The Dirt on Organic Ag

Do you really like digging in the dirt?  Most anyone with a passion for gardening or farming does, and it's a relationship that's undeniably important, especially when using sustainable methods.

I didn't always appreciate the connection between dirt and our food. I remember feeling sorry for those poor high school kids who ended up on the FFA or 4-H soils judging teams.  I mean, judging animals could be some level of interesting, and maybe even judging vegetables could be tolerable.  But dirt? Who would willingly spend hours looking at and talking about the stuff we scrub out from under our fingernails?

Maybe I've matured a bit over the years, or maybe I'm just hooked by the full circle return to an appreciation of where our food comes from.  But the most enthralling class I took over the weekend-long Organic Growers School in Asheville, North Carolina was called "Soils 101."  It was taught by a scholarly professor named Dr. Laura Lengnick, who earned her PhD in agronomy and teaches at Warren Wilson College.

Dr. Laura Lengnick, PhD, Warren Wilson College
I could tell that even a semester of sitting alongside Lengnick's college students probably wouldn't make me feel confident enough to grow a large-scale organic garden.  But she offered some foundational lessons and pointed toward some useful resources that even beginning gardeners could use.  Mostly her talk emphasized how crucial healthy soils are to the ecosystem and to our individual gardens.

To my amazement, Lengnick cited that one tablespoon of soil contains six billion organisms, which she described as an "underground livestock herd."  When she went on in detail about soil quality and quantity and the complex processes involved  underground in order for our plants to grow, it brought a new realization for me about organic farming.

Today's organic farmers, or those that you might say are following traditional methods from previous centuries, must be at least amateur soil scientists and must fully appreciate the soil's connection to the ecosystem.  They can't afford easy fixes that make a crop yield well one year only to deplete the soil's nutrients for years to come.  You should have heard the gasps in the room when I framed one question to the speaker as if I hypothetically used synthetic herbicide.  Organic farmers and gardeners care deeply about production methods and the long-term implications, starting with the very content of the soil under their feet.

A checklist of basics when building healthy garden soil, and a link to a free online resource.

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