The Forgotten Pioneers of The Soil Food Web
There’s a saying that goes “that which is old becomes new again.” Nature itself renews and recycles dead material back into useful and productive soil. Microbial life in a food web recycles the old, the dead by using it as food. A recent research project led my friend Nina (owner of Microbes In My Soil LLC) to discover that the recent interest in the soil microbiology is also nothing new. Recently Nina discovered the work of Raoul Heinrich France and his wife Annie France-Harrar who in the early 20th century were counting, identifying and recording soil microbiology in the soil food web
France was born in 1874 in Austria. He met Annie in a class to learn microscopy; she became his assistant and later they married. Together their life’s work became peering through the eyepieces of, by today’s standards rudimentary microscopes. They discovered that the humus portion of soil that supports all life is created by the activities of the mostly unexplored world of microbes. Prior to WWI Raoul set up a laboratory and a school to teach soil microbiology. It was destroyed during the war. After WWI he again started teaching and researching the soil, again his work was destroyed in WWII.
They were quite philosophical about the soil food web as a way to produce healthier food and sustain a growing population. They believed the teachings needed to reach the masses to save the world this is perhaps why Raoul and Annie created over 80 books about their discoveries during their lives.
In 1943- Raoul Heinrich France died in Budapest, Hungary. WWII ended 2 years after the death of Raoul, at that time corporations that had been manufacturing weapons were now left with a stockpile of nitrates and phosphates they no longer had a use for. At this time the work of the Frances was pushed into obscurity and these stockpiled chemicals would be the dominant fertilizers for the next 70 years.
His wife Annie continued to research soil life and the formation of humus by microbial action for nearly another 3 decades until her death in 1971.
Introduction to France’s Soil Food Web
The above sketches and key to those sketches are in R.H France’s own hand. On the bottom of the key is some early work being done on a “vaccine” to create humus. This recipe is based on percentages and ratios of microorganisms. The recipe translates as:
Nannedaphon 14% (other documents so far just say a little known group of organisms)
Soil fungi 18%
Eukaryotes 3% (diatoms for example)
Rhizopods 22% (amoeba)
Rotifera 7% (Suggests rotifers but picture doesn’t match)
There’s some difficulty finding English translation for much of the Frances work but it appears that Annie also continued to refine this recipe for a “vaccine” to produce humus after the death of her husband. (I’ve since discovered the full recipe and assay)
We can see that the relatively recent interest in soil microbes is based on work approaching a century old. The old has again become new, yesterday’s dead material has become food for today. Das Edaphon has created the humus upon which the towering trees of today feed.
Raoul Heinrich France and his wife Annie France-Harrar were pioneers of organic farming and the soil food web. Those of us involved in the field of organic growing, microbiology, soil remediation and composting should reflect for a moment on the brilliance of a couple from Austria who laid out the groundwork for our modern organic movement.
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