Will Work for Dirt

Land is becoming dirt-poor, lacking the qualities needed to grow healthy food. Thankfully, there's a growing grassroots effort to restore our soils.

Have you ever tried to grow a garden in your backyard, only to find that the dirt was too worn-out and dry to produce anything? Have you coaxed that soil back to life so that it, in turn, could give life to fruits, vegetables, or root crops?

tar sands
Soil in urban and rural areas alike is becoming degraded, lacking in essential humus, moisture, and microbes. In fact, a third of the world's land surface is no longer as productive as it once was. Photo by Preston Keres / USDA.

Gabriela Valeria Villavicencio Valdez, an urban garden enthusiast in Querétaro, Mexico, is all too familiar with lifeless dirt. In fact, she has adopted a newly coined name for this type of postapocalyptic, dystopian, metro soil: urbic technosol transportic.

Gabriela pointed some out to me in a vacant lot where a building was recently demolished. The site was littered with asphalt, pieces of chalky wallboard, metal, fired clay bricks, and concrete. And yet tenacious families were trying to cultivate this “soil” to grow vegetables in a barrio in the burgeoning city of Querétaro. That’s where close to a million people try to eke out a living on the southern edges of the Chihuahuan Desert.

If have you ever tried to garden in such a place — where dark, rich topsoil seems as rare as gold — just remember that you are not alone.

In 1950, just 64.7 percent of Americans lived in cities, but by 2015, that percentage had surpassed 80 percent. By 2030, it will likely approach 87 percent. We have become an urban species, living in places where it is increasingly hard to grow food.

Unfortunately, it is not just cities where soil is in bad shape. In areas urban and rural, land is becoming dirt-poor, lacking the humus, moisture, and microbes needed to grow healthy food. In fact, a third of the world’s land surface — especially under gardens, orchards, fields, irrigated pastures, and rangelands — is no longer as productive as it once was.

Soil scientists who gathered in 2015 to advise the UN Food and Agricultural Organization were astonished at just how quickly microbes are disappearing from the world’s soils and how quickly foods grown in those soils are losing their nutritive value. They were equally horrified that this loss is directly impoverishing peoples who are already among the hungriest and most profoundly marginalized in our society.

All told, the capacity to feed ourselves has been declining by one-half percent per year. If these trends continue, our descendants will have nothing to share for dinner other than “stone soup” and “rockette salad.”

And yet there is much that can be — and is being — done to prevent that from happening. There is good evidence that soil fertility and microbial diversity can be restored for healthy food production in less than a decade — even in metro areas where urbic technosols currently prevail.

In fact, a grassroots effort aimed at slowing erosion and restoring America’s soils has been swelling for decades. In many ways, it remains one of the best examples of community-based collaboration ever seen on the North American continent. This work has widened to restore wild habitats such as trout streams, grasslands where bison roam and prairie chickens peck, and scrublands for sage-grouse. It has been performed by loose confederations of local landowners who democratically decide how to manage farmlands, ranchlands, community gardens, and green belt forests on the outskirts of urban areas.

Collectively, these local nodes form a network known as the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD). Today, there are some three thousand districts engaging more than seventeen thousand volunteers.

A turning point in dealing with soil erosion occurred in 1981, when Neil Sampson, executive vice president of NACD, sounded an alarm that was heard across the entire continent. In Farmland or Wasteland: A Time to Choose, Sampson warned that Iowa corn farmers were losing as much as fifteen tons of topsoil per acre each year, and wheat farmers were losing as much as twenty tons per acre.

About the time Sampson was writing, a report in the British Food Journal found that from 1930 to 1980, the nutrient content in twenty vegetables had fallen, most likely as soils were depleted; the average calcium content had declined 19 percent; iron declined 22 percent; and potassium declined 14 percent. Several more recent studies corroborate this phenomenon, linking nutritional value to soil health. According to Dakota stockman Gabe Brown, we would need to eat four to eight times the volume of certain fruits and vegetables to obtain the same nutrient levels from our food crops that people enjoyed in the early twentieth century!

As such devastating research began to appear in scientific journals, Sampson and others pushed hard to see that the Soil and Water Conservation Act was fully implemented in 1977. By then more than a tenth of American farmland was eroding at annual rates of more than fourteen tons of soil per acre. In 1982, farmers were still losing 1.68 billion tons of soil per year from water erosion and 1.38 billion tons per year from wind erosion.

Sampson was both eloquent and blunt enough to tell farmers that if such losses went on any longer, their livelihoods would be going to hell in a hand basket. That is when farmers and ranchers decided that a loss of even seven tons per acre was unacceptable. They simply would not survive as food producers.

Gradually, with perseverance and shared know-how, tens of thousands of farmers in the three thousand conservation districts began to put more stringent erosion control measures in place. By 2007, they had cut levels of stormwater-caused “sheet and rill” erosion almost in half and losses from wind erosion by a third.

In less than a quarter century, they had found cost-effective means of reducing the total rate of erosion on the average acre of farmland from 7.3 tons to 4.8 tons, a 43 percent decrease! They were conserving 1.33 billion tons more topsoil than they had been in 1981, when Sampson had let loose his warning cry.

Although various conservation districts around the country did not congeal into a national association until 1946, the origin of this grass- roots approach to farmland restoration can be traced back at least as far as 1934. That’s when Hugh Bennett, head of the fledgling US Soil Erosion Service, asked forester and wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold to drive with him out to Coon Valley, Wisconsin. They wanted to see what could be done to restore a highly eroded, economically devastated watershed in the area.

