Community Agriculture Alliance: The dirt on dirt
August 15, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Society is beginning to understand the enormity of feeding the world. We are waking up to our roots, beginning to process the science that has been around for hundreds of years. Articles are being written, and movements are beginning that support the soil as a system instead of, well, dirt. The concepts behind the science are restoring farmlands around the world by encouraging practices such as no-till farming, the planting of polycultures rather than monocultures and cover cropping to protect the soil during fallow periods. These methods create an increase in nutrients while decreasing soil disturbance. Microbes (bacteria, germs), therefore, are able to expand and strengthen their colonies, thus creating a flourishing underground society. This process, in turn, fights erosion and creates ideal productivity and fertile lands.
Mike Amaranthus and Bruce Allyn wrote "Healthy Soil Microbes, Healthy People" for The Atlantic, and the article compares soil to the human gut and the inextricable link between microbes and health in both systems:
"Just as we have unwittingly destroyed vital microbes in the human gut through overuse of antibiotics and highly processed foods, we have recklessly devastated soil microbiota essential to plant health through overuse of certain chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, failure to add sufficient organic matter (upon which they feed) and heavy tillage. … Reintroducing the right bacteria and fungi to facilitate the dark fermentation process in depleted and sterile soils is analogous to eating yogurt to restore the right microbiota deep in your digestive tract."
A recent article titled "Losing Ground," written by Sarah Laskow for the Food Apocalypse issue of Lucky Peach magazine, describes the importance of farmland, soil and how the makeup of topsoil creates a perfect natural resource. However, she warns that "the thickest layers of topsoil are only 12-16 inches deep. It can take 500 years or more to produce and inch of soil, but erosion can remove an inch in a decade."
David R. Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and author of "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization," writes about the dependence of society on soil and how catastrophic soil mismanagement humbled ancient Greece and Rome in relationship to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, which was estimated to have blown 850 million tons of topsoil off the Southern Plains. It was out of this devastation that conservation districts were born. And through the work and research of these districts and their relationships with farmers, the U.S. began a new journey.
Land stewardship is a key to healthy soils, but it doesn't come cheap. Stewardship needs crop diversity, which comes from a diverse demand that can translate to risk and long-term choices rather than short-term investments. The Routt County Conservation District recently was selected to submit a full proposal for a Conservation Innovation Grant through the Natural Resource Conservation Service that would help fund a three-year soil health project in Hayden. The project will incorporate the concepts discussed above. It looks encouraging, and once notified, the district and its partners look forward to giving field tours and sharing information with all of you.
Jackie Brown is district manager for the Routt County Conservation District.