Intro: Living Soils for a Livable Planet

There are a myriad of Fad Diets out there; we’ve all seen them: the South Beach, Atkins, Probiotic, etc.  Then there are lifestyle diets like veganism and raw food.   Years ago, I switched to a vegetarian diet for ecological reasons to lower my footprint.  As I read and listened more about food, this grew into a strict organic food based diet, then to organic local, and now I’ve backed off a bit and  am “virtually” vegetarian as I learned more of the importance of animals to the function of a farm ecosystem .   Food issues are of paramount importance to me – as a parent and a global citizen– driving much of the work for this blog, in my gardens, and my outreach.  Whether you are trying to lose weight, make a statement or live your ethics,  what we put into our mouths to sustain us has a huge impact not the least of which is on our health, but our food choices also greatly impacts our economy, our scenery,  the climate, and our planet.  Food matters… alot.

Over the course of the next few months I will expand on the topic of food grown in Living Soils as part of a Fall/Winter series of articles / essays concerning this topic.  It is far bigger than even a 2000 word post, and I am looking forward to the 1000+ pages of books I have inbound to help me expand my knowledge on the topic.  Plus its been awhile since I have written a larger article and I am rather looking forward to it.  In the mean time here are some High Points, mostly opinions, though later posts will be better referenced.

The data on the ills of our current, conventional farming system are legion, and well documented.  Conventional farming practices promote erosion, are poisoning our groundwater, most of our food is trucked in from at least 1500 miles away, the farmers can’t earn living wages, and small town America is all but extinct outside of bedroom communities.  The case for a different kind of Green Revolution is strong.   Conventional Farming is crude, reductionist and is founded on failed assumptions.  It is time to recommit to growing our food in Living Soils.


Masanobu Fukuoka

As part of the back to Earth movement in the 60’s a growing number of farmers began to grow “organically” – the way that our grandparents had done prior to WWII.  The inspiration for this blog, Masanoubu Fukuoka, was part of this movement to create a more sane, sustainable and productive agriculture that worked in partnership with Nature.  One of the firm tenants that has developed in Organic Farming is the need to foster a living soil.  Feed the soil, so that it may feed your plants and they, in turn, will feed you.  In a single gram of living soil there may be as many as 100 million to 3 billion bacteria, but in denuded soils destroyed  by chemical dependant industrial farming there can be as few as 100.   The incredible interconnected biodiversity of our soil’s food webs is only beginning to be “discovered” by science.  But we do know some things.

First off, organic food is better for you.  I know we’ve all gotten used to the see saw reports on this topic, but the majority of  reports done in unbiased, or at least less biased, manner are showing what our “Common Sense” test has know all along.  Food grown in living soils are more nutritious for you.  From the USDA’s own reports, the nutritional content of our [conventionally grown] food is 25% less than it was 50 years ago because the soil is dead and it takes far more than Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium to grow Real Food.  At the least it takes 18 micro nutrients including zinc and copper to create a balanced soil for plants – and those nutrients need to be in proper proportions to each other to prevent imbalances.   Balancing 3 points can be challenging, balancing 18, plus tilth, moisture, density, and air porosity is a herculean task far beyond the scope of our technology.  It takes the help of those millions of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, earthworms and other soil organisms with the wisdom of millions of years of evolution behind them, to get it right for us.  When the soil web is healthy and stable -living- it is an amazingly self regulating system that balances itself over time to best foster healthy plant growth.  Nature is beautiful.

Not only are the plants more nutritious,  but the heirloom varieties that can be only be grown in a holistic, organic, and local system are far superior to the supermarket varieties.  Anyone who has tasted one of my heirloom Carola potatoes after eating Idaho Russets from the Kwik Trip understands exactly what I mean.  Several years ago, I invited my Mother over to sample our first strawberry harvest at our home.  Upon putting the small, Sparkle berry into her mouth she almost swooned, exclaiming “I haven’t tasted this since I was a girl!”.  Strawberries are supposed to all but melt in your mouth – they are not intended to have a rigid core – that was bred in to allow them to be transported by truck, rather than by basket from the garden to the kitchen table.  Our forefathers and mothers saved the seeds of the varieties with the best taste, and I fervently believe that our sense of taste is evolutionarily designed to sense nutrition – our bodies know that organic food is better for us.


