Wednesday, May 27, 2009

To Start: Soil--The Foundation

I would feel I was betraying the sustainable agriculture battle cry of "soil!" if I, myself, did not start by addressing said battle cry.

This entry is to explain one leg on which the McCoy Garden stands: improving soil with human intervention. (more on the other "legs" later...not to keep you hanging though, they are: everyone deserves equal access to fresh, healthy, and locally grown food, and involving youth is the surest way to project and idea of sustainability to the future)

Soil is a moral philosophy. It is alive. We should not kill it, or try to rule over it. We should care, love, work with, and nurture this life. For “organic” or sustainable growers this moral philosophy is all tied to health: of soil, of produce, of environment, and even of man (or woman). Michael Pollan concludes in his reflection on Thoreau in Second Nature that, “Improving the soil improved the man” (71).

Soil is part of the eater’s food chain. Therefore, the health of the soil directly affects the health of the final consumer. Commercial agriculture, reducing soil to three nutrients (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous), adding synthetic fertilizers and herbicides made from oil, and emphasizing yield as the only important plant quality, deplete and kill the soil, and reduce nutritional content of the crop.

Thus, we get corn. We get DDT and now Roundup. We get an Iowa farmer who cannot feed him/herself on what he/she grows from the land (all the corn you see when drive down the highway is inedible and must be processed, either by cows and into meat or by machine and into high fructose corn syrup). We get “Western Diseases” emerging right after those Iowa farmers where told to plant corn “fence row to fence row” and “go big or get out” in the late seventies and early eighties. We get childhood diabetes, a disease that used to only be found in adults.

Sustainable agriculture, what the McCoy garden adheres to, respects the mystery of soil by using rich compost to build and feed the soil, and restricts the use of outside inputs. Yes, we have plenty of building and feeding to do; there used to be a building built on top of out site!

Hopefully though, after many years the McCoy garden (and all future gardens under ENCM) will have rich, healthy soil that will produce healthier food so people can live healthier lives in a healthier world.

Now, I should describe the soil in which I work.

As I said the McCoy garden was an abandoned lot, and it once was the location of a building. You might imagine a building sitting on top of soil would compact it greatly. It did, and what I have is clay; you could make ceramics with the stuff! Clay makes it hard for water and air to penetrate the soil and feed the plants. Clay is bad.

Therefore, as a donation, The Mulch Company trucked in a load of compost and a load of pine fines. We promptly shoveled this on top of our clay and planted in it.

Unfortunately, the compost was not finished. Thus, the carbon, which makes up a large portion of compost, is sucking up any available nitrogen to continue the breaking down process. This is unfortunate because finished compost is supposed to make available the nutrients plants need to grow, not hoard them.

My plan is to work on our compost piles and to use nitrogen fixing cover crops to add nitrogen back to the soil—and hopefully break up some of the clay with their roots. By next season we will be well on our way to improving the soil. Already i have noticed lots of worms moving around right below the surface!


Ryan Fasani said...

What a beautiful way to begin this blog--a good metaphor to work with as we grow a better future: soil. Working from the ground up with the foundations we've been given, getting into the dirt of the earth and of friend's lives, loving and caring for the fundamental pillars of wellness and health. This should be quite a journey. Good work so far, Justin!

Beth said...

I see that I will be learning alot from this blog. Keep it up! I also love to see updates of the garden!