Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy People

As a child I loved climbing trees and making mud pies.  My friends and I once joined hands, as the children in the picture above, to measure the trunk of an old elm tree in the back yard.  It took six of us as I recall.  It’s unfortunate that all the old majestic American elm trees have died from Dutch elm disease.

One elm tree in our yard was my favorite to climb.  I loved sitting high in its branches disregarding my mother’s advice to stay out of trees.  When I finally finished my doctorate at the age of 40 and then went on to starting a commercial soil making business my mother said “I thought you’d finally outgrown playing in the dirt, but here are you still at it.”

It’s true, I love playing in the dirt, or more appropriately ‘soil’ as my professor would patiently point out.  “Dirt is what you find behind your refrigerator.”  I love dipping my hand into rich black soil and smelling actinomycetes, the fungi-like bacteria that form long filaments stretching through the soil.  The “earthy” smell of freshly turned soil is caused by actinomycetes at work.  Members of this bacteria family provide many benefits in the soil.  They produce antibiotics, fix nitrogen, and decompose tough woody materials.  Actinomycetes decompose wastes in the soil, recycling it and releasing nutrients to plants.  Decomposer organisms are truly the foundation of our entire food chain.

Healthy soil is so important for life on earth yet so poorly understood or appreciated.  Science and technology brought us the “green revolution”; chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, supersized tractors, genetically modified crops adapted to life drenched with agricultural chemicals.  What is rarely apparent to most agricultural specialists is the damage this is causing the soil, basically turning it into ‘dirt’.  The agriculture and food processing industries try to convince us that “We can’t feed ourselves without this technology.”  They are so terribly wrong!  And we are paying the price of this ignorance.

The terrible state of American’s health is a result of the food we eat and a testament to the lie that we need this food system to survive.  This food system is killing us, but while doing so it is very profitable for the processed/fast food and ‘disease’ care industries.  The profit margin for processed food and health care products has created global monopolies that want to maintain their control, plain and simple.

It’s rather shocking to realize that a $4.00 box of corn flakes contains 5 cents worth of corn, and very little nutrition that isn’t added as supplements.  Look around you at the grocery store and the food that fills our carts.  Ask yourself how much real food value people are buying.  Your $100 grocery bill might contain only a few dollars worth of food value unless like me you buy mostly fresh, unadulterated food.  As Michael Pollan suggests count the number of ingredients listed.  If there are more than five you’re buying processed food.  How do we change the system, return our health, and save our economy?  The answer starts with what we stop putting in the soil.

The soil at the surface of the ground, what we call “top soil” is meant to be full of life; it’s a living system with more diversity in a teaspoon that we can measure in an acre of rain forest.  Most soil organisms ‘breathe’ oxygen.  To live in the soil they need porosity and permeability; air space and connectivity.  In healthy soil a third of its volume is space, half of which is filled with water the other half air.  The open pore structure and connectivity in soil is maintained through the action of soil organisms.   Bacteria secrete gums and waxes that coat and glue the fabric of mineral particles together.  Fungi spread thousands, tens of thousands; immeasurable miles of filaments binding soil particles together into a complex matrix.

Mycelia from fungi penetrate plant roots and connect trees together allowing them to share nutrients.  The soil web of life forms an ecosystem that shares nutrients and information passed along a biochemical ‘telephone’ exchange.  Worms ingest soil and excrete castings that line and stabilize networks of channels from the surface extending deep underground, allowing air and water to move quickly along ‘superhighways’ from the surface into the soil cleaning and replenishing ground water.  It’s an amazing system that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years and is perfectly equipped to support plant and animal life on land.  Without it, rock sediments would simply wash out to sea.

Unfortunately, the constant dousing of ground with toxic chemicals and ammonia based fertilizers is sterilizing our soil.  The structure is gone; the diversity of life decreasing, dying or already extinct.  The soil currently being farmed by modern corporate agriculture is a compacted, powered medium of rock particles (sand, silt, and clay) with most of the living organisms absent.  Want to test my theory?  Take some field soil and put it in a planter and try to grow plants without application of chemicals.  The plants will die from disease or pests.  The soil can’t hold water.  It turns to dust and blows away or becomes as hard as rock.  But add compost, cover the surface with organic mulch, stop spraying chemicals, and within a few years you’ll see a transformation.  Life will return.

The worms, pill bugs, millipedes, spiders, and other crawling things come back.  The butterflies, bees, and other pollinators return.  The birds return, scratching in the surface mulch looking for insects to eat.  The toads and frogs return.  The bats and barn swallows return and thrive on flying insects.  The plants begin to thrive suffering less often from disease.  And soon strange new types of plants start growing; things you probably don’t recognize and didn’t plant.  They grow from seeds that have been dormant for decades in the soil.  Some of these wild plants are edible.  Some are medicinal.  If you want to learn about them you’ll need to find the old wisdom, out of print books written by someone kind enough to preserve their knowledge for us.  They tell us about flora and fauna widely present before the green revolution.  We are fortunate that they wrote such books and that we can now find and order them on line.

