Ooh, That Smell: An Introduction to Local Effective Microorganisms (LEM)

What is that smell? If you have had the chance to visit UGACR, you may have noticed a peculiar smell coming from the sinks, the restrooms or even the stable. It’s not a bad smell, but it’s also not a smell many people are accustomed to. It is the smell of local effective microorganisms (LEM) or microorganismos de la montaña (MM) if you are in Costa Rica. LEM is a living solution of microorganisms used for a variety of purposes including cleaning out plumbing and reducing the foul odors and flies associated with livestock. The punch that it packs, especially when smelled in it’s concentrated form, is due, in part, to the fermentation process that is used to produce it. LEM is made by collecting leaf litter from the forest floor and then mixing the litter (and all of the microbes that come with it) into a barrel full of sugar, flour and charcoal which serve as food for those microbes. The microbes and their food are then sealed in an air-tight barrel and left to “brew” for at least one month. After the fermentation step is completed the mixture can be seeped like tea in sugar water and applied in liquid form.

Kishan Mahmud and myself (Laura Ney) will be researching the effects of LEM in agricultural production systems under the direction of Dr. Dory Franklin in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. We will be looking specifically at the effect of LEM on nutrient cycling and plant availability when applied to forages and legume crops in conjunction with an organic nutrient source. We have the exciting opportunity to conduct our research in two entirely different ecosystems and climate zones – in the temperate piedmont of Watkinsville, Georgia and in the subtropical mountainside of Monteverde, Costa Rica. Conducting our research requires adapting our designs, materials and methods to the two very different environments that we are working in. It also involves manual labor, engineering, chemistry, biology and lots of manure. When we talk about all of the chemistry and microbiology research that we are doing, you may  picture white coats, fancy machines and lab benches filled with chemicals and glassware. That is a pretty accurate description of our lab but in crop and soil science research there is a lot of dirty work to do before you put on that white coat. Over the course of the next week, we will be sharing some of the wide range of experiences that we have had thus far as we’ve begun our project, but first we’ll tell you a little about who we are.

Laura NeyLaura

I am a master’s student in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. I went to UGACR for the first time on a study abroad program as an undergraduate in 2009. I have gone back many times since then and spent a year working as a farm intern/naturalist after I graduated from the Horticulture department. I am passionate about sustainability and about the importance of understanding the incredible complexity of soil. I am thrilled to be able to continue my education in soil science while continuing my connection with the UGA Costa Rica campus.

Kishan MahmudKishan

I am a PhD student in UGA’s Department of Crop and Soil Science.  I have been studying Soil and Environmental Sciences for the last seven years in Bangladesh, where I am from. My current research is in Georgia, on the locally derived effective microorganisms. While Laura will be focusing on crop quality, nematode community structure and soil nutrients, my work will be focused on microbial activity, microbial community structure and ecosystem services.

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