Farmhand Diaries: In Defense of Soil

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Farmhand Diaries by Staff Writer Stacey Warde.

should we grow organic?Whenever someone discovers that I’m growing blueberries, the first question they usually ask is, “Are they organic?”

As much as I wish they were, they’re not.

I believe organic is the way to go; I believe this because I’ve seen what soil naturally—not chemically—rich in nutrients can do for plants, how well soil laced with micronutrients and -organisms, supports the vital life systems plants need to stay healthy.

Healthy plants, of course, mean delicious, nutritious produce—vital food for our own bodies.

I’ve noticed, however, that much confusion surrounds the concept of “organic,” what it means to produce, sell and consume crops that have been grown in healthy soil without chemical inputs.

Generally, advocates for organic food focus on the lower risk of cancer and other illnesses they attribute to the consumption of foods grown on conventional farms, which use petroleum-based pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilizers.

Conventional farmers, meanwhile, argue that their crops are just as healthy, just as rich in nutrients as those that are grown organically. Additionally, they say, the yields, and the potential to grow more food in a world of explosive population growth, are much greater in conventional fields.

I’ve also noticed a more-than-smug and often unfriendly rivalry between organic and non-organic farmers in these debates.

It’s unfortunate because I believe there’s much to learn from both sides of the argument: “Organic is healthier and safer because it means protecting our soils and bodies” v. “Conventional farming can do a better job of feeding the world more efficiently and cost effectively.”

Efficiency and cost, as we’ve learned in our production-oriented culture, however, aren’t always the best measures of quality when it comes to our food or soils.

In fact, these arguments seem to miss the very important point of the devastating impact that our modern farming practices have had on the health of our soils. The focus on organic, crop health and yield without consideration of soil fertility seems misdirected and potentially dangerous.

Without good, healthy soil, regardless of how many outside inputs we may place upon it, we die. Sure, we can grow with hydroponics or with any other technology that will produce a yield, but without adequate healthy soil, I believe, we reduce our chances for survival.

Soil is the capital that ensures a healthy diet and future.

Yet, our current food system “treats the soil as if it were nothing more than a medium for holding plant roots so that they can be force-fed a chemical diet,” says Woody Tasch in his book about the folly and deleterious impact of “fast” money—often disconnected from the local community and economy—used to finance factory farming and corporate agriculture: Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered.

The result has been devastating losses in soil fertility on a scale that is hard to fathom. One-third of America’s topsoil, Tasch says, has eroded since 1776; and since the end of WWII, as munitions factories discovered “new postwar markets for nitrates,” worldwide soil erosion has measured about 12 million hectares, about one percent of the world’s total, of arable land every year.

Ignorance regarding the crucial role that naturally fertile, healthy soil plays in plant and ultimately our own health remains high. More significantly, we know even less about the billions of microorganisms that turn soil into humus, the stable organic nutrient system that feeds plants without chemical inputs.

What we do know, however, is that over-dependence on chemical inputs has done more harm than good to soil fertility. Anyone who doubts this only needs to compare the soils from conventional and organic farms, and observe which contain the most life.

Personally, I find it utterly disturbing to pick up a handful of soil, especially soil that’s intended to grow crops, that isn’t teeming with life, or filled with the sweet aroma of decaying organic matter. Soil that’s lifeless or “dead,” which is probably where many of us got our idea that “it’s just dirt,” is completely unnatural, as far as I’m concerned.

That said, and at the risk of sounding like a hypocrite, out of necessity we add non-organic amendments to our blueberries, which are not planted in the ground but occupy a soil medium in 5-gallon grow bags, which need periodic infusions of nitrogen and N-phuric® acid to maintain their vigor and health.

Our plants don’t get nutrients from the soil because they’re in containers. We feed them intravenously, so to speak, through the irrigation system.

I’m sure we could find liquid organic fertilizers and we may do that one day, I’d like to, but it’s not my field. I can only argue the point and let it go.

The Boss Man, who owns the plants, seems open to the possibilities. He’s probably more conventional in his leanings than I am, but like Farmer Jim, from whom we lease our two-acre enclosure, he worries about impacts.

Eventually, we plan to place the nearly 3-year-old plants in the ground and, I hope, we can begin to work with the soil and build it up organically. Until then, like many conventional farmers, we’re dependent on outside inputs, which so far have had a good effect on our plants.

I’ve used the chemical fertilizer Grow More® to great advantage, producing woody perennials with vigorous stems and sturdy branches to support the heavy clusters of fruit they produce in early spring.

I think there’s probably a lot that could be learned from both methods of farming, but honestly, when all is said and done, it makes better sense to me to grow organic, if it can be done, not just because it’s good for our bodies but because it’s good for our soils. §

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