Dirt: Our most valuable natural resource

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Mark Cullen shows some of the dirt he discusses in his column. 

Recently I enjoyed a car ride with my son that took several hours.

It was an opportunity for both of us to ask each other questions and indulge in listening to the answers, taking the time to explore all of the corners of issues as we rode down the highway. 

Son Ben attends agricultural college in Ridgetown, Ontario. Deep in the heartland of this provinces food belt, Ridgetown operates under the agricultural department of the University of Guelph.

Conversation moved from one thing to another and landed for a time on the topic of soil.  Dirt. Loam.

 

If you don’t give, you don’t get.

Ben reflected on the experience one of his classmates is having with his farming family.  Making a living ‘off the land’ for several generations, this kid was working on some post secondary education before he committed himself to work with his father and uncle full time on the family farm. I asked “So, he would be a useful resource for his dad and uncle, given the new knowledge that he has about current farming practices, then, right?”

“Wrong dad. His dad and uncle know it all (snicker).” 

Ben went on to explain that the family farmed over 1,000 acres last year and did not make any money in spite of record commodity prices. “Why,” I asked. 

“Because they just keep plowing the same soil and putting the same crops in. They don’t use cover crops or rotate their crops as we are taught in our Crop Sciences class.” 

The return per acre was way below that expected on a well-managed farm.

“Interesting,” I think to myself. 

 

The value of soil

In the book ‘Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations’ the author David R. Montgomery points out that the stewardship of soil provides a useful measuring stick for the future prosperity of a nation. 

He reflects on many of the earliest societies around the Fertile Crescent, including the world of the Phoenicians, early Egyptians, on to the wealthy pinnacle of Roman and Greek culture. He stops at different points in time to come to the same conclusion: eroding soil erodes societies. The Amazon rainforest and the African Sahel are areas that are currently under soil stress. 

“A hundred years is like a blink in geological terms, so if that is what it takes to get rid of the rest of the topsoil that is going to come frighteningly soon! We will be dead, but still, it is frighteningly soon because it is not that many generations away. Kids being born today may be alive 100 years from now and their kids are going to inherit the soil that can feed them or the infertile subsoil that won’t.”

 

Soil is a living thing. 

As a gardener I am acutely aware of the impact that my activity has on the soil in my garden. If I plant tomatoes in the same soil two seasons in a row I invite a host of unwanted disease and pests. If I don’t add compost and sharp sand to the perennial beds every second year the productive cycle of flowering and seed production drops noticeably. I have learned that if I do not ‘feed the soil’ the plants that grow in it will draw nutrients from it to the detriment of the soil itself. 

Soil – or ‘dirt’ – is a colony of living things that are interwoven in their dependence on one another for survival. In truth, the survival of bacteria (a primary work horse in the re-building process of soil) is dependent on the death of the green, living world that it supports. Leaves and trees fall to the forest floor to provide rich fodder of raw organic material that, as it rots, feeds the bacteria and insect life that converts it into something that plant life can use. Mycorhizae and a host of insects finish the job. 

 

And so the cycle continues. 

Our gardens do not generally benefit from rotting tree limbs or the fallen leaves unless we leave them there intentionally. All too often we blow our leaves into a pile with a power assisted leaf blaster and bag them up for the municipality to haul away. Does that make sense? No, I didn’t think so.

There are some people who argue that the most valuable natural resource in Canada is not oil or natural gas or even our fresh water. It is our soil. I agree with this group. Through reading and experience I have learned that our willingness to add to and enhance the quality of our soil, to ‘invest’ in it in every way possible, not only makes eminent sense but is a necessity if we plan on farming and gardening sustainably. 

Perhaps you will think that there is very little that a gardener can do on a small residential lot or condo balcony to enhance and protect the soil that feeds us. Maybe so, maybe not. 

Truth is our attitude towards soil and the enduring qualities that it possesses when treated with due respect is an attitude that is rooted firmly at home. That should be good enough reason to soil-save if you ask me. 

 

Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40.  He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden.  Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.

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