In recent posts I have been working towards talking about how our grasses interact with the soil to create nutritious food for our animals. As I was getting ready to write this post, I happened upon a book that talks a lot about this whole idea and how agriculture can help the soil and the life within it. This book is called Dirt to Soil, written by Gabe Brown from South Dakota. Through decades of farming and learning from nature, Gabe has learned how to grow grain crops and animals while creating more top soil, nutrient dense foods, and gathering carbon from the air and returning it to the soil. Gabe Browns significant work in farming has caught the attention of soil biologists, conservation groups, and anyone interested in healing the land that we live on.
Gabe points out that most farmers are using dirt to grow plants, but he would argue that using plants to grow soil is the better way. Before the early settlers came to the Midwest and started plowing the fields, the soil was dark, loose, and full of living organisms that made the basis for the prairie ecosystems. The plants fed the soil with solar energy and the soil fed the plants with minerals and nutrients. When the dirt is left undisturbed by plows and other tillage equipment, the soil biology has a sturdy home in which to live. The biology pulls the soil into small clumps of soil which leaves spaces in between for air and water to pass freely. This environment was ideal for bacteria and fungi to live and work in their underground ecosystem.
The plants get their energy from the sun, but they need the nutrients from the soil in order to be healthy. Without the nutrients, it would be like a human living on coffee and sodas. Without a good mix of meat and vegetables, we wouldn’t remain healthy enough to function, and the plants, even if they can grow, are not creating healthy food for us or our animals. In order for the plants to get the nutrients they need, they spew organic carbon into the soil. The fungi and bacteria eat the carbon and use that energy to process minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients for the plants. This system is more sophisticated than biologists had thought in the past. Gabe points out that researchers now know that plants are able to send out specific code for the nutrients they need so that a specific kind of fungi or bacteria are fed and can then get the specific vitamin or mineral that they need.
Now that we know more about how soil is supposed to function as a living part of the ecosystem, we can better understand why our food is less healthy and our agricultural industry is so unnatural. We cannot blame any one part of the agricultural food system for the mess that it is. It has been a slow progression from health to unnatural chemical use. When the first settlers started plowing the soil, they started tearing open the home that the soil biology had been creating for thousands of years undisturbed. Slowly but surely, the small bunches of soil were shaken apart and the space in the soil where water and air used to travel were no longer open. The soil was now losing habitat for fungi and bacteria as well as losing its ability to hydrate and breathe. This closing of spaces in the soil has led to a lack of water entering the soil which is why rain washes away dirt and we have major erosion problems.
If the water cannot enter the soil, then the soil cannot hold moisture. Without water in the soil, the plants need rain more often and it is also why the use of irrigation is becoming more and more popular. Some places in the United States receive over fifty inches of rainfall a year and they also irrigate another fifty inches, but they still don’t get as much water to the plants as they need in the summer heat! Gabe Brown has an average yearly rainfall of 13 inches and he still grows great crops.
Since the soil no longer had much biology in it because of being torn apart, dehydrated, and suffocated because of a lack of water and oxygen, the crops suffered because they couldn’t get as many nutrients. Farmers and researchers found that they could add fertilizers to the soil and make the crops grow better again. Since the plants could get the nutrients from the fertilizer and they didn’t need to get them from the biology in the soil, the plants stopped feeding the soil biology the carbon it needed. This starved the soil life even more.
With the loss of a healthy soil ecosystem, disease erupted and ruined the crops so now farmers use large quantities of insecticides, herbicides and a host of other chemicals. These chemicals don’t know the difference between good life and bad life. Unwittingly, conventional farming has killed any soil life that was left. Now agriculture is reliant on using all the chemicals and fertilizers because we have forgotten how to work with nature in our endeavor to grow food.
This is where Gabe Brown has caught everyone’s attention. After just a couple decades, he has quit using any chemicals, he isn’t using any fertilizers, and he has done this while not breaking the dirt open. He has returned his soil to a fully self-sustaining ecosystem and is able to harvest nutrient dense food in the process. At Grass Corp. we have worked towards the same things and have farmed without chemicals since we moved to our farm in 2005. We continue to work toward a healthier soil that grows plants that are more nutrient dense so that the meat, dairy, and eggs that we produce not only taste good, but is nutritious as well.
Brown, Gabe. Dirt to Soil: One Familys Journey into Regenerative Agriculture. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2018.
Here is a video that shows the importance of soil biology and how it affects the natural function of sustaining life: