AG-USA: The Power of Sea Minerals and Microbes to Restore Soils
Paul Schneider Jr. showing a thick layer of topsoil and healthy grass developed over Georgia Red Clay (Ultisol) after treatment with MycorrPlus.
“Healthy soil is soil that is alive. For farms and gardens, healthy soil is the key to almost everything, including greater availability of nutrients (less fertilizer), drought tolerance, weed control, nutrient dense plants and healthy livestock. For better yields and increased production, great soil is the answer.”Paul Schneider Jr. on the AG-USA website
In the late 1960s, animal nutritionist Paul Schneider Sr. started the company Tech Ag to help farmers improve the health of cattle by maximizing vitamins and nutrients in their diets. Based on decades of experience with dairy farmers, cattlemen, and feed yards, Paul Schneider Sr. found that the best way to increase their dietary nutrients was by enriching the pasture plants on which they grazed. The trick was figuring out how to improve soil nutrient availability without using salt-based fertilizers, which lack the full spectrum of trace elements that maximize plant and animal health and can degrade soils.
Schneider was joined by his sons on the quest to develop techniques and products that enrich soils using natural approaches. Capitalizing on his father’s breakthroughs in soil health and animal nutrition, Paul Schneider Jr. launched AG-USA (an off-shoot of Tech Ag) in 2003. Through what Paul Schneider Jr. describes as “divine guidance,” the new company developed a unique, organic soil amendment that achieves Paul Sr.’s lifelong goal of improving human and animal health by producing nutrient-dense crops and pasture plants using natural materials.
Laboratory tests and on-farm experience have demonstrated that AG-USA’s products and approaches enhance crop yields and improve pasture plant nutrient levels without relying on synthetic fertilizers. Their breakthrough soil amendment product was initially called GroPal Balance, a combination of the seawater minerals product GroPal and the microbiological additive Soil Balance. The product was later renamed MycorrPlus to signify the material’s dramatic enhancement of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi growth.
As we’ll discuss below, MycorrPlus is uniquely formulated to enrich soils in the full spectrum of trace element nutrients while simultaneously stimulating beneficial biological activity. This approach is particularly restorative for soils lacking well-developed organic-rich topsoil and soils depleted by years of commercial fertilizer use. AG-USA’s approach allows farmers to address important economic and environmental issues. MycorrPlus reduces (and in some cases replaces) the need for synthetic fertilizers, thus saving the money and time needed to procure and spread conventional nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) amendments. MycorrPlus also improves plant resistance to pests and diseases, thus reducing the need for pesticides and biocides. This means fewer chemicals and less nitrogen and phosphorus in farm runoff.
Looking to the Sea For Soil Remineralization
“To empower our food once again with the trace minerals they originally over-flowed with, we must return trace minerals to the soil. Restoring demineralized soil back to health is critical for all of us.”Paul Schneider Jr. from the AG-USA website.
Paul Schneider Jr.’s research into nature-based fertilizers was inspired by the work of both his father and Dr. Maynard Murray. Murray, a medical doctor in the 1940s and 50s, studied the role of trace elements in supporting animal and plant health. Much of Dr. Murray’s career was dedicated to the careful scientific investigation of how minerals from seawater could cure or prevent animal diseases and enhance the health and yield of food crops. His work is compiled in the book Sea Energy Agriculture: Nature’s Ideal Trace Element Blend for Farm, Livestock, Humans.
Experiments detailed in Sea Energy Agriculture show the remarkable healing properties of trace element-enriched foods grown with sea minerals. For example, Murray showed that C3H mice (a strain with a very high spontaneous frequency of mammary tumors) had significantly lower cancer rates when fed a sea mineral-enriched diet. Other dramatic health improvements were observed for chickens, pigs, and dairy cow calves.
He also showed that plant health was improved by sea mineral supplementation. For example, in an orchard experiment, several typical peach trees were used to determine if sea mineral fertilization improved plant disease resistance. Half of the trees were treated with sixty milliliters of sea mineral solution per square foot over the root zone. The other trees were left untreated. Then all of the trees were sprayed with the “Curly Leaf” virus. The sea mineral-treated plants remained virus free and produced a healthy peach yield, while the untreated trees contracted the virus, and their yields were much reduced.
