We talked in previous columns about great new discoveries in agriculture which are in fact just rediscovering the wisdom of the ages, grandma knew better. Some readers might say “What? Another piece about agriculture? Why do I care?”, and the answer is of course that the ultimate only essential consumable good is our food, and also that arguably much that is not best with our world has its roots in agriculture straying from its tradition, into an industrial model which many see as unsustainable in the long run. So you ought to care. Also, this is about compost, and even if your gardening is limited to a couple of pots in the living room window, you might find something useful here.
Mahatma Ghandi famously said something like new ideas are greeted by ignoring them, then fearing them, then ridiculing them, then appropriating them as though we knew that all along. There is a new idea gaining ground, being ignored, feared, and ridiculed by government-sponsored chemical agriculture, and again something grandma knew all along, just didn’t have the jargon to put it into words.
The new idea is that nature takes care of its own, if we have healthy soil, the plants feed the micro-organisms in the soil, and the micro-organisms feed the plants. Got that?
Industrial agriculture is based on ‘soil tests’, which purport to show how much of ‘essential nutrients’ are available in the soil of a particular field, thereby allowing the farmer to determine how much and what kind of industrial chemical fertilizer he needs to apply. Generally the focus is on “NPK”, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, three chemicals which are usually found to be inadequate, and which not coincidentally are three that lend themselves well to being manufactured. Most research is focused on how to overcome the shortcomings of this approach, always in a way which increases dependency on manufactured inputs, and again not coincidentally which maximizes the city’s share of the food dollar. It is seen as totally acceptable that the city factory worker enjoys a comfortable salary, while the ag worker just gets enough to get by.
Probably the most encouraging development in ag is the notion that the important thing is the life in the soil – the myriad kinds of microscopic critters, most not even named yet, which live in healthy soil. They have just found in recent years that plant roots do not go one way, a sugar water solution called ‘exudate’ – it exudes from the roots, sort of like they are leaky, back into the soil, water from the soil, exudates to the soil. The exudates feed the myriad critters and fungus, and they in turn digest the soil, releasing the nutrients the plants need, sort of a you feed me, I will feed you arrangement. Different plants put different additives into the exudate to encourage the kind of bacteria that partner with that kind of plant, and discourage the kind of bacteria that partner with different kind of plants, it’s like a chemical war down there. And we hear more and more about a kind of fungus that makes it all work. So how do you make your soil healthy? Composted animal manure and composted plant matter, and stay away from chemicals of all kinds.
What? Nothing to buy from the industrial city? The farmer gets to keep all the money? Don’t hold your breath waiting for the ag establishment to get onside with that one.
Our soil and crop association is in the midst of a soil testing program, and the best soil test results were from Aunt Thelma’s garden. Thelma and Vic Smith have been putting nothing on that garden but compost, garden waste, and grass clippings from their several acres of grassy fields, for several decades. No chemicals. The garden has no serious weed or pest problems, and the soil test says it doesn’t need any nitrogen, phosphorus, or potassium, the infamous NPK that is the heart of modern ag. The new breakthrough is that the life in the soil extracts all the nitrogen it needs from the air, and all the phosphorus and potassium it needs from the minerals that make up the soil; chemical fertilizers and especially herbicide, pesticide, and fungicide just kill that life, thereby increasing dependence on those same chemicals.
So here we go again, another startling new scientific breakthrough. Except that grandma, or at least Vic and Thelma, gardening the way it used to be done, already knew it.