What many of us don’t know, or don’t think about, is that all of this diverse life that we see, and some, like farm animals that we have to manage, is entirely dependent on a community of living things that we don’t see – the life in the soil. A single tablespoon of healthy soil is home to millions of living organisms; bacteria, fungi, microscopic insects and larger species like the earthworm. Together they form an intricate and fascinating web of life that is indivisible from plant life. In fact, scientists who study in detail the interchange of nutrients between soil and plant say that it is difficult to say where the line is between the two.
This understanding is the foundation for the theory of organic farming. As organic farmers we manage a community of livestock below the surface, and how well we do at that primary task determines the health of our crops, our animals, and finally the people.
HEALTHY SOIL = HEALTHY PLANTS = HEALTHY ANIMALS = HEALTHY PEOPLE
This is where we part company from most of industrial agriculture. At its worst, modern farming treats the soil as a medium into which the farmer places the seed and then supplements the plant with what will make it grow – soluble nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. Many of these substances, along with the herbicides, fungicides and insecticides used to control pests are harmful to the soil life. Soil degradation is a looming problem globally. As a race, we are squandering the very resource which is at the core of our children’s survival.
But there is a more immediate and direct impact from this thoughtless practice of feeding the plant and killing the soil. We get big plants – a lot of tonnage – but what kind of quality?
We ran out of carrots before Christmas. Some were purchased at the supermarket and peeled, sliced and placed in water on the table. My first bite gave me quite a shock. These things look like carrots. They’re orange and long and crunchy. But they taste like… nothing! Our carrots are sweet. They have an unmistakable carrot flavor. Go figure.
So the point is this. You can produce tons of long, straight, orange things that look like carrots in a sterile soil medium by applying all the right chemicals and biocides at the right time. But if you want the carrot to be what a carrot was meant to be – if you want it to taste like a carrot and sustain your body the way a carrot should – you need a living soil. The same goes for everything else – from chicken to spinach!
This rye is being worked in with a roto-tiller to feed the soil life. Green plant material is like candy for decomposers who turn it into nutrients for the next crop.