A larger-scale test was performed on tomato plants in northern Illinois. For this experiment, solid sea minerals were used to fertilize one test plot, while conventional NPK fertilizer was used for the control plot. It was found that the control plot tomato plants suffered a heavy blight from fungus, while the plants fertilized with sea minerals were blight free.
In Sea Energy Agriculture, Dr. Murray discusses results from several other experiments demonstrating the remarkable health-imparting nature of sea mineral fertilization. And while none of these experiments involved definitive large-scale trials, the results were enough to inspire Paul Schneider Jr. and AG-USA to develop their own sea mineral-based product and start testing it out.
Why do sea minerals work?
So why would minerals from salt water have such a beneficial effect on plant and animal health? The key seems to be the presence of essential trace elements that are missing from most commercial fertilizers. The table below (adapted from LibreText: Trace Elements in Biological Systems) shows the average chemical composition of seawater and indicates in green which elements are essential for living organisms (both plants and humans). The table isn’t exhaustive (there are at least 73 elements in seawater), but it covers the most important ones.
|parts per million||parts per million|
The following table (adapted from TexasA&M AgriLife Extension: Essential Nutrients for Plants) gives more information on the sixteen essential nutrient elements and their roles in plant growth and development. It’s important to keep in mind that commercial fertilizers lack the majority of the trace elements needed to produce phytonutrients, which are compounds produced by plants (such as antioxidants) that provide health benefits.
|Nutrient Family||Nutrient Element||Typical Percentage in Plant||Major Function|
|Oxygen||45||Respiration, energy production, plant structures|
|Hydrogen||6||pH regulation, water retention, synthesis of carbohydrates|
|Nitrogen||1.75||Formation of chlorophyll, amino acids/proteins, cells|
|Potassium||1.5||Water regulation, enzyme activity|
|Phosphorus||0.25||Cell formation, protein synthesis, fat and carbohydrate metabolism|
|Secondary||Calcium||0.5||Root permeability, enzyme activity|
|Magnesium||0.2||Chlorophyll production, fat formation, and metabolism|
|Sulfur||0.03||Formation of proteins, amino acids, vitamins and oils|
|Micro||Chlorine||0.01||Chlorophyll formation, enzyme activity, cellular development|
|Iron||0.01||Enzyme development and activity|
|Manganese||0.005||Enzyme activity and pigmentation|
|Molybdenum||0.00001||Enzyme activity and nitrogen fixation in legumes|
The table shows that deficiencies in trace elements, such as chlorine, zinc, manganese, boron, copper, and molybdenum, could negatively impact chlorophyll formation as well as enzyme and cell development and activity. Trace element nutrients are also known to be essential for the production of phytonutrients. These compounds prevent and counteract chronic diseases in humans and animals. Examples of important phytonutrients include carotenoids such as beta-carotene (which is converted to vitamin A in the body), anti-inflammatory flavonoids, resveratrol, which lowers the risk of heart disease, and the cancer-fighting compounds of the glucosinolates, and ellagic acid groups.
Plants grown in soils lacking these trace elements are deficient in phytonutrients and therefore are susceptible to pests and disease. Similarly, animals and humans with diets deficient in phytonutrients are susceptible to chronic illnesses. But as Paul Schneider Jr. learned in his research, trace element nutrients alone are insufficient to restore and enrich depleted soils fully. Soil restoration also involves the presence of aerobic microbial communities that deliver soil nutrients to the plant roots. As we’ll discuss below, symbiotic communities of plants, bacteria, and fungi ensure efficient nutrient cycling, improve soil structure (water retention and drainage), and result in the accumulation of organic matter made from carbon dioxide during photosynthesis (carbon sequestration).
The development of MycorrPlus: Adding microbes to sea minerals
AG-USA’s breakthrough soil amendment MycorrPlus actually consists of two nature-based materials. One of these is GroPal (also marketed as Ocean Trace), which is a sea mineral concentrate made by evaporating one hundred gallons of Australian seawater down to 1 gallon and removing excess salts such as halite (sodium chloride). This process results in a liquid enriched in trace elements, many of which are essential micronutrients for plants and animals (see table above).
