Underwear, underground: Experiment demonstrates importance of soil microbes

By Sam Jack

At the behest of Cheney Lake Watershed, Inc., several farmers upstream of Cheney Lake buried underwear in their fields this April.

When the farmers dug the garments up, earlier this month, they found that the undies had mostly disappeared – consumed by soil microbes.

Cheney Lake Watershed outreach coordinator Howard Miller speaks about the microbial processes that consumed underwear farmers buried in their fields this April.

The point of the exercise was to demonstrate the importance of having a high level of biological activity in farm fields, according to Cheney Lake Watershed outreach coordinator Howard Miller.

“There are microbes in the soil that digest your crop residue, and that’s why it disappears and becomes part of the soil,” Miller explained. “Those same microbes, when they see cotton fibers, they see that as residue and digest it. The more microbes you have, the more cotton fibers they’ll digest in a period of time.”

Biological activity in the soil is what gives the soil structure and produces “nice clods,” Miller said. Clumpy soil is less likely to run off and silt up Cheney Lake.

“A tilled field, it’s just powder, because that (biological activity) has just been shattered,” Miller said. “It’ll come back over time, but the way I like to look at it is: If you’re tilling soil, you’re kind of driving a bulldozer through the microbes’ house. They almost get rebuilt, and then the bulldozer comes through again.”

Miller and the farmers had fun with the underwear reveal, putting the brown, shriveled remnants out on a “clothesline.” Miller wore a size 6X pair of underwear on top of his pants and dubbed himself “Captain Tighty-Whiteys.”

For updates and more information on Cheney Lake Watershed, visit www.facebook.com/CheneyLakeWatershed.

Eight Cheney Lake-area farmers dug up the underwear and shared their findings earlier this month.
A stake, and a waistband, marks the location where underwear was buried in a field.