Feeding the soil that feeds us

Soil. Dirt. Humus.

It’s the quality of it that affects what and how much can be grown. It’s becoming more obvious every day that our wastrel ways with the soil must come to an end, and that our current ways of farming have to change in order to be able to grow food another day.

Why is all of this coming to my mind now? It’s a combination of things: I’m reading Lorraine Johnson’s The Gardener’s Manifesto, and this morning, read Why Farmers Are Flocking to Manure in the Atlantic. Michael Pollan’s  The Omnivore’s Dilemma introduced many of us to Joel Salatin, who carefully husbands his soil, pasture, crops and animals and rotates them to ensure the health of each.

About a year ago, I was arguing online after an article appeared in The Star about an architect who was designing the urban farms of the future — highrise buildings in which our foods would be grown hydroponically. I confess, I have unease about hydroponics.

I feel it is analogous to the futurists of the ’60’s who told us that our meals in the future would consist of eating a few little pills that would satisfy our every nutritional need: more than a little reductionist, yes? In the same way that we continue to discover what humans need nutritionally, we continue to learn what plants require, and what benefits a good, healthy soil provides the plants: nutrients, micronutrients, mycorrhizae, and who knows what we will discover next year.  How can we put all of what is needed into water for plants when we probably don’t know what everything is?

In the same way that a pile of chemicals contained in a human is not a human, is a pile of chemicals that we think are important in the soil the same as a healthy soil?

The age of artificial fertilizers seems to be coming to an end. The article in the Atlantic points to the rising costs of fertilizer in North America. Some farmers are now considering using CAFO manure to fertilize their fields, making for a smallish closed-loop environment — corn is used to feed the cows, put the cow manure in the field to feed the corn.

I would be happier if the manure was

  • feeding crops other than the crazy amounts of corn grown in the US,
  • coming from healthy animals that weren’t fed corn and
  • properly composted.

My concerns from reading the article are that we’re going to create a situation where E. coli 0157:H7 becomes as endemic to our food system as salmonella is to factory-raised chickens. Cows (and other ungulates) really aren’t built to digest corn. They get sick. They shed the E. coli virus. If we’re then taking the unhealthy manure from CAFO cows and chickens and spreading it on fields, I think we’re risking more food recalls in the future. We’ve had recalls of carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, and other field crops in the last two years. Can we start to mend our ways, please?

I know some farmers are.

I used to work with Martti Lemieux. He’s now a farmer up near Sault Ste. Marie, and this year was president of the Algoma Farmers Market.  In his words, he farms “working on rapid topsoil development, high brix forages and nutrient dense, flavour rich grass-fed/finished beef, lamb, pork, poultry and produce.”

Please support your local farms through your local farmers’ markets. These are the farmers who are working to build their soil and will guarantee our future food supply.

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