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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

2. Soil: Fertility


Changes in Soil

Beginning at the Beginning: The Soil

If we are truly to begin at the beginning, we begin with the soil. We must never be casual about wise use of the soil. Someone has observed that there are more soil scientists today than ever in history, and that we are losing topsoil at a greater rate than ever before in history, the obvious conclusion being that the more soil scientists we have, the more soil we lose. The point is that we should not be cowed by the official prognostications of scientific, governmental, and educational institutions—it is likely that it is amateurs like you and me who will lead the way in discovering (or rediscovering) ways to nurture and protect the soil. In any case, I have become quite pessimistic about stopping the juggernaut which is contemparary American agriculture and the economic engine driving it. The only place I can stop the juggernaut is in my own backyard.

Make no mistake, this question of soil preservation and soil health may be the most important issue of our time. This bit of soil I am steward of is intimately tied into bigger, even global, issues of eroding soils, environmental degradation, economic and social justice, climate change, etc. If you’re looking for big issues to tackle, start in your backyard.

Learn all you can about soil ecology, an enormous subject deserving your full attention. A lifetime should suffice. I expect most of my readers are sophisticated enough to have discarded the “N-P-K’’ mentality—the notion that if we add to the soil the right mix of chemical salts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, crop plants will slurp them up and all will be well. But I suspect that many of us seek “organic,’’ “sustainable’’ ways to do the same thing—that is, to provide the nutrient chemicals growing plants need, albeit through the addition of composts, rock powders, organic supplements like seaweed and bone meal, etc. It may be that our greatest challenge is to leave chemistry behind as we consider soil health, and think of biology instead. Soil “in good heart,’’ as farmers used to say, is soil that is alive. We should think first of all not of adding any particular chemical needed by plants, but of supporting and nurturing a diverse web of soil life.

Natural soil fertility

A good starting point for thinking about nurturing soil is to contrast natural systems with those used in agriculture. Why is it that—in natural habitats in widely different climatic and geologic conditions—soil fertility increases over the years and millennia, while the practice of agriculture by humans has often meant a loss of fertility, never more so than in the era of industrialized agriculture? Think of a forest, a prairie, a peat bog. Two characteristics stand out: First, everything in the system is recycled. Every creature’s waste is another creature’s resource, its priceless treasure. Nutrient cycles are closed. Wherever a potential for leakage of nutrients from the system arises, life forms have evolved or migrated in to capture the leachate for their own use and to pass it on for others’ use when they die. Every poop that is left behind every animal passing over the soil, every leaf that falls, the lush summer growth mowed down by winter’s scythe, every animal or plant or microbe that dies—all are fed on by other creatures with their own specialties—their own particular tastes, if you will—and their residues retained in the system.

If nutrient losses are avoided, over time there must be an accumulation of fertility. Why? Because the ultimate energy powering the whole wonderful, complex process is the sun. If sunlight is continuously added to the equation, and the web of life in the soil has in place strategies to prevent nutrient leaching, of course there must be a net gain—over time a huge net gain—of fertility in the soil. Beautiful! This truly is the miracle of life: the reversal of entropy, the conversion of sunlight and sterile rock into ever more complex life forms.

The last point bears emphasizing. It is often observed that if we take food from a piece of land, we are reducing fertility. This is especially true when we think of a farm that is supplying many other mouths than its own. Doesn’t the sale of farm produce imply an export of nutrients off site—i.e., a continuing leak from the closed nutrient circle which longterm has to result in infertility? The answer is that the nutrient cycle is never a completely closed circle—because the energy of sunlight is always being added to the system. It is our challenge to make sure that what we subtract from the soil in the form of food is less than the potential boost to fertility of sunlight—such strategies are the heart of sustainable homestead and farm production.

