that the soil she’s sampling is supporting healthy livestock and plants.
The subterranean world revealed beneath her microscope fascinates Cherryle Prew.
“Above ground growth is dependent upon what is growing underground. If you don’t know what organisms are present in your soil then much of your management is being left to chance,” says Cherryle, owner and manager of Soil Foodweb New Zealand.
In her Waihi lab, Cherryle analyses soil samples for clients, using what she observes to formulate recommendations on management to improve the health and productivity of the soils. Those recommendations are specific to what the soil grows. Pasture has different needs to that required by orchard trees and vines or vegetable crops.
Cherryle’s aim is to help farmers and growers understand their soils better and to make the transition from ‘mineral-only’ fertiliser to profitable biological systems.
Changing the way soils are treated is vital, she believes, because increasingly the foods commercial agriculture and horticulture produce are becoming less nutritious, putting at risk human health.
“Many of our fruit and vegetables are less nutrient dense now than they were in the 1940s which is of concern for many reasons, including that we’re being encouraged to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables; but in fact may not be getting the nutrients we need from them.”
How nutritious fruit, vegetables, meat and milk are depends on a complex subterranean world. That’s where worms are the “whales” and along with millions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes are involved in a constant cycle of eating, excreting, reproducing and dying, all the while converting nutrients into forms which can be utilised by plants.
It’s not a one-way system either. Plants in turn provide food for their underground supply chain, particularly through the conversion of the sun’s energy by photosynthesis.
This underground world has fascinated Cherryle for decades. In 1991 she bought and began operating a certified organic kiwifruit orchard in Te Puke. Later she worked as consultant for an organic packhouse and spent three years as an organic systems auditor for SGG and Bio-Gro NZ.
“As an auditor I visited a wide range of organic producers from kiwifruit to ostrich farmers and even travelled to the Pacific Islands and South Africa to do audits. I learnt such a lot from those experiences, including that to help farmers and growers find the answers to their problems, you had to ask them the right questions.”
Cherryle had many of her own questions; and the more she learnt about the soil, the more sense focusing on its health made.
It was American soil scientist Elaine Ingham who inspired her to take the next step, setting up her own laboratory to help farmers and growers improve their soil health.
Elaine established the first Soil Foodweb Inc Laboratory in Oregon in the 1980s. Soil Foodweb Institute NZ, an affiliate of Soil Foodweb Inc, was opened in Cambridge in 2003 and today is independently operated by Cherryle.
Since its inception, Soil Foodweb Institute has been working with thousands of agriculture and horticultural growers throughout both islands of New Zealand to help them improve the health and productivity of their soils.
Changing from a conventional fertiliser programme to a biological one can be scary for many farmers. “It’s their livelihood at stake and they fear that making changes may put their income at risk.”
To transition to biological farming Cherryle’s way doesn’t involve following strict rules and regulations, regular auditing or certification. It’s about identifying what is happening with soils, what’s good and what’s not, and finding ways to restore the balance, using both conventional fertiliser where appropriate and inputs such as compost, humus, and inoculants as required.