Review – Dr. Elaine’s™ Soil Food Web School Foundation Courses

Should I take Dr. Elaine’s™ Soil Food Web School Foundation Courses?

Well, that’s a question only you can answer. I can speak to:

Would I take the Dr. Elaine’s™ Soil Food Web Foundation Courses again?

If you want the short answer, yes, I would.
If you want to know a bit more detail, read on!

7 things I loved about the course:
  • It is well structured, and systematically introduces a complex subject.
  • It’s been fun to learn, and opened my eyes to a whole new world. I now see my plants as directors of an underground orchestra. Mindboggeling admiration for how nature works, if we let it.
  • Whilst on scientific foundations, the language and concept is accessible.
  • There is an active student community on the forum. Farmers as well as scientists are present. Contributions from all over the world and different disciplines offer different angles on particular difficulties.
    Dr Ingham and her team participate actively in the forum.
  • Dr Ingham’s sense of humour and effective use of metaphors.
  • You can upload pictures & videos of what you find under the microscope and get help identifying what’s what. And there are some amazing things to see!
  • There are regular webinars for follow-up questions and interaction.
5 things I wish had been different:
  • Throughout the course, the learning material refers to what you see under the microscope. So of course I wanted to use my microscope right from the start. Trouble is, access to the next level of the course is only unlocked when you have passed the previous module, and the microscopy module comes right at the end.
    Whilst I can see the sense in requiring the first 3 modules to be taken sequentially, it feels very directive, and not responsive to adult learners who can decide what and how we wish to learn.
    Having access to the microscopy module in parallel with the other modules would have saved some unnecessary questions, and enabled better connection of theory with practice for me.
    You can find some of the knowledge by watching freely available youtube videos, which helps.
  • Sometimes there were errors in the teaching materials. The school seems to rely on students to spot these rather than having an in-house system in place to check the consistency and quality of their materials.
    On the positive side, the team said they are now working on improving quality checks with dedicated team members for quality control as well as user engagement.
    So whilst there were some errors, for me the question is this: Would I prefer some imperfect content, but available to engage me?
    There is work to be done now on soil health, needing to involve a broad spectrum of practitioners. And time is critical. Let the perfect not be the enemy of the good.
    Thinking about errors develops my critical faculties. Let’s not take everything on faith, but use our own observations and analysis.
  • Each section is followed by a quiz, which counts towards your overall achievement. You need 90% min. in total as an average on all quizzes, at the first attempt, to move on to the consultancy training.
    The questions were not always clear (regardless of whether or not English is your native language).
    It also does not allow for using questions as an interactive learning tool.
    But still perfectly achievable.
    Personal thing: Why call it a quizz if you treat it as an assessment!?? I would have preferred a final assessment after I had used the quiz sections as part of my learning journey and self-checking.
  • Whilst some of the material is downloadable (pdfs), the video lectures are not, and are only available for a limited (but sufficient) amount of time. Which is a shame, because sometimes I want to go back and just review particular sections as questions arise.
    Being able to access the forum on-going would also be appreciated, as the knowledge in the field grows. Life-time access would be preferable.
  • Dr Ingham communicates effectively that we need to look at the whole, not just the parts, and looks at functional patterns.
    At times this leads to over-simplification. Dr Ingham acknowledges that this field of study is full of things we still have to learn and understand. And soil ecosystems are highly variable and complex.
    Sometimes people try to press what is seen under the microscope in the moulds of what they expect to see. This has led to some misidentification. However, for me this was not a disadvantage, as it kept me asking more questions and seeking out resources outside of the course. This is helpful in remaining alert, open-minded and allows me to question what I see, rather than falling into simplistic thinking. Learning more about the fungal community in addition to what the course teaches is strongly recommended. John Kempf’s perspective on how healthy plants build healthy soil is another perpective that is essential.
    Other sources of information are also important to cross-reference and check. Some of the books I found useful are here.
    Learning about the fungal world with Peter McCoy, it is very noticable how he directs, and in fact, demands, that learners engace with publications from the wider scientific community. This is not the case with the soilfoodweb foundation courses. Other authors are occasionally referenced, but I miss the systematic nature and broader engagement with other practitioners in the field, as well as current research. Happily, I understand some is in progress.
Initial concerns

