Our Soils

In the quest to reconcile oneself to the life of a place, eventually there is no avoiding the need to understand its soil.  Or, maybe better said, its soils.

I have seen video in which wine tasters make a show of tasting the soil from a vineyard in an attempt to go deeper with the flavor of the wines that come from it.  I do not object to this notion, and there may be something to it, but there is nothing keeping that idea from contributing further to our culture’s habit of understanding soil as producing things for us to consume.  Which it does.  But I’d like us to realize that in a truly interconnected soil system, it is as much the rule that creatures produce soil from what they consume!  In a sustainable agri-culture, humans would fit in with this same pattern, where production and consumption weave into each other in potentially infinitely variable arrangements expressed as relationships.

Maybe we shouldn’t skip over a definition of soil here.  What distinguishes the concept of soil from that of rock powder, or of the residues of life forms, or even of a combination of the two?  Materially, we get close to a definition of soil when we consider its weathered rock, water, air, and life residue components.  But it is a dead definition.  Soil, as it is ordinarily encountered in the vast majority of all wild and productive systems, is anything but dead.  Put another way, any planet with rock and other substances plus energy for the other substances to work on the rock can produce sand, silt, and clay particles in vast quantities over time.  Soil is what happens when Life gets involved in it and stays involved.  It is a dynamic system where solar energy is put to work in the service of constructing dams for entropy (entropy is the tendency of everything to revert to less organized, lower-energy states) that allow life forms to take good advantage of the resources present to them in their location as the energy falls through them and away.  Soil is, in short, the main locus of terrestrial life.  When we understand this properly, I think we begin to lose our ability to understand organisms that spring from the soil as being separate from it.  “From dust we come, and to dust we shall return…” yes, even we are included here.

It has come to be my belief that a large part of our culture’s failure to understand health and nutrition is our ignorance—willful or naïve—of the connection to (even membership in) soil that we are adapted for.  If we wish to achieve health of any of several kinds, it has become clear that we must our whole lives long interact intimately with the soil through eating, touching, hearing, and seeing it and other organisms with a solid vital connection to it.  There are even some who advocate a need for maintaining an electrical connection to soil (this I cannot vouch for, but I am curious about it).

Equally clear as the human health connection is the abject dependence of all of our livelihoods on a functioning soil.  Hunter-gatherer societies may or may not have had a need to consciously regard soil as an entity, since their concern was/is the challenging enough question of how to survive on the products that naturally arose and were available to them from that soil and its inhabitants.  Agricultural societies have a more precarious situation, since they have dared to intervene in the soil’s process and choose new trajectories for it.  Any agricultural society that fails to respect their dependence on healthy and resilient soil—and therefore develop habits of soil maintenance—will eventually fail as the soil’s ability to yield the produce they require wanes.  I’ll call to mind again my metaphor of an entropic dam:  if those obstructions to entropy are removed by disturbance (plowing, overgrazing, poisoning, drought, etc.), entropy resumes its faster pace.  Obvious examples of this are erosion, leaching, oxidation of organic matter, and the return of nitrogenous compounds to gaseous form.  For the non-soil-nerds among us, suffice it to say that these are very, very bad occurrences when we make a habit of any of them.

Which we are, in spades, in modern agriculture.  This loss of soil vitality is what the organic movement has been sounding the alarms about for all these years.  Now, with the urbanization of our population, fewer and fewer of us have a frame of reference for those alarms, which may explain why consumers of “organic” products are now more focused on personal health concerns and effects—it has become a purity narrative—than on reconnecting with and taking responsibility for our own effects on the soil and ecosystems that sustain us.  Resultingly, current organic standards reflect this purity narrative as much as they do the duty narrative of yore, such that farms can be certified organic (indeed they may produce excellent food), while still adding up to a devastating soil system.  Organic standards having been included in the USDA rubric has expanded organic production hugely, but has also exposed organic markets to some of the same pressures conventional markets have faced for many decades, forcing similar compromises.

Taking the sustainability of agricultural systems seriously will necessarily expose some of these compromises and pressures, and will preclude acceptance of many of the advantages that both conventional and organic agriculture currently usually assume.  Namely, the liberal use of fossil fuels for: transport of amendments and produce, soil work, production of nitrogen fertilizers (conventional ag.) and the drying of grains; and the habit of importing fertility (often fossil or mined materials) as an ongoing part of the soil-maintenance program.  Is it not obvious that, unless these issues are addressed, it is impossible to think of the current conventions as sustainable systems?