The other major characteristic of natural fertility accumulation is that the soil is undisturbed. In the absence of disturbance, ever more complex, interdependent webs of life emerge, with implications for the subsequent evolution of the system, but first and formost a net gain of fertility. [Of course there are disturbances of soil—sometimes major disturbances—in natural ecologies. My point here is that fertility accumulation occurs in the absence of serious disturbance.]

In contrast, human agriculture has too often meant a breaking of the nutrient cycles—creation of holes in the closed loops, through which nutrients are lost—and it has almost always meant regular and repeated disturbance of the soil. These two features of agriculture have never been so prominent as in the present. We seem to assume no need to return all “wastes’’ to the soil in forms it can use. We think, for instance, that the best thing we can do with our poops is to flush them away to the sea, rather than recapture them as a source of fertility. Manure from high-confinement livestock operations is likewise considered more nuisance than resource. Rather than basing our fertility programs on renewable organic residues, we use chemicals produced from petroleum and natural gas, resources that will soon be in increasingly short supply—chemicals moreover that tend to destroy rather than nurture soil life.

Tillage—disturbance of the soil—when excessive or too frequently repeated, has drastic results. The complex, balanced nets of soil life are destroyed or disrupted, and the humus in the soil is exposed to air, sun, and weather. We think of soil erosion in terms of excess rain washing it away, or of wind blowing it away, but serious erosion of topsoil also occurs through oxidation of humus by exposure to excess oxygen. This is not a trivial matter. Though we think of the burning of fossil fuels as the primary cause of global climate change, an enormous amount of carbon is also being released to the atmosphere through contemparary agricultural practices—the oxidation of soil carbon through excess tillage.

We as a culture see the soil loss in process. We study it, we document it. We label it “unsustainable.’’ Yet we pay little heed to the naked meaning of the term. “Unsustainable’’ means quite simply that continuation of current practice will in the long term destroy the very foundation of agriculture, causing the collapse of our economic system as the natural, logical, and completely predictable outcome. It means that as a culture, we will die.

Organic matter

As said earlier, the place you can start to turn the dreary and in the long term deadly process of soil destruction around is in your own backyard. I urge you to return constantly to the two major characteristics of natural soil systems as guides. As luck would have it, those characteristics are also the key to bountiful and healthful harvests.

Get into the habit of utilizing every source of organic matter you can possibly produce, beg, or scrounge. If you have neighbors with cattle, horses, poultry, or rabbits who consider their livestock’s manure more nuisance than treasure, offer to haul it away for them. Do you have neighbors who are hauling autumn leaves to the landfill? Offer to save them the trip by dumping them at your place. Maybe there’s a local farmer with some spoiled hay he’d let you have for little or nothing. Don’t pass up any opportunity to bring more fertility onto your homestead in the form of organic materials.

Fertility patches

You should also think in terms of growing more of your own fertility. All of us know that cover crops are used to boost the organic matter content of soil. Nitrogen-fixers such as legumes (beans, peas, clovers, etc.) can be especially useful. However, if you have the space, it is a good idea to establish some “fertility patches’’ that are dedicated exclusively to growing fertility for the garden. For example, comfrey and stinging nettles produce foliage with high levels of protein (nitrogen), minerals, and other nutrients. These plants can take any amount of fertilizing you can throw at them (in the case of comfrey, even raw, uncomposted chicken manure!). When cut, they can be used as high-nutrient mulches that break down quickly, releasing their nutrients into the root zone. If used in making a compost heap, they help “ignite’’ the heap—start its rapid decomposition—because of their high nutrient content. Don’t forget pasture as the fertility patch par excellence. If you have any pasture ground whatever, please think of it as a priceless, multiple-use resource. In my case, I have only an acre or so of pasture, maybe less, which I use full-time during the growing season to pasture my poultry. However, from spring to early summer, the grasses and clovers grow so fast that I can take cuttings off various sections and still be able to rotate the birds over them. I use a scythe to cut the grass (long-stem cuttings are vastly superior as mulch to the chopped-up clippings from a power mower), allow it to dry a couple of days, then rake up and use as mulch.