Hello Farm Friends!
Clothing is something that we can take off or put on, change our appearance, without harming our bodies (assuming the clothes fit!). Animals’ fur and trees’ bark is attached, and cannot be removed without disturbance or damage. Where in nature do plants in soil fall on this spectrum? Can the plants be changed at will like clothing, or are they more analogous to fur or bark?
In the wild Mother Earth almost always clothes herself with lichen, vocanic rock, leaves, grass, ferns, water. However, here in our farming community, we are accustomed to the sight of naked dirt. Seeing the dirt is the sign of a hard-working farmer, removing one set of plants in order to install different ones, all isolated and planted like a solitary jewel. Many in our area love the tidiness and order in the sight of a row of grape vines rising from bare earth, and so have never questioned the cost of farming in this way.
Grape vines are sociable creatures, accustomed to springing up where uninvited, overgrowing their welcome, eventually smothering their hosts. The vines that grow in this way never need irrigation or fertilizer, as the community of plants around them fix nitrogen, provide humus, and store water. When the party is broken up by tilling, the following occurs:
* Invasive weeds seize the vacant real estate
* Water runs off, or pools on top of the soil
* When the water runs off it takes humus and nutrients, and the wind takes whatever is left.
When these costs are considered, they are frequently considered acceptable collateral damage to the necessity of mechanized farming. However, the cost/ benefit decision was made before we knew the full story! Recent work shows that tilling causes:
* The need for added artificial nitrogen, which is less digestible than nitrogen from natural sources.
* More roots guide more rain water deep into the dirt, cleverly stored for later use.
* Companion plants moderate temperature, which is why wild grapes need no windmills.
* Plants take the energy of the sun, and rather than heat the soil, turn that energy into biomass, which can (and does) build the humus in the soil, among other benefits.
* Digging in the soil disturbs the crystalline structure of air pockets, soil, humus, worm castings and more, made by the countless helpful microorganisms who call the soil home.
For the brave of heart, it is easy to test the importance of soil structure! The next time your digestive tract is unhappy, find some undisturbed forest soil, preferably under ferns, and eat a small pinch of it. For certain conditions, the effect is miraculous. If something as small as the tiniest pinch can affect something as large as we are, this is powerful stuff indeed! (NB — please do not try this with the tilled, chemically-treated soil in a regular field.)
Often, we find only what we are looking for. With both forest soil and no-till, what has blinded us, is the way the question has been framed: what man-made chemicals can be applied to approximate my purpose? The answers change dramatically, once we widen the frame to: what are the best methods, techniques or amendments, to be healthy in ourselves and our gardens?
Industry is in the process of developing robotic farmers, who can laser-zap weeds — locking into place the idea of replacing nature’s community with only one species — replicating the idea that our cities are the apex of civilization — and our cities are designed to harbour only one species.
If ideas about farming are shaped by city dwellers, who unconsciously seek to replicate “home”, then could it be that our ideas about growing are also unconsciously shaped by our own skin? There are reasons for humans to go bare in the summer! Heat and humidity are unbearable when we wear layers of clothing; shedding some of it also gives us better ability to evaporate some pesky toxins. Add to this, that we generate Vitamin D from the sun, and that our mitochondria also use sunlight to generate energy, and it is easy to see why we might feel that summer and bare — tilled earth — might go together.
Years of tilling and chemicals have created something rarely seen outside of cities: dirt where even weeds will not grow! Unfortunately, there is no easy-to-find answer in restorative agriculture, as there is in conventional; there are no big ag chemical companies funding research that might put them out of business! This is where we come in, experimenting on a smaller scale, and writing about the results. Stay tuned as we dive in to find which policies really work! Once the soil is remediated, one of the big questions we will need to answer, is how to harvest efficiently, in a polyculture?