What is agriculture like when you can’t just test your soil to see what is lacking compared to the idealized standard and purchase the prescribed remedy?  What if the percentage of land that can be dedicated to a given cropping system or type is limited by the availability of the appropriate resources near at hand?  What if, once the nutrients leach out, they can’t be replaced?  Anyone who is accustomed to U.S. Agriculture as currently practiced (organic or conventional), will appreciate the challenge this would entail.  It is, I believe, the kind of challenge our society must eventually face.  There are some of us who are trying to think about this before circumstances force us that direction.

Those with good imaginations might also appreciate that each place, with its own unique soil constraints, could be counted on, in such circumstances, to generate its own set of solutions, its own palette of possibilities, its own sense of proportion, its own abundance…its own unique character.  Let’s return to winemaking as an example:  The set of minerals and compounds and organisms found in the soil in those vineyards may indeed have an effect on the flavor of the grapes grown there, and if the vintners have grown fond of that flavor and understand its derivation, they will carefully avoid importing materials or otherwise changing the soil in ways that might disrupt their unique soil situation.  Perhaps as much to the point, certain varieties of grape may turn out well or poorly in their location, or be easier or harder to grow for them, with the result that their winery becomes known for a particular blend of varieties that reflects the best of what they have been able to produce in the proportions that they’ve been able to produce them (I’m speculating, but with some confidence).  I believe a sustainable agriculture, being desperately, dutifully, joyously wedded to the soil of a place, will generate this same kind of phenomenon for untold numbers of products, in innumerable places.

Modern agriculture—with its dismissal of soil health and with its tremendous energy backing—collapses these fragile structures, and is collapsing its own foundations, too.  Many modern agronomists recognize this collision course and are hard at work trying to reconcile the problem.  May they succeed!  I suspect, however, that it will be impossible, in the end, to come up with solutions that can be universally applied.  Disregarding the specifics of the locations where agriculture happens is a big part of the problem…likely the solutions will have to return to a regard for those specifics.

At Tangly Woods, we have made it our goal to try to understand what a version of agriculture that was actually sustainable might look like, by trying to accomplish it as nearly as we can on the scale of one family’s needs and abilities, in one place.  As anyone who has spent time around here has found out, there are still plenty of compromises and it is a work in progress.  It turns out that we have a lot to relearn, unlearn, and learn when it comes to the life of the soil…this soil.

One of the first things we learned is that this soil will not tolerate aggressive tillage.  It is naturally prone to settling into a form that is too compacted to admit sufficient oxygen for feeder roots to operate effectively, if they can survive at all.  Over time, the plants, animals and microorganisms that live here without our interference are capable of deepening the available soil layer such that plant vigor can be in the normal range.  If tilled aggressively, this tenuous situation is scrambled, the small amount of organic matter (life residues) thus far generated is oxidized (becomes carbon dioxide and returns to the atmosphere whence it came), and everything collapses into a layer that is hard enough to be removed in chips and flakes.  Steel tools used for weeding in it make sharp, grating noises and tend to bounce off.  Not exactly the garden of dreams, unless you count nightmares.

I say this is a natural occurrence, but let’s bear in mind that before Euro-Americans took plows to this land, this tight soil layer was likely covered with a foot or two of rich loam, which is now at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay smothering ancient, astonishingly productive oyster beds now decimated (but recovering!).  Another effect of all this erosion was the concentration of rocks from those generous topsoil layers…the soil washed away, the rocks didn’t.

Do I sound bitter?  Actually, I am so thankful for this land which has fruited so abundantly for us now that we’ve learned to respect its parameters.  I am thankful for this chance to make some things right, and for the chance to learn, learn, learn.

This year, the big lesson seems to be that our soil trends acid, so we must get good at balancing that.  Given our commitment to on-farm resourcing, this implies learning the skillful use of wood ashes.  My concern there, though, is that calcium may not maintain the prominent position it needs in the mineral mix around the plant roots, since I think potassium hydroxide is the main agent of alkalinity in wood ashes.  Deficient calcium is a somewhat rare situation in the Shenandoah Valley, I believe, since high calcium limestone undergirds and is the parent material for most of the Valley’s soils.  This is true of our location, too, but only if you dig deep enough.  The geology seems to suggest that being snuggled up against Massanutten Mountain as we are has put us in a location where the upper, more acidic layers of rock were not eroded as completely here, and limestone-based soils can only be found by deep excavation.  When we dig down 6 or 8 feet we hit the Valley’s characteristic red-orange clay with sporadic limestone hunks.  And our well water is very high in alkaline minerals, probably mostly calcium.  So irrigating with well water has a liming effect on our typically acid topsoil, which is welcome in the garden (but not the blueberry beds!).