Conventional Soil (left) v. Organic Soil Black = Organic Matter

But living soils matter far more than just helping to offset the massive Health Care crisis of our time (we are the first society to be  overfed to the point of chronic obesity, while simultaneously being malnourished).  Our conventional farming practices are a significant cause of Climate Change.   In a lecture some friends of mine heard in Sweden comparing the carbon cutting benifits to be had from transportation, housing, and food sectors – the Food Sector won by a margin of over 400%.  Granted Europe’s Transportation and Housing sectors have come a long way compared to ours, but a recent article claims that switching to local foods and cutting back on red meat (to sane levels v. American levels) could reduce your carbon emissions more than swapping out 20 primary light bulbs (who has 20 primary bulbs?!) and cutting back your driving by 10%.  But back to the soil.  To feed the soil ecosystem you must supply one primary thing – organic matter. And the primary component of organic matter is carbon.  The reality is that switching to a Soil Based agriculture system will have HUGE ramifications on our ability to sequester carbon as a planet.  Much of the Ag land in America today is depeleted – down to 2-3% organic matter – less in many cases.  Healthy, living soils have at least 5 – 8%.  And here is the amazing stat: for each 1% you add back into the soil, you sequester as much carbon as exists in the entire atmosphere above that acre. And we need to sequester 3-5% back into every acre to rebuild the soil webs to rebuild our soils so we can rebuild our selves and our planet.  That is an amazing amount of carbon – 21 tons per acre, per percent, in fact.  In other words, a 200 acre farm that rebuilt its living soils and raised its organic matter 4% would sequester 16,800 tons of carbon.  Damn!

Living Soils are giving soils, providing far more bounty for less inputs because Nature is doing much of the work of the fertilizer supplier.  When my grandparents farmed they raised a family of 10 on 175 acres – and that was a large prosperous dairy farm for its day.  Now it would be a hobby farm in this era of industrial, corporate agriculture.  With the need for literally over $1,000,000 in rolling equipment, not to mention the silos, dairy barns, etc to support the 2000 acre “farms” of today the bank interest alone is staggering – forcing most farmers to work additional jobs.  Conventional farming has also killed our rural communities – 2000 acres 70 years ago would have supported 10-15 large families well, where now one farmer struggles with bankruptcy every other year because most of the income from the land goes to Cargill  for supplies and to the bank in loan interest.

Saner scale farms based on living soils, working in partnership with Nature, can rebuild our countryside, help to save our climate, and will provide a huge step towards stemming the tide of “lifestyle” disease and cancers as we put the nutrition back into our bodies.

We need Living Soils for a Livable Planet.


18 Responses

  1. Great post, Rob. I happen to believe that a plant-based diet is nutritionally inferior. But the sad fact is we probably have too many people on the planet now to feed everyone the meat they would like to have. The problem is industrial meat, and all the deforestation and grain and soybean cultivation behind it. We should be switching to livestock that can sustain itself on lands otherwise unsuitable for crops, land that will sequester carbon rather being plowed But we are almost certain to witness escalating global heating and starvation. At the same time we are encouraging sustainable, soil-based agriculture, we need to be empowering women around the world and teaching family planning. Too many humans are killing the planet.

  2. Inspiring post, Rob. It’s pretty phenomenal, the amount of carbon that good soils can store. The new director of the Rodale Institute (fairly local to me) is currently gaga over this idea. He’s pushing hard to expand carbon storage payments to farmers in more counties of PA. Not a bad thing, in my opinion, though it hasn’t been Rodale’s focus in the past.

    I spoke once with a gardener in my state who had achieved 12% organic content in his soils. His asparagus plants reached 20 feet in height, and had the local Amish nearly falling out of their buggies as they passed by. My garden soil is nowhere near that, but I’m always aiming for higher organic content, year over year. Nice to know that my garden can ameliorate/offset the other areas of my life that are not yet carbon neutral.

  3. Looking forward to reading your blog this winter – lots of interesting ideas, I think.

  4. Healthy, living soil holds water and refills aquifiers. Great posting Rob.

  5. >we probably have too many people on the planet now to feed everyone the meat they would like to have.

    Hm…we could think beyond the usual red meat vs. white meat, and start including things like clear meat (jellyfish, grubs…). Termites have a lot of potential.

  6. Very informative article, Rob. It all begins with the soil.

  7. This is very similar in ethos to the intro to gardening class I taught at my job. “Feed the soil, the plants will take care of themselves.”

    Make the soil healthy and let nature do the rest. (Of course now that I said that, we had the most horrific rain this season and fungal infections ran rampant)

    Brace yourselves for the backlash on meat though. There is a segment out there who will insist that the glut of meat we enjoy is a god given right, and they are sadly more numerous than the right to drive a hummer set.

    The real problem is cheap meat. We have dollar menu burgers because our tax dollars subsidize cheap corn which goes to CAFO lots and HFCS factories. Thats why its cheaper to buy a pepsi and burger from the international chain than a glass of cider and a bowl of pumpkin stew in a diner. Our tax dollars pay for part of the fast feed meal. Our children and their children will pay for the destruction to the environment that pumping industrial fertilizer into the land and water will bring. Ultimately the price will be paid by someone, but our short term thinking got us hooked on credit. The interest is accruing right below our feet.

    Great post as usual Rob

    • Thanks Kory. The things I really want to stress is that Organic Food from livings soils can literally fight cancer based on new research in anti-angiogenesis tendencies., carbon sequestration, and “eating your view”.

