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  • Jim Chamberlin

Doing Better for Soil Is Better for All

I entered college in my early thirties, looking for a career change from the foodservice industry. My parents owned a bakery when I was growing up, and after graduating from high school, I stayed in foodservice working for resorts, fast food joints, supper clubs, and bakeries. During my time working in kitchens, starting at fourteen frying donuts before school, I saw the quality of ingredients from foodservice distributors decline, and the move away from scratch ingredients to processed and prepared foods. 

As a lifelong gardener, I first started my journey into organic growing as a young man in the mid 80’s, with subscriptions to magazines like Organic Gardening and Mother Earth News. Back then “organic" meant farming in a way that promoted biologically fertile soil, rich in organic matter, that grew healthy, robust plants. I found out it was a steep learning curve and hard work to grow food without chemicals.  

I was tired of working on concrete floors and interested in a career working outdoors with plants, preferably those that produced healthy nutrient dense food. I had worked  landscaping jobs during the tourism off season and enjoyed it, so I enrolled in the Landscaping Program at Central Lakes College with the vision that I would start an edible landscaping business. One of the first classes I took in college was Plant Sciences, where I learned that higher education wasn’t necessarily keen on organic production.   

During a Plant Sciences lecture on plant fertility, the instructor told us how nitrogen is one of the most abundant elements, but most often isn’t in a form usable by plants. He then described the process when anhydrous ammonia, a manufactured form of nitrogen, is applied to soil, fueling bacteria that rapidly multiply in numbers. As they multiply these tiny organisms consume soil organic matter, then as rapidly as they multiplied, they die off, providing nitrogen in a form the plants can use.

As much as 60% of this nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere or leached to ground or surface waters

I was well into my organic journey at that time and understood that, in an organic system, soil organic matter meant fertile soil. I questioned the instructor about the long-term viability of using this type of fertilizer program to grow food, one which fueled the loss of soil organic matter. He replied that we needed to use these products to feed the world. He neglected to tell us that as much as 60% of this nitrogen is lost to the atmosphere through off gassing as nitrous oxide, or leached to ground or surface waters, causing degraded water quality and potential health hazards.

Wheelbarrow full of garlic bulbs with pitchfork over top
Garlic harvest at Island Lake Farm

It wasn’t until years later I heard a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service describe the same process as my college instructor had, only he referred to the bacteria as fast acting nitrifiers. The researcher explained that these species of nitrifiers are hardy organisms that can survive long periods of drought and inundation, waiting for their next fix of nitrogen fertilizer. He also described a different system, one which provides nitrogen in a naturally fertile soil. These systems have a much more diverse makeup of soil organisms, which he referred to as slow acting nitrifiers. These organisms, he explained, need a steady supply of root exudate, good soil structure, abundant organic matter, and minimal soil disturbance. He spoke about how they are much less hardy, and can’t survive degraded soil conditions.  They are part of a greater food chain and rely on predator/prey relationships and without healthy soil, the system collapses

Less Water, Healthier Plants Also Benefits 

Managing for soil health has benefits beyond reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizers. By following some basic soil health principles, farmers can increase soil organic matter and water holding capacity in the soil profile, reducing the need for irrigation. Improved soil health increases the capacity of soil to hold all nutrients in the soil profile, in a plant-available form, without leaching out of the root zone and into our ground and surface water. Plants grown in healthy soil are more resistant to pests and disease, reducing the need for harmful pesticides. And food grown from biological fertile soil is more nutrient dense and supports human and animal health.  

Agriculture, like most things in life, should be a constant effort to do better. If done well, agriculture should heal and restore our resources. Simple tools like soil organic matter measurements can tell us if we’re healing our soil. This must be the goal of every farmer, rancher, and gardener. And they need to own it.

Owning Your Ethic

If your farm, ranch, or garden is regenerating soil, protecting water quality, or working to improve habitat, you need to tell your story. Many people believe that we need to take land out of production to protect our resources. But with production practices that prioritize soil health, the land can be managed wisely. Since humans first worked the land, the challenge has been how to meet our needs without destroying the land. If you are doing this, you should own it, tell your story, share your successes and your challenges. Invite your friends and neighbors to dinner and let them taste the difference, encourage them to be part of the solution by purchasing from farmers like you.

See the Results   

Happy Dancing Turtle has increased the soil organic matter in our gardens by as much as six fold. We’ve stored carbon and increased the ability of our soil to infiltrate and hold water. Yields and quality of the produce from our gardens and high tunnels are constantly improving. We’ve diversified the land and improved the habitat for pollinators and other wildlife. Over the years many tons of produce has gone to employees, friends, neighbors and the greater community. We want to share with others how we’ve done this.

Join us on Friday, April 26th from 2 - 5pm for Soil Health 101 - Is your Soil Living?, the second workshop of our Root Your Knowledge series. We will define what soil health is and the basic principles that help to support it. The use of compost tea to support beneficial biology will be discussed and Dave will have the microscope out to see what bugs we can find. We will hear from Brambling Rows Farm and Island Lake Farm on how they utilize the soil health principles in their operations and then there will be a tour of the HDT gardens to see first-hand the practices we use to support soil health and landscape diversity.       


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