But if you will permit me a little soil geek-out here (skim if you aren’t too interested), I think there is another way to work at the calcium issue at our place, using what’s available.  The trees, especially those with taproots, have their toes in the limestone soils, and they make leaves and drop twigs routinely, both of which I believe are fairly high in calcium, though they tend to decompose in acid environments and result in acidic residues.  These acid decomposition situations are excellent for soil health in that they tend to be populated with fungi, which decompose organic residues into compounds that are stable and resist oxidizing out of the soil.  But the acid nature of the resulting leaf mold and duff probably makes the calcium less available to many crop plants.  My thinking is that we can use fungal-decomposed leaf and twig residues on our gardens and fields, but they will be the most useful, especially in regards to calcium availability, if we simultaneously use wood ashes and/or biochar to increase pH.  For many perennials, the alkalization would be unnecessary.

Some folks cringe at the thought of adding alkaline substances to the soil for fear of destroying fungal bodies.  Point taken: proceed with caution.  But I suspect that disrupting fungal networks in specific locations where crops are being grown that prefer a more neutral pH while allowing undisturbed havens for the fungi nearby (so they can keep incurring) is the magic sauce that garden plants and garden soils will thrive on.

Fungal-developed soils are probably the lifeblood of most healthy plants, but garden and crop plants tend to fall into an ecological class of plants known as ruderals, which are specialists in occupying ephemeral niches created by disturbance in overall more stable systems.  Fire, windfall, animal activity, etc. can create breaks in the ordinary business of running a forest, and suddenly destroyed and decomposing plant tissues and fungal bodies release a trove of nutrients that ruderals can scoop up and use for a few seasons before the more enduring life forms regroup and reclaim the space.  So if we wish to imitate this [nearly] eternal pattern of life on earth in our agriculture, yet continue to take advantage of high-yielding systems, we do well to: learn to make direct use of many of those more stable life forms, i.e., the plants and fungi of the forests, but also to learn to make indirect use of their abilities to build complex, nutrient-keeping soil conditions, the cascade of resources that generate from the disturbance of which our common crop plants need to thrive.

From my amateur vantage point, I propose four possible strategies (not all original) for working the acid/base, perennial/annual, fungal/bacterial interplay to the benefit of our common crop plants:

  • The above-mentioned pattern of moldered forest products used as soil amendment with the addition of an alkaline substance such as limey soil, wood ashes, or biochar
  • Alley cropping between rows of woody or other perennials. The inclusion of deep-rooted nutrient accumulators in the perennial mix can help reclaim leached nutrients from the alleys.
  • Use of fallows (periods of no mechanical disturbance besides possibly mowing), with re-conversion to cropping preceded by alkalizing amendments, fire, and/or tillage
  • Swidden (“slash and burn”) agriculture, wherein land is allowed to revert all the way to young or even mature forest, then converted through felling and fire to agricultural use for a few years until the burst of fertility wains, then allowing it to revert again.

In a way, you could say that all agriculture besides hydroponics and other aquacultures are already dependent on fungal-developed soils, since all our agricultural soils are useful in part because of the residual organic matter in them that is the legacy of the perennial systems destroyed to make way for the agricultural use.  But this is the opposite of a reassurance, since this dynamic requires reciprocity, or at least implies a pendulum effect.  The time frames may be quite flexible:  Swidden agriculture can count on a rotational schedule of 80 years or more, and soils that are well stocked with organic matter and nutrients from countless centuries of forest or prairie presence can tolerate ruderal agriculture for quite some time before wearing thin.  Herein lies our peril, since the period of use of our main productive soils is long enough that we have managed to build up our entire civilization within that time frame, and have failed to account for the bill that is coming due—the reverse swing of that inexorable pendulum.

There are those who are finding that the soil harm implied by agriculture can be partly, mostly, or even totally halted (reversed?!) by judicious incorporation of abundant soil-building cover crops and green manures into the rotational plan, and/or by re-seeding the soil with beneficial organisms, especially fungi.  I strongly suspect that these ideas will be refined and accepted on a large scale, given their success in the field, and I think that’s a deeply positive development.  I even maintain a shred of hope that they may play a strong role in moving modern society to a sustainable model.  Perhaps this should be added to my list above, but I hesitate to because it is still largely an approach that assumes cropping over a broad scale and with annual, ruderal crop plants, often with specialized machinery, so although it is an approach I see as legitimate, it is of a different class.