The other component of MycorrPlus is a biological additive called Soil Balance. This product contains humic and fulvic acids, over 70 strains of beneficial bacillus bacteria, and four strains of mycorrhizal fungi that work symbiotically with plant roots to enrich the plant in nutrients. The seawater concentrate and biological mixture are combined with fish meal, kelp, and molasses (an initial energy source for the beneficial microbes), plus a few other proprietary components to complete the MycorrPlus product.
We have already discussed the vital importance of the nutrient elements provided by the seawater concentrate, but it is the biological component that gives MycorrPlus its most powerful soil-restoring properties.
How plant-microbe symbiosis causes soil restoration and carbon sequestration
Dr. Christine Jones has been another major influence on Paul Schneider Jr. and AG-USA. In an interview with Tracy Frisch for ACRES USA, Dr. Jones explained the often-overlooked centrality of the soil microbiome for plant health and growth. More information on Dr. Jones’s work can be found on the Amazing Carbon website and talks given on the Green Cover Seed and Reef Catchments Innovative Grazing Forum podcasts.
The central themes of Dr. Jones’s research are implemented in MycorrPlus. So to fully understand why this product represents such a breakthrough in soil restoration and plant health, we need to take a quick detour into the fascinatingly complex world of the rhizosphere (the soil zone chemically and physically influenced by plant roots and associated microorganisms).
Dr. Jones explains that 85 to 90 percent of the nutrients that plants require for health and growth are supplied by microbial symbionts living in the soil surrounding the plant roots. The plant repays the microbes with food in the form of simple carbohydrates (sugars) that are created during plant photosynthesis. This efficient and sustainable partnership is destroyed by many conventional farming practices such as repeated tilling, high rates of synthetic fertilizer use, and the application of herbicides, fungicides and biocides.
During photosynthesis, plants use light, water, and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make the sugars they exchange with their symbiotic microbes. Some of this sugar is used directly for plant growth, while the rest of it is exuded into the soil by plant roots. The exuded sugar feeds microorganisms that live among the plant roots or carried to microbes in a greatly extended area by mycorrhizal fungi. The central players in the symbiotic microbial community are the mycorrhizal fungi that extend the plant roots’ reach and effectiveness in their search for nutrients.
Mycorrhizal Fungi and Soil Nutrient Cycling
Mycorrhizal fungi are associated with the roots of over 90% of all plant species. These fungi improve the nutrient status of the host plants by improving nutrient uptake, water absorption, and disease resistance. In return, the host plant provides sugar and substrate that allows the mycorrhizae to grow and reproduce. Basically, filaments of mycorrhizal fungi (hyphae) act as extensions of a plant’s root system, transporting sugars to feed microbes in the soil, then absorbing and transporting nutrient elements from the soil back to the plant roots.
The research into how mycorrhizal fungi extract nutrients from the soil and transport them to plant roots initially focused on phosphorus. In soils, a large percentage of phosphorus is locked up in resistant phosphate minerals such as the calcium phosphate apatite, the iron phosphate strengite, and aluminum phosphate variscite. In these forms, phosphorus is unavailable to plants. It’s important to note that much of the phosphorus locked up in soil minerals will not show up on standard soil tests (e.g., Mehlich-1, Mehlich-3, Lancaster). So, some soils labeled as phosphorus deficient may actually contain plenty of phosphorus; it’s just unavailable to plants.
Fortunately for plants, there are aerobic microbes that produce a special enzyme (phosphatase) that can readily break down resistant phosphate minerals, thus releasing phosphorus into soil pore solutions. But now, the problem is getting the dissolved phosphorus to the plant roots. This is where mycorrhizal fungi come in. Phosphorus is rapidly taken up by the fungi and transported along its branching tubular filaments (hyphae) to the plant roots, where it is absorbed for use in plant growth. Mycorrhizae have been shown to extract and transport nitrogen, sulfur, potassium, calcium, magnesium, iron, and other essential trace element nutrients (e.g., zinc, boron, manganese, and copper) in the same way.
Mycorrhizal fungi also produce a unique sticky protein substance called glomalin that facilitates the transfer of water and nutrients from the soil to the plant. Glomalin glues soil particles together, creating aggregates that stick to mycorrhizal filaments. Aggregate formation greatly improves soil structure, stability, and the capacity of soil to absorb water rapidly, thus avoiding waterlogging and flooding during high rainfall events. The connected pore spaces resulting from aggregate formation counteract compaction and keep soils aerated, which is important for maintaining a healthy community of beneficial aerobic microbes. Glomalin is a very resistant, low-solubility substance that, if undisturbed by tilling, can maintain soil structure for decades.