The foundation course is a lot of money, particularly when you don’t know what you are in for, what the format will be.
The 30-day money-back-guarantee provided re-assurance and helped establish sufficient trust to give it a try. Here are thoughts that I needed to get clear on before enrolling:

  • Who is it aimed at?
    I was not sure what the level of the course would be, having left my science studies a fair way behind. That was really not of any concern, it was easy to follow, sometimes with a bit more background reading.
    My understanding is that Dr Ingham really wanted to make this subject accessible to practitioners from all kinds of educational backgrounds, and as such makes this knowledge accessible.
    Soil enthusiasts from a garden, landscaping and farming perspective will find valuable information. If you are from a science community, this course may open up a new way of seeing things. There are certainly scientists from a range of disciplines on the course, contributing valuable perspectives.
  • I was aware of some controversy around Dr Ingham, in regards to her supervising the PhD thesis of Dr Holmes, and a reportedly incorrect scientific reference. His paper was published in Science Direct.
    A genetically engineered bacterium, which decomposes dead plant material, was to be released into the soil, because it had been “tested to have no detrimental effects on people or animals”. Did noone at the responsible agencies think to ask- would it harm plants? This was the subject investigated by Dr Holmes – and credit for such asking the obvious! Why was it not asked before??
    If the organism had been released, it would have produced alcohols which is toxic to plants, and could easily have spread. (Do you eat plants?)

    It was hard for me to appraise properly what may have been attempts to discredit Dr Ingham by a strong agribusiness lobby. Or a genuine mistake. Or intentional.

    So I asked myself:
    1) What is the balance of power here? What are the vested interests? (You can answer that one.)
    2) Is there enough general evidence of the knowledge Dr Ingham shares in the regenerative farming community? There was.
    Among the well-established and respected practitioners who reference Dr Elaine Ingham’s work are Nicola Masters and Richard Perkins, implementing soil food web practice as one important tool within regenerative agriculture.
    3) Do I trust myself enough to appraise the quality of the course? I did.
    It’s a beginning, not an end.
    4) What is more important to me – engaging meaningfully and more deeply with the subject, or follow doubt? Doubt, a very effective tool is used by strong industries to delay important issues that go to the root of our health and wellbeing.

    The 30-day money back guarantee helped here, too – you can make up your own mind, and watch a certain number of lectures in that time. I certainly wanted to carry on.
Final reflections

It is the whole we need to consider. The teaching on how to achieve good quality compost that serves nutrient cycling and a bio-diverse network of organisms is excellent, and really at the core of applying soil food health practices. That part of the course is very clear and practical.

At a time of lots of bad news, the course tapped into my sense of wonder and what we can do to help ourselves and our ailing world.

I am glad to say, my compost was at least half decent before, but there is room for improvement. Good compost making with biological skills can be learned outside of this course.
However, the course taught me to look at soil, rather than make guesses or conclusions based on the fact that I have a wonderful earthworm population. And my plants were telling me that I needed to look more closely.

If you really want to analyse soil biology, and intervene towards soil health, a microscope is a very helpful tool. This course teaches you to use it well and be systematic, and begin to interpret the results.

However, there is much more to learn, and it might be that what we practice using a soil food web approach is not quite what we thought we would be practicing. It appears microbiological diversity may be more important than the functional groups, and it needs to be integrated with other regenerative approaches.
Water holding capacity in soil is a major limiting factor for any microbe population.

As a grower, I am hoping the approach will reduce my weed pressures, further increase plant health, nutrients and productivity.

Are things more complex than presented in this framework? Yes – as in most other disciplines.

Does the course give a good foundation for further learning AND tools to apply theory to practice? Yes, as long as we remain critically engaged.

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