Soil vs Dirt

The planet is really a finely tuned biological machine.  If you look at the big picture or if you look at a scenario of naturally occurring phenomena without the extreme disturbances of people, the components and intricacies of this machine become apparent.  Everything has not one but multiple jobs.  This is the holistic view of life.

The way we farm now seems simple and logical when you ignore the system.

  1. Remove everything that could possibly compete with the specific food you want
    1. Clear all trees so that max sun can reach all monocultural plants
    2. Clear all vegetation that might outgrow seedlings
    3. Flatten land for heavy machinery access
    4. Till soil for ease of planting
  2. Plant a dense monoculture in the now dead soil because:
    1. More is obviously better
    2. It\’s \”cheaper\” to sell to one supplier at one time
  3. Continue to kill anything that could possibly compromise your max yield.
    1. Kill the deer with a rifle
    2. Kill the groundhog, gopher, vole with poison/trap/rifle
    3. Kill Insects with pesticides
    4. Kill weeds with herbicides

Rince, repeat!

Some of the killing seems obvious, particularly when you\’re holding a gun.  However, there is a lot more we didn\’t really reflect on when we did this process.  There\’s the fungal, microbial and life beneath the soil that is killed when the soil is tilled.  There is an interesting article I found about the history of tilling soil. While I found this article to be insightful, the one thing it seems to miss is the difference between tillage and plowing.  It seems to suggest a very linear evolution from the plow to the tractor driven cultivator.  A plow cuts straight lines into the earth where a cultivator mixes the soil, for the most part, leaving the living part on top where it then dries.  Rather than creating topsoil, it creates dead dirt.  A plow, on the other hand, cuts lines into the earth in small rows where a farmer can plant seed easily and recover.  Because the farm plots in which oxen driven plows were used were relatively small and the changeover of tasks relatively inexpensive, it\’s likely the seeds were planted on that row the same day or even immediately after plowing with a second hand, wife, child following behind.  This oxygenated parts of the soil while leaving some of the soil food web in place in fact probably invigorating it.  The true evolution of the plow is probably the keyline plow or more readily available the subsoiler.  Keyline plows have been proven to create topsoil by invigorating microbial and fungal colonies within living soil.  The cuts it makes into the earth allow fresh water to go deep into the ground during rains (also great for property water management downhill) and needed oxygen into the system. It can also create a mildly disturbed earth that can allow for easy planting which was the more immediately practical reason for the invention of the plow.

Why do I want bacteria and fungi in my \”dirt?\”

Soil Bacteria provide large quantities of nitrogen to the soil food web.  They also have functions such as enzymic catalyzation of phosphorus to make it more available to the plant.  It is about striking a balance though with fungal and bacterial growth.  This situation will support the kind of plants we want to eat and better support perennial agriculture (which we should totally be doing more of) rather than the barren tilled situation we currently create which is basically a situation designed for weed growth!

Mycorrhizal fungi colonize plants root systems and develop a symbiotic association called “mycorrhiza.” The fungi form a network of connective filaments that actually barter with plant roots and draw nutrients and water from the soil that the root system would not be able to access otherwise and trading these for sugars.

So when you look at what bacteria and fungi are doing for the soil, you might think, \”I already do that for the soil when I add water, fertilizers (NP)?\”  So I ask you, \”Why would you do that if you wouldn\’t have to?\”  What does that cost look like on your annual expenses?  Not only that but a balanced ecosystem and healthy, independent plant group will actually make them more resistant to pests.  So there\’s another cost affector right there. PESTICIDES or pets control.

There are even more downsides to the way we treat soil.  The tillage of soil not only kills what is in it but releases sequestered carbon.  That whole carbon emissions thing… yeah.  I can\’t say it better than this article from The Guardian which talks about what\’s happening and why it is change-averse.

The answer will not be simple and it isn\’t even clear but it starts with the acceptance of polyculture and moving ecological systems into scalable production.  Fact is, we need solutions but most importantly, people willing to work on these solutions.  Let\’s not be proud, let\’s ask if the status quo is right? Let\’s make positive change.

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