This discussion demonstrates that mycorrhizal fungi are indispensable for establishing and maintaining good soil structure, water retention, and soil drainage. They also play a central role in extracting and transporting nutrients from soils to plants. That is, mycorrhizal fungi are essential for producing nutrient-dense crops and pasture plants.
As mentioned above, AG-USA’s MycorrPlus contains four strains of mycorrhizal fungi and other components to ensure fungi growth in the soil. Under the right conditions, a pasture or plot treated with MycorrPlus will begin to be colonized by mycorrhizae within days, and the beginning of symbiotic mycorrhizal networks will develop within a few weeks. However, advanced soil restoration takes two or more years, depending on soil type.
Humus, Topsoil Formation, and Carbon Sequestration
Another key point emphasized by Dr. Christine Jones is the importance of humus. Humus consists of around 60% carbon, 8% nitrogen, and a few percent phosphorus and sulfur. She calls humus the Holy Grail of soils. It is the primary builder of soil structure and has a high water-holding capacity and high cation exchange capacity (i.e., the capacity to store important plant nutrients in plant-available forms).
Humus is the major component in organic-rich topsoil. Dr. Jones has shown that humic-rich topsoil can form relatively rapidly, given a healthy soil microbiome. Well-developed root-zone humus layers thus allow crops and pasture plants to be more resilient to environmental stresses and weather extremes.
A key feature of humus is that its carbon and nitrogen must be biologically fixed. In other words, you can’t make humus in soils by adding inorganic nitrogen fertilizer. Humus largely consists of a specific type of organic molecule (a humic polymer) produced by microorganisms. Therefore, nitrogen-fixing bacteria must be present in the root zone for carbon to be removed from the atmosphere (by plant photosynthesis) and sequestered in soil (as humus).
Nitrogen-fixing bacteria produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen. Within a healthy plant root zone microbiome, this ammonia is rapidly converted to amino acids or incorporated into humic molecules. These processes lock up the nitrogen in useful organic forms so that it cannot be leached away or volatilized (unlike the highly soluble nitrogen fertilizers). The addition of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers may actually destabilize humus and cause carbon to be lost from the soil. AG-USA’s MycorrPlus contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria to help with this process.
The above observations indicate that a healthy root zone microbiome enhances soil carbon sequestration and storage. Photosynthesis removes carbon from the atmosphere and uses it to produce sugars which are in turn converted into humus. This implies that healthy soil microbiological ecosystems are essential for keeping carbon sequestered in soils. Destruction of these ecosystems by over-tilling and the overuse of synthetic fertilizers can destabilize the system leading to carbon emissions.
A myriad of bacteria play key roles in a healthy soil microbe community (especially nitrogen-fixing bugs), but it is mycorrhizal fungi that form the backbone of the ecosystem. As mentioned above, plants whose root systems are augmented by mycorrhizae hyphae are able to photosynthesize at a higher rate than non-mycorrhizal plants. This means that the augmented plant can produce more sugar (energy) over a given period of time, allowing it to share more of that energy with its microbial symbiotic community. It has also been shown that plants with high photosynthesis rates have higher sugar content in their sap (high Brix level), which imparts resistance to insects and pathogens.
The flow of sugar from the plant to the microbial community in exchange for nutrients creates a self-perpetuating, mutually beneficial cycle that supports a robust root zone microbiome, enhances soil structure, builds vital humus, and produces healthy, nutrient-dense plants. We humans are the ultimate beneficiaries of this natural cycle of abundance and generosity, as it ultimately produces disease-fighting nutrient-dense food crops and healthy grazing animals.
We’ll now take a quick look at some on-farm evidence showing how MycorrPlus helps establish and maintain the highly beneficial plant-bacteria-fungi symbiotic system we’ve been discussing.
During development, laboratory tests on the MycorrPlus mixture indicate that it successfully frees up essential nutrients bound in soil mineralogy, making them available to plants and, thus, to grazing livestock. But the real test of the material’s ability to develop and sustain symbiotic plant-microbe communities is to apply it to working farms with different environments and soil types. The results so far have been excellent.
