Growing up on a ranch in Paradise Valley, MT, I never thought much about fungi, except when I was off in the woods, stomping mushroom caps, or back in my parents’ pantry, throwing away moldy bread. Yet, for the past two months, I have been happily obsessing over fungus at TomKat Ranch, and I think after reading this, you will be excited about fungi too.

In the summer of 2016, a fungi enthusiast and TomKat Ranch intern, Rachel Sullivan, worked with our soil aficionado, Doug Millar, on a project to expand soil monitoring on the ranch. What they found in their research was that our soils had lower than desired ratios of fungi to bacteria for perennial grasses to thrive in our pastures. Before Tom and Kat bought the ranch, it had been conventionally farmed and ranched for decades, and in many ways, the soil is still recovering. Fungi are more sensitive to conventional practices like using fertilizer and tillage. Their numbers and diversity decline more rapidly than the smaller, more resilient bacteria.

Bacteria provide many vital ecosystem services that should not be overlooked, but bacterial-dominated soils are not favorable to perennial grasses, which can help store carbon for longer periods than annual grasses. Our current average ratio of soil fungi to bacteria on the ranch is .33:1 – ideally, it would be closer to 1:1. Fungal strands called hyphae create soil structure and water storing nooks and crannies. A lack of fungi leads to compaction, less groundwater recharge and loss of valuable topsoil via erosion. In our Mediterranean environment where drought is a regular part of life, fungi can help improve water infiltration and storage in our soil and help us meet our regenerative ranching goals.

This winter we set in motion a three-part plan to improve our soil health through fungi. Phase one was to expand the previous microbiology testing data set. Mark Biaggi, our Ranch Manager, helped us select eleven fields, which we tested and are using for a study to be completed with Point Blue Conservation Science. Phase two is to apply fungal inoculants and some of the fungi’s favorite foods, a mix of humic acids and complex carbohydrates, to kick start fields with either low fungal counts or fields with low functioning fungal communities. We will be re-testing these fields to monitor results. Phase three is to compare the commercially purchased inoculant and fungal foods to homemade fungal-dominated composts.

Like all the best things in life, this third phase is going to take some time. Many people, myself included, persist in thinking of compost as if it is a commodity, uniform and exchangeable. Yet, in actuality, there are myriad ways to compost and each system results in a different type of compost, which can and should be targeted for the proper utilization to achieve the desired result. For example, Professor David Johnson of New Mexico State University has an exciting system that creates highly fungal compost by using a homemade bioreactor. Bioreactors, if you are unfamiliar, are low cost and easily built with tools and materials found on most ranches. Here at TomKat Ranch, we recently built one and filled it with horse manure and wood chips. After a year of static composting (no turning of the compost), a process in which a wide diversity of fungi will take over, we plan to spread compost on different sections of our test fields and compare it to the results we get from our phase two inoculants and fungal foods.

Before the advent of modern agriculture, with its chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides and other unsustainable practices, fungi, with the help of other microorganisms, we’re taking care of our soils in a well balanced, holistic system. The good news is that it’s not too late to go back to nature. With an open mind and careful study, we can design application strategies for fungal inoculants that could very likely be the future of regenerative ranching on degraded soils. These strategies we are testing at TomKat Ranch could prove to be a very effective and accessible tool for building and maintaining long-term soil health. I believe that utilizing fungi within a regenerative ranching framework can help our country’s farms and ranches realize the full benefits of reduced tillage, planned grazing, curtailed fertilizer and pesticide use and have the soil health necessary to provide truly scalable amounts of nutrient-dense foods and beneficial ecosystem services for our communities.