Who digs Dirt?

I Dig DirtAround the world, fertile soil is disappearing at an alarming rate. How can we renew and reconnect with this precious natural resource? For every unit of food we consume, six times that amount of topsoil is lost; annually, that works out to 12,000 pounds per person of topsoil! John Jeavons has a system that might help – When his system is operating at peak productivity, John Jeavons of Ecology Action can grow food and increase topsoil at 60 times the rate of nature!

John JeavonsJohn Jeavons is saving the planet one scoop of applesauce at a time. JEavons stands at the front of the classroom at Ecology Action, the experimental farm he founded on the side of a mountain above Willits, in Northern California’s Mendocino County. For every tablesppon of food he sucks down his gullet, he scoops up six spoonfuls of dirt, one at a time for a dramatic effect, and dumps them into another bowl. It’s a stark message he’s trying to get across to the 35 people who have come from around the country to get a tour of his farm – simplified, to be sure, but comprehensible: For every unit of food we consume, using the converntional agricultural methods employed in the U.S., six times that amount of topsoil is lost. Since according to the U.S. Food and Drug administration, the average person eats a ton of food each year, that works out to 12,000 pounds of topsoil. Jon Jeavons estimates that using current farming practices we have 40 to 80 years of arable soil left.

If you don’t already know the bad news, I’ll make it quick and dirty:  We’re running out of soil. As with other prominent resources that have accumulated over millions of years, we, the people of planet Earth, havve been churning through the stuff that feeds us since the first Neolithic farmer broke the ground with his crude plow. The rate varies, the methods vary, but the results are eventually the same. Books like Jared Diamond’s Collapse and David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations lay out in painful detail the history connections between soil depletion and the demise of those societies that undermined the ground beneath their feet. According to the Internation Soil Reference and Information Centre (ISRIC), as of 1991, human activity has brought about the degradation of 7.5 million square miles (19.5 million square kilometers) of land, the equivalent of Europe twice over. The food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. has estimated that the value of lost soil nutrition in South Asia amounts to some $10 billion a year. Each year, says Montgomery, the wrold loses 83 billion tons of soil.

The Joy of DirtStill, these abstract facts have a way of eluding our comprehension. When we put a human face on them they begin to sink home. The U.N. Convention to Cmbat Desertifcation (UNCCD) has estimated that desertification in Sub-Saharan Africa will drive 60 million people from their homes in the next 20 years. While agriculture has thus far been able to keep pace with growing demand, it has done so by borrowing soil fertility from the future. But whether a global crisis is 20, 50 or 200 years away, the point remains the same: We as a species would be wise to take better care of our dirt.

In the hyper-abstracted economics of today, it is easy to forget that land is one of the irreducible foundations of all economies. As the world economy has deflated in the last year, it has driven many people all over the world back to earth, if only to grow a few tomatoes in their backyards. In 2009, The Associated PRess reported a 19 percent increase in residential seed sales in the U.S., a bump known in the business as “recession gardening.” When the Obamas planted a garden on the White House lawn, it was at once an economic, enviromental and spiritual gesture – a nod, if nothing else, to the primacy of dirt.

Like most everybody else on our little planet, save for a few hunter-gatherers and breatharians, I have seen a silent accomplice in this process. So I have decided to take matters into my own hands, largely figuratively and more than a little bit literally, and see what I can do to minimize my soil footprint. In the course of this exploration, I will follow my interaction with dirt as it moves in a cycle, through the good I eat, as that food leaves my body, and, ultimately, as I myself leave my body.

Ecology Action in Willits ValleyWith this in mind, I made the pilgrimage up from San Francisco to sit at the feet of Jon Jeavons, who has probably pend as much of his life thinking about building soil as anyone who has every lived. Jeavons started his career in the 1960’s as a systems analyst at Stanford University When the spirit moved him to pursue agriculture as vocation, he brought that kind of analytical thinking with him. These are the questions that drove him: How many calories does a person need to survive:? What is the smallest plot of land needed to grow those calories for one person for one year? How much land do we need to feed all the people on the planet?

Jeavons has devoted his career to answering these questions and spreading that information around the globe. A small but significant chunk of that learning can be found in his book How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine, first published in 1974, which has sold half a million copies and gone through multiple editions.

John JeavonsThe premise for which Jeavons operates is that nearly all farming on the planet, be it organic or conventional, First World or Third, takes more than it gives. Most organic farming, for example. borrows soil nutrition, in the form of compost or manure that has been generated elsewhere. Jeavons’ standard for sustainable land stewardship proposes ka very simple, obvious benchmark: It must generate at least as much topsoil as it uses. And as the world grows smaller and each scrap of arable land becomes less expendable, borrowing nutrition from some other piece of land is not solving the problem, he argues, but simply moiving it around.

You can get much of this out of his books, but to get a direct transmission it helps to visit the farm when it is operating in full force. Ecology Action sits 700 feet (213 meters) up on the edge of a ride, with a sumptuous view of the Willits Valley. There are many reason Jeavons ended up on this particular plot of land, but none has to do with the quality of the soil, which is judged marginally acceptable for grazing when he picked it up in 1982. He enjoys working with the challenges of suboptimal soil and limited sunlight, and is upfront about the fact that, by the standards of Grow Biointensive, as he calls his system, the gardens here are only moderately productive.

By the standards of the average visitor, however, the garden is exploding with life. Rye grass and Jerusalem Artichoke wave across the beds of quinoa and amaranth. What looks like a casual paradise is actually a closely monitored science project. Every leaf that leaves the premises is weghed and recorded. Interns from around the world buzz through like bees, tending beds and fruit trees. The catch, if indeed it is a catch, is that Jeavons’ methods work best on a small scale, on relatively small plots of land, executed by people who are paying attention and care enough to expend the necessary labor. And while his philosophy in general is that civilization needs to scale down, localize, put more elbow grease and less fossil fuel into the food chain. At the heart of Jeavons’ system is a maniacal focus on composting. Now, when he uses the term he is not merely referring to the quaint recirculation of leftover bits of lunch. Jeavons recommends that a gardener devote a full 60 percent of planting space to growing crops the principal purpose of which is to add biomass to compost piles. Cereal grains, giant overgrown daikon gone to seed and six-foot-tall cardoons are among the many plants born to die and rot untasted, cut down and fed through the system, capturing more carbon with each generation.

On average, around the world it takes 500 years for nature to produce an inch of topsoil. Number crunchers claim modern farming techniques increase erosion at 10 to 40 times the rate of nature. When his system is operating at peak productivity, Jeavons can grow food and increase topsoil at 60 times the rate of nature. After I left Ecology Action, I began to see soil nutrition everywhere. The stalks of feral fennel growing in the middle of the road, the otherwise-useless clumps of bamboo decorating my front yard: All started looking like more carbon sources for my compost piles. A bushy tomato planted to late to fruit, a radish gone to seed – what I used to see as gardening failures, I now see as dinner for the next generation of plants.


Article by: Larry Gallagher | OdeWire

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