Simple Methods for Evaluating Soil Quality

Bruno Borsari, visiting Fulbright scholar from Winona University, offered a series of in-the-field lectures at the USMA farm in Las Minas, Herrera, Panama.  Azuero Earth Project has been fortunate to have an extended connection with the passionate and vibrant Dr. Borsari. As part of continued education, our staff attended several of the lectures.  Below, we’ll share a little of what we learned.

Simple methods for evaluating soil quality- Jim O’ Neil

The USMA farm in Las Minas
The USMA farm in Las Minas

In Panama you can take soil samples to IDIAP and to the University of Panama for analysis, but for many people the price of analysis isn’t affordable and going to the laboratory is inconvenient. Participants in this workshop learned that with just one’s eyes, nose, simple tools, and a little bit of observation, we can find out a lot about the quality of the soil.  For example, with your eyes (and a digging stick and small quantity of water), you can evaluate soil structure, soil depth, the presence of organic matter, soil cover, level of erosion, and water retention.

A simple way to make  Burlese funnel
A simple way to make Burlese funnel

Dr. Borsari showed us a simple apparatus called the Burlese funnel, that is used for measuring the quantity of invertebrates in a soil sample.  He made the apparatus out of a cardboard box, a Cornflakes box, a plastic funnel and a simple electric light.  The quantity of invertebrates is a good indication of the quality of soil because the presence of high quantities of invertebrates indicates high quantities of soil microbes.  You can evaluate the level of microbiological activity by applying hydrogen peroxide to a few tablespoons of soil.  Large quantities of bubbles indicates a lot of microbiological activity.  Its important to apply these simple soil evaluation methods to more than one soil sample to make relative comparisons between them.  Via these comparisons you can determine what part of your land is most suited for cultivation.

Dr. Borsari
Dr. Borsari, explaining the Carbon Cycle

We also had the opportunity to practice using soil test kits, a collection of small bottles and chemicals used for in-the-field tests for Nitrogen, Potassium, Phosphorus, and pH.  It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the workshop participants while they practiced using the kits.  Farmers from all over Azuero were excited to be learning a simple way to evaluate their own soil scientifically.  The day’s workshop was a fantastic experience learning how to evaluate soil samples using simple and accessible methods.

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