As one would predict from the above discussions of mycorrhizal fungi and humus formation, field applications of MycorrPlus have been shown to:
- Optimize pH (i.e., counteract soil acidity),
- Increase cation exchange capacity (the soil’s capacity to store essential nutrients),
- Increase drought tolerance (due to improved soil structure),
- Reduce nutrient leaching,
- Increase soil organic matter,
- Remove toxins and salts from affected soils, and
- Displace harmful nematodes and pathogens.
It has also been observed that in many agricultural situations, the MycorrPlus mixture eliminates the need for lime and synthetic fertilizers, which saves both time and money and mitigates the environmental dangers associated with phosphorus and nitrogen fertilizer runoff. Furthermore, the enhanced trace element nutrient uptake afforded by the mycorrhizae and sea minerals imparts immunity from disease, resistance to pests, and accelerates seed germination.
Some of these field results have been quantified by soil analyses. For example, when MycorrPlus was applied to a field containing suboptimal levels of phosphorus and potassium, it took only six months to see a measurable increase in these macronutrients (as shown in soil analyses). No phosphorus or potassium was applied to the field during that time interval. Note that other key micronutrients also increased over the six months following MycorrPlus treatment.
In some cases, where soils are depleted and have low levels of organic matter, it can take a few years to improve soil conditions. But a yearly supply of MycorrPlus will inevitably significantly enhance soil properties and nutrient availability. For example, a field in southern Georgia with suboptimal levels of phosphorus and potassium (as determined by Mehlich I) was treated with MycorrPlus on an annual basis. Within 4 months, phosphorus and potassium had increased to adequate levels, and the cation exchange capacity of the soil had nearly doubled. The soil pH went from 6.0 before treatment up to 7.5 after treatment (more than 7.0 because of the overapplication of lime in previous years), and correspondingly, the base saturation of calcium went from 42% before treatment up to 79% in the follow-up analyses.
In addition, the levels of key micronutrients (sulfur, boron, zinc, manganese, iron, and copper), which are needed for plant phytonutrient production, also increased significantly (see figure below). All of this was achieved without the use of conventional fertilizers or lime. The steady improvement in nutrient levels and soil properties resulted from the supply of sea minerals, other trace minerals in MycorrPlus, and colonization of the soil by mycorrhizal fungi and supporting bacteria.
Other accounts of MycorrPlus’ effectiveness include a farmer in Nebraska who recorded an increase in corn and sunflower yields of 20% and 25%, after a single application. And a farm in Oregon saw its soil organic matter increase from 0.4% up to 4.7% over eight years after 2 years of Soil Balance applications (the soil-building component of MycorrPlus). This observation of soil carbon sequestration is consistent with the relatively rapid production of humus by beneficial microorganisms, as described by Dr. Christine Jones and discussed above.
By building and supplying the full spectrum of macro and micronutrients from sea minerals and prompting the colonization of the soil root zone by beneficial microbes, MycorrPlus transforms soils, resulting in the growth of nutrient-dense plants.
The bottom line is that soil microbiology is of fundamental importance to producing healthy, resilient nutrient-dense plants. MycorrPlus biostimulant fertilizer developed by AG-USA is focused on establishing and maintaining this essential healthy soil microbiology while also providing the nutrient enrichment of sea minerals.
In developing this breakthrough product, Paul Schneider Jr. and AG-USA have successfully achieved Paul Schneider Sr.’s quest for a product that naturally enriches soils and plants, thus optimizing animal and human health and well-being. From the outset, AG-USA’s vision was to develop agricultural amendments that work in harmony with both nature and modern technology so that they can be seamlessly incorporated into any farming method. The results thus far indicate that this vision is being realized.
James Jerden is an environmental scientist and science writer focused on researching and promoting sustainable solutions to urgent environmental problems. He holds a Ph.D. in geochemistry from Virginia Tech and a Master’s degree in geology from Boston College. Over the past 20 years, James has worked as a research geochemist and science educator. He joined Remineralize the Earth because of their effective advocacy, research, and partnership projects that support sustainable solutions to urgent environmental issues such as soil degradation (food security), water pollution from chemical fertilizers (water security), deforestation, and climate change. As a science writer for RTE, his goal is to bring the science and promise of soil remineralization to a broad, non-technical audience. When not writing, he can be found at his drum set.