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Waking Up to Soil Science – Part II

Continued from the previous post on December 2nd…

What soil biology tells us is…conventional agriculture kills soil. If we need soil to grow plants, then eventually conventional agriculture is going to farm itself out of business and unable to “feed the world.” If we want to feed the world, we need to farm using biology. Soils farmed conventionally cannot store nutrients, retain water or sequester carbon because all the mechanics that enable these functions have been eliminated. When no organic matter remains, you have dirt. By enabling soil to store nutrients, we can reduce fertilizer run-off. Being able to retain water, soil can weather floods and survive droughts. By keeping carbon stored in the root structures of the plant, we can mitigate climate change.

Much of the “feed the world” discussion, however, surrounds yields. The Rodale Institute has proven yields are higher in organics. But some contest that the Rodale study can’t be extrapolated to large-scale farms. Perhaps they should look at the yields of Fred Kirschenmann who owns and operates a 3,500 acre certified organic farm in North Dakota. They employ many of Rodale’s farming principles. Fred’s success with large-scale organics is well supported and backed by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agricluture where he is a distinguished fellow. When asked the question about feeding the world in his book Cultivating an Ecological Consciousness, he said, “As our population increases, we have to use fewer of our ecosystem resources and services to restore and retain the health of our ecological neighborhoods. The only kind of agriculture that can hope to keep the world fed is an ecologically oriented agriculture that mirrors and maintains the natural ecology in which it is located.”

In large-scale ranching, there is a movement afoot in South Dakota called the Brown Revolution. It is setting out to prove the viability of organic, pasture-raised livestock. While still in the grassroots stages, rancher and lead spokesperson, Jim Howell calls the Brown Revolution, “a spin on the Green Revolution of the early 20th century.”  In an article by Lisa Hamilton (author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness), she explained, “The Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural productivity in developing countries to meet the demands of a growing world population.” She continued by saying, “Howell and his group aim to increase agricultural productivity around the world as a way of addressing one of the great challenges of our time, climate change. But while the Green Revolution hinged on implementing new technology, the Brown Revolution relies on restoring natural systems.” Jim and his partners’ holistic management style was developed by Allan Savory. Historically, grassland ecology was managed by the herding behaviors of wild, grazing herbivores. By mimicking this interdependent relationship, Savory and now Howell can facilitate these natural, regenerative cycles. In Lisa’s interview, she asked Jim, “How big can we expect the revolution to get?” He replied, “It has to be done on a freaking massive scale.” He continued, “We need enough land to impact climate change, but also provide a model that becomes the standard for grassland management.” His passion and vision resonates with Mark Smallwood’s “massive awakening.”

While it is good to think big, feeding the world will need to come in many sizes. Small to medium sized farms offer the best opportunity. And the Rodale Institute’s farming trials provide the research. By keeping farms smaller, we can get more people farming. It empowers local communities to secure their own food and puts people to work. Smaller farms can service a regional food system more efficiently making a local economy more resilient and adaptable to economic and climate fluctuations. A regional system shortens the supply chain driving down price. With more organic farms, overall supply increases driving down price as well. And Rodale is helping people to start farming with their newly launched “Your $.02” campaign. The program collectively pulls money from like-minded businesses and awards grants to aspiring, organic farmers.

When we look at soil biology, we need to see it through the lens of an ecosystem; something we need to protect. Like the critical habitat zones of polar bears and whales, we need to respect soil as a wilderness. In many ways, it is an endangered species. Rodale, Kirschenmann and Howell all take a whole systems approach placing humans in that same ecosystem. The soil is not separate. It is part of the human ecosystem.

Where do we go from here? Pay attention to the soil science in organic articles. Glean as much as you can. Absorb it, challenge it and share it. Don’t dismiss it as just some interesting facts. It’s the meat and potatoes of the whole issue.