Most of the life in the soil is invisible, but is critically necessary for soil health.  And healthy soil creates an environment in which beneficial insects thrive helping plants to be healthier too; fighting off pests and predators.  Soil and plants are a battle ground of bacterial- and fungal-and plant-derived antibiotics and exudates.  Truly the strong survive and the weak die, as life’s evolution meant it to be.  In our attempt to protect the weakness of our cherished mono-cropped hybrids we actually make room for pests, pathogens, and parasites to thrive.  And the harder we try to control them the stronger they become.  Nature always thwarts our efforts!  Antibiotic resistant superbugs and herbicide resistant super weeds are nature’s response.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

We should have learned by now to not to compete with hundreds of millions of years of evolution.  But the discovery of penicillin made us arrogant.  Corporate farming replaced family farms and small rural American cities died as well.  A way of life that went back generations was replaced because of global corporations insisting they knew better.  Genetic engineering only prolongs the battle.

We are losing this fight and ultimately harming ourselves and the planet in the process.  It’s interesting that a small farmer raising hogs on pasture is not only much healthier but also his hogs are much healthier than those raised in confined feeding barns, which require regular doses of antibiotics in their food.  Small farms are making a come back as communities began to buy locally sourced food.  This transformation is an important part of a resilient local food supply.

When I converted to organic gardening, stopped using fertilizer and herbicides around my home and instead relied on compost and natural mulches to feed the soil, it was a revelation to watch life return.  Observing how natural processes resumed; the subtle effortless, elegant beauty of it all has been enjoyable and rewarding.  I find “gardening” this way to be less expensive and labor intensive.  I have become a watcher, observing life unfolding.  It has humbled me to realize how much knowledge nature contains and how little importance I now place on what I learned from a dozen years of college education.  I doubt that humans can design anything even remotely similar to a healthy well-functioning natural ecosystem.  Often the best solution is to do nothing, to stop interfering.  But occasionally we can watch nature and maybe help a bit.

Scientists have found that letting children play outdoors in the mud, hugging trees, getting grass stained knees is the best way to ensure they develop a healthy immune system.  Such childhood experiences will result in fewer incidences of sickness or diseases such as asthma.  So thanks Mom, for letting me play in the mud!

But this isn’t true of landscapes farmed by modern agriculture.  Does it strike you as odd that farm workers picking lettuce in the field must wear a mask over their mouths?

Farmworkers pick lettuce in Yuma.

Are the masks to protect the produce from contamination or the workers I wonder?

I am so encouraged to see the increase in school gardens, community gardens, and home gardens; to see more children learning to grow food.  As a child I loved to work in the garden with my father and grandmother.  I loved being allowed to pick fresh food, to “help” with the planting and weeding.  What a wonderful beginning to a lifelong understanding of where food comes from.  Thanks Dad and Grandma for teaching me to plant seeds in the garden, to start tomato plants in winter, to be patient with my weeding attempts, and to ignore my complaints years later when I was told to go weed.  I’m happy to say I’ve learned to enjoy weeding and tending a garden.  I’ve also learned that many weeds are edible!




5 Replies to “Healthy Soil, Healthy Plants, Healthy People”

  1. Hi Jody! WOW!!! Thank you for YAGWU (yet another great write up) I will share far and wide! I remember an old Vermont farmer telling me, “…it’s SOIL son, dirt’s whatcha git unner yer finnernails” 🙂

    1. Will,
      I miss those old farmers! My grandfathers both died a few years before I was born. I wish I had known them.

  2. A fascinating and wonderful account! The smell and feel of healthy fresh-turned soil must be universally known as something good.

    Gardening, properly done, seems attuned to the variety principle in Nature, whereas industrial agriculture locks in unnatural uniformity – and we will of course pay the price for that. Charles Mann’s ‘1491’ tells among other things how the forests of the Amazon basin were once orchards, invisible to Europeans only because the individual trees that local people tended for fruit were scattered far apart and seemingly randomly among the multiplicity of other trees – or “weeds”! And until recently the indigenous peoples of the Kalahari would nurture slow-growing succulent roots, wild melons and berry bushes across swathes of scrubland for themselves, for travellers and for future generations. Both these practices are “sustainable” in a way that I’m not sure modern agriculture ever can be. It’s something to do with respecting Nature’s inherent diversity, and not taking too much from the land.

    That teaspoon of soil you mention, seething with organisms, reminds me of the Friar gathering herbs in Romeo and Juliet: “For nought so vile that on the earth doth live, but to the earth some special good doth give.”

  3. It’s nice to learn a name for the nameless beings that hold it all together – actinomycetes. Thank you!

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