The following post by my fellow writer and former neighbor, Kristin Ohlson, is in honor of World Soil Day. Kristin argues in her excellent book, The Soil Will Save Us, how important it is to think of our soil as a living thing, which it is—healthy soil teems with life. She compares it to a coral reef in her book, and rightly so, as she elaborates in this short post.—M.R.


by Kristin Ohlson

I was visiting a friend in New Jersey’s bucolic countryside—no, not an oxymoron. Knowing my fondness for farms, he took me down the road to visit Bobby, the man who sells him eggs.

We soon stood on a windy hilltop near Bobby’s home, surrounded by fields in which feathery green lines of wheat radiated into the distance separated by bare lanes of soil. I made an assumption based on this sight and concluded that Bobby conducted farming using the playbook of industrial agriculture. Meaning, that he tilled his soil and applied chemical fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides and fungicides on schedule—a regimen, as I wrote in my book, The Soil Will Save Us, that damages the all-important relationship between plants and soil microorganisms and is ruining landscapes and contributing greatly to global warming.

But in the large market garden where Bobby grew his vegetables, I saw something completely different. No neat rows, no bare soils, no monocrop. There, you could hardly walk without stepping on something you’d want to eat—there was no exposed soil, only a profusion of various plants. Pumpkins peeked up through knee-high greens. Chickens carried on their noisy task of insect removal.

Then I heard Bobby—shy and somewhat taciturn, chewing tobacco bulging in his cheek—tell my friend about his herd of goats. “I sometimes spray the extra milk on my fields,” I heard him say. “It’s good for the microorganisms.”

What? I spun around. “You’re one of my people!” I told him.

I spent a lot of time talking to what I call “progressive” farmers when I worked on my book. The designation has nothing to do with politics. These farmers are progressing away from our recent past of ruinous agriculture that employs high-tech tools and chemicals that attempt to beat nature into an industrial model. Instead, they are using the latest scientific understanding of the amazing ecosystem under our feet and mimicking nature to produce crops—often with greater profits, ease, and pleasure than their chemical-spraying neighbors—and healing landscapes as they go.

As people who love food, we’ve learned that our food choices have many impacts. But most of us don’t realize how our choices affect the health of the soil. Under our feet, dense communities of soil microorganisms—some 6 billion per teaspoon—have been carrying on a partnership with plants for over a billion years, trading nutrients and carbon. This partnership created our world. Now many farmers are working with scientists to honor and support that partnership, not disrupt it.

Bobby is learning this approach, and there are many ways for him and us to find out more. When I started working on The Soil Will Save Us, it seemed as if hardly anyone was talking about it. But in the last year I’ve heard about so many great efforts: the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (which inherited the mantle of the Dust Bowl’s Soil Conservation Service) has a huge soil health initiative, and the Center for Food Safety is launching its own soil health initiative. Scientists and agriculture policy experts are gathering to discuss new research and how to align policy with new insights.

These are good times for people who care about both good food and a healthy environment, as the movements that champion them are converging magnificently. Celebrate this hopefulness on Dec. 5, World Soil Day!


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© 2014 Michael Ruhlman. Photo © 2014 Donna Turner Ruhlman. All rights reserved.