Some of the most basic versions of this (rye-vetch winter cover) have been tested and proven to be helpful in slowing the decline, but not stopping it.  More sophisticated approaches including more species in the cover mix and soil inoculation with microorganisms, plus minimal tillage seeding practices and reduced or eliminated chemical fertilizer use are far more promising, and have been distinct problem solvers for lots of farmers whose land was in such desolate straights as to force them to the brink of bankruptcy.  I am not an economic spiritualist—I don’t believe in the infallible wisdom of the marketplace—but I do think that this approach is proving itself and is going to get traction.  We’ll see how far it can go.

One of the upshots of an uptick of organic matter creation in mainstream agriculture by any of the methods mentioned above could be our agricultural soils absorbing a tremendous amount of atmospheric carbon, which could at least partly address our CO2 problem.  Perhaps almost as importantly, the reduced use of chemical fertilizers and the increased nutrient holding effect of these improved soils could pull back our tendency to produce nitrogenous gaseous compounds that are outsized contributors to the greenhouse effect.  It is worth noting, too, that all of these strategies reduce soil leaching, erosion, and runoff, which are the symptoms of ill soil and which are the source of so much devastation for aquatic systems (including well water!).  So much could be healed by taking our duty to the soil, which is to say our duty to ourselves, seriously.

Well, all of this is very interesting to farming nerds like me, but for the purposes of this year’s essay series I have to wonder about how residents of each region might make tailored use of these strategies.  ‘Which approach will work here?’ (wherever here might be) is the question.  And how will that affect the way life is lived in each place, the way food tastes, how densely populated each place can be?  Soils that tolerate some tillage as part of a responsible total plan will permit the planting of many of the crops we are used to eating that might have to be quite rare in a region with more fragile soils.  In the fragile areas, perennial systems should probably dominate, with fruit, nuts, timber, and pasture-based forms of agriculture taking precedence.

This may strike a person with at least a minimal awareness of history as a restatement of the obvious, since our past is littered with examples of regions that specialized in given crops as a result of conditions found locally, and to an extent it is still true even in conventional agriculture.  Lowlands tend to have deep soils, so row crops tend to show up there.  Trees will grow between rocks on a steep slope, so mountainous areas tend to produce the timber.  Duh.  My point is not to ignore those obvious conventions, but to celebrate them, call attention to them, raise them to prominence in the reader’s thinking, and emphasize the value to a sustainable agri-culture of a much more carefully selected, much more nuanced system of production that the people of each place must learn to create and hone as their individual and collective chief work.

Here at Tangly Woods, we humbly submit that we have begun this work for our location.  I mentioned above some of the challenges we have encountered with our soil (the U.S. Geological Soil Survey declares it “…not suitable for agriculture”!), despite which challenges we have of course come to cherish that soil, the fruits of it, the way our lives are every year coming more to reflect its bounty and its limitations.  If it were a rich and fertile bottomland we had happened to find, that might have been reflected in our pursuing an economic opportunity in vegetable production.  As it is, the state of the soil has concentrated our attention into a relatively small area—roughly 100 by 100 feet in the main garden with a few smaller patches outlying and some foraging areas for animals—from which we now derive the majority of our sustenance.  The biggest opportunity has been for learning, and so the main product to flow out from our place for some time to come may well be the insights we find here.  With that in mind, I do hope you find this essay and the others in this series helpful!

The good news for us is that in the areas we have been able to concentrate on the soil is rebounding, at places to an astonishing degree.  I can now run my wheel hoe through some beds almost without breaking stride, which comes as a shock after a few years of bouncing off the rocks held tight by the gritty and silty amalgam.  Clods that are unearthed digging potatoes are now riddled with insect and worm tunnels, and in some places the tilth is so much better that clods are hard to come by.  Far be it from me to rush time forward, but I can hardly wait to see what that garden will be like in ten years!  My vision, heavily influenced by the soil we’ve come to know, is for us to expand production in the next several years not by extending the boundaries of our cultivated area (except for maybe pig pasture), but by expanding the productive capacity of the soil we are already working with.  The evidence would suggest this is the best return for our investment.  I anticipate that the abundance of that area will result in a spillover effect, such that the fertility and productiveness found there will, if tended with care, naturally find its way to the surrounding soils; I see no reason to assume we won’t, one day, be in possession of a patch of soil, perched here on this sunny southeast slope that contends with the finest available soils in productivity and ease of use (somebody is going to have to pick up a lot of rocks first!).  Maybe one day that will represent a financial opportunity for our descendants; a chance to make a living farming.  But more importantly it represents a secure option for making a life here, for those who come after us to have a place to participate in the life of the soil.

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