What these two nationally renowned experts did when they got out to Coon Valley is the perhaps most astonishing moment in their entire decade-long adventure together. They went into a small café where many of the farmers came for a cup of coffee and breakfast, and they simply listened.

They listened to what the farmers themselves said had happened to their watershed. They listened to how they felt affected by the problems this degradation had caused. And they listened to what the farmers thought they could do about it if given some technical support and added manpower.

After coffee, the farmers and stockmen took Leopold and Bennett out into the mudslides and gullies to figure out how they could be mended. And when the breakfast café became a bar serving drinks in the late afternoon, they took Bennett and Leopold back there to develop a plan for getting the work done. Leopold and Bennett listened again, abdicating their roles as top-down experts. Together with the farmers, they created a demonstration project for what they soon began to call “cooperative conservation,” what we call community-based collaborative restoration today.

As Bennett and Leopold came back to that Coon Valley café week after week, they brought with them workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), student interns from the University of Wisconsin, soil scientists, and foresters from the USDA and from state agencies. Pretty soon, they were on the ground together, restoring soils, healing downcut watercourses, filling in gullies, reseeding hillsides, modifying crop rotations and grazing practices, planting trees in windbreaks to stabilize stream banks, and shaping contour terraces in fields and pastures above the streams.

Some 418 farming families and two hundred additional workers from the CCC and university’s internship programs eventually participated in the restoration of more than forty thousand acres of food-producing lands in Coon Valley. As Leopold later noted, they had come together to “show that integrated use is possible on private farms, and that such integration is mutually advantageous to both the landowners and the public.”

One direct benefit of this collaborative effort did not fully emerge until a half century after the demonstration project. The farmers’ descendants decided to form a vegetable and dairy cooperative that they called CROPP — the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool. CROPP is well- known to many of us today through its brand of foods, Organic Valley. Its headquarters is located in LaFarge, Wisconsin, just twenty-five miles away from the heart of Coon Valley.

Today, the cooperative has expanded to include more than two thousand farmer-owners in at least thirty-three states and four Canadian provinces. And yet it can be argued that all of CROPP’s members and consumers now reap the benefits of a participatory process that began in Coon Valley. If anyone doubts that farmland restoration can pay for itself, simply cite Organic Valley’s $1.1 billion of food sales in 2016.

I once met one of CROPP’s founders almost by accident, and the elderly dairyman treated me to a story about building Organic Valley from the ground up:

“When I first told my wife, my brothers, and brothers-in-law that I was going to put some of our life savings into help starting a food marketing cooperative, they looked at me like I was nuts. You know, rural residents tend to be somewhat risk-aversive as well as economically and politically conservative sometimes . . . In fact, one of my family members initially asked me, ‘What’s a Collective? Isn’t that some kind of communist plot to infiltrate our farming communities?’”

“Anyway, by the time all my royalty and revenue checks from CROPP over the years had amounted to a million dollars of returns, they all wanted to become that brand of communist!”

The collaborations that Bennett and Leopold facilitated have made an important contribution to soil health. But much more needs to be done to hold soil in place and to bring life back into the soil and onto the land.

We can join with friends and neighbors to gather up postharvest crop debris, spoiled produce, and livestock manure to make compost, not dust bowls.

We can build brush weirs and living fencerows wherever wounded floodplain land needs a little help from its friends.

But it’s not just about keeping bad erosion from happening; it’s also about restoring “the good” to the soil in terms of its fertility and tilth, its beneficial invertebrate diversity, and its microbial richness.

Most importantly, we can form social networks to restore the soil—actually imitating the mycorrhizal fungal networks in healthy soils. By collectively practicing such biomimicry, we can provide soils across entire watersheds a chance to accumulate moisture, nutrients, and a myriad of beneficial microbes that may be out of sight but not out of work.

I personally find this work much more satisfying when I perform it with others. I prefer to be a member of a work crew that is out to prove the axiom “Many hands make for light work.”

I recently reflected on this axiom of “social thermodynamics” while working with a group of teenagers in a summer program called Border- lands Earth Care Youth. We were on a steep slope of my rocky ridge, building terraces to stop erosion. The goal was to support the roots of edible desert plants like mesquite, prickly-pear cactus, and agaves.

I had cofounded the program five years before. Now I stood there amazed by both the raw energy and deep willingness of a dozen young men and women to get their hands dirty and their T-shirts sweaty on a day when temperatures soared over 105 degrees.

The dozen high school students from my hometown of Patagonia are among the nearly one hundred Earth Care Youth who have participated in the first six years of our program, which has now spread to the nearby towns of Douglas-Agua Prieta and Ambos Nogales. They had arrived before seven that morning and were moving cobbles and boulders into place within minutes of hitting the ground.

I had begun the terracing five years before, keylining the slope with my young friend Caleb Weaver, who had since become the coordinator of Borderlands Earth Care Youth. At that time, the slope was near barren except for a few drought-stressed mesquite saplings; it held a scatter of withered clumps of grass, but whenever it rained, most of the slope lost more soil than it gained.

Caleb and I had put the first few terraces or trincheras in place that summer but didn’t quite realize that they would need so much annual maintenance. We now conceded that cobblestones love gravity so much that they seem to slink downhill of their own volition, leaving the trincheras looking like a series of dotted lines.

Excerpted with permission from Food From the Radical Center: Healing Our Land and Communities by Gary Paul Nabhan. Copyright © 2018. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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