  8. *nodnod* Hmm, so I’m not able to garden every inch of my 1.5 acres (due to time, septic system, etc.). Any thoughts on ways I can increase carbon sequestration and improve the vitality of the soil under my lawn and other non-gardened parts of my lot?

    • The soil under a healthy lawn will eat a lot of organic matter, if it’s offered.

      You might try Paul Wheaton’s article on lawn care, for starters.

      As for improving the C sequestration per time spent gardening: You might look into hugelkultur. If there is scrap (un-treated) lumber or free firewood avialable from Craigslist or coarse trimmings from the neighhbors’ curb, they can go under any garden bed you’re building. This stores carbon directly, but it also makes gardening less laborious and more productive if done right, leading to more sequestration.

    • Fungi Perfecti overs a mycorrhizal kit for lawns – I also top dress mine with compost at times in the weak spots. Sod is a great soil builder on its own – leave the clippings and fertilize it some if it needs it (run chickens through it😉 ) we use Milorganite (made in Milwaukee from a “renewable” source *snicker*). Prairie Nursery sells a seed mix specifically for septic fields: attract benificals, birdies and sequester carbon – what’s not to like?

  9. This promises to be an exciting series to read over the winter. How does one determine the organic content of a soil? I’d like to start tracking my gardens.

    One comment on meat – I agree that much of the problem is due to cheap meat but would like to point out that getting the real deal isn’t that much more expensive if you buy in bulk. We purchase 100% pastured beef and pastured pork (pork is supplemented with locally grown organic feed) from a local farmer. The animals are given no hormones or antibiotics – there’s no need due to the way they are raised. By committing to him in advance to buy a half a hog and side of beef we wind up paying a little over $3 per pound for the beef – can’t remember how much the pork works out to be. Now, that’s for a top quality product that raised locally. My dollars support not only the farmer and his his family, but also another family’s butchering operation. My wife can specify exactly how thick she wants certain cuts, how many pounds of sausage per package, etc. So, my advice to all the readers that do eat meat is to vote with your dollars. Check out, find local farmers in your area, and support them. In the end, it won’t really cost all that much more than the garbage that is passed off as food in the stores, you’ll be keeping your food money local, supporting local families, and getting a vastly superior product. The difference in taste and quality is astounding. You cannot loose.

    • >How does one determine the organic content of a soil?

      Couldn’t be simpler!

      Take a sample of the soil, and thoroughly dry it in a low oven. Take a small sample of this dry soil, and burn out all the organic matter at high temperature (I’ve heard a propane torch works well), weighing it before and after. The proportion of the soil that burned away was the organic matter.

      Be very careful with hot things! Hot ceramics can crack if they are heated or cooled too unevenly/quickly.

      You’ll need a reasonably good balance (or an understanding postmaster…the post office leaves some good equipment out in the open!) and a container that can stand the heat, like a porcelain crucible, egg cup, or sake cup. You’ll also have to be careful to get the tare weight of that container before your dry soil goes in, to subtract that tare weight from the weight of the full container and the weight after burning out.

      You’ll see some random errors due to sampling methods and the accuracy of the balance, and some systematic errors due to in-complete drying or burning, but it should be possible to get accurate results nonetheless.

      • Just to clarify: I was suggesting one could pack the container/samples to the post office and back a couple times and use the scale there, not borrow (and especially, not “borrow”…) the postal scale.

  10. Hi Rob,
    Love the write up on living soils very well put! I love the imperative that protecting and restoring living soils should be our prime directive.

    I’ve been mapping out the relationship between the four sources of natural capital pointed out by Holmgren in the Permaculture – Principles and Pathways book. Water/Nutrients, Living Soil, Vegetation/Biomass, Seed….
    This has been a mind expansion about the importance of these connections…

    Sometimes I take that book to the coffee shop and start mapping things out and feel like I’ve discovered some source of wisdom that I need to keep under cover for fear of being found by Monsanto agents determined to keep such knowledge secret….but I digress.

    Look forward to more on this line of thought from you.


  11. I just reread your post again and the thing that jumps out at me this time was the phrase “saner scale”

    How true.

    There is a psychological price to be paid from living in such disconnect to the things that truly matter. Trust me.

    The first “green” revolution will fail because it is based on dependency. To succeed, the second one must be based on diversity.

    Living soil is the very paragon of diversity.

  12. Hi Rob

    Once again I appreciate your ability to make complex things simple and succinctly (and compellingly) capture (no pun intended) what I think is my own thinking. I was just outside this morning, just poking around the ground with a stick – marvelling at soil being made where once there was none. To think that this simple act – almost passive once the inputs are in place – can sequester so much Carbon is yet another reason to see soils as the great connecting place – the hub of all organic and inorganic connectivity.

    I look forward to reading more.


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