Farming: MENF 2011: We’re all really dirt farmers

Whether we all like it or not, we’re all dirt farmers. You don’t think so? Well, consider this the next time you’re sitting on the pot: you’re finishing the process whereby your body turns the food you have eaten into energy, nutrients, and dirt from which more food can be grown, even if we don’t like to think of it that way in the 21st century.

Dirt is the medium of exchange for life on earth. It is an amazing material, composed of hundreds and sometimes thousands of constituents all necessary for life to exist. Nearly every living thing produces dirt in some form and nearly nothing can survive without dirt to help it grow or help the things it needs to eat grow.

This idea is important because it is so foreign to modern people, especially in the west and especially in the 21st century. In this era of artificially pristine food gleaming in supermarket displays, an era dominated by the absurd reduction of food growing to chemical applications to a growth medium, we forget that all food–indeed, all life–begins and ends with the dirt.

And healthy dirt is the best kind. If dirt is the medium of exchange for life, then humans are the custodians of the exchange, and we do a really bad job. How so? For instance, as much as half the trash buried in landfills every year, 125 million tons by some estimates, is organic waste that could be composted into dirt instead of being put into a landfill. Even worse, most landfill practices prevent this waste from turning into dirt, meaning that there is waste in landfills from as long as 50 years ago that still has not decayed.

While we’re busy burying our organic waste instead of composting it, farmers are busy dumping a whopping 60 million tons of chemical fertilizer on their crops every year, most of which comes from oil or is produced using fossil fuels for energy. Farmers do this because the dirt they try to grow in is only fit for growing weeds without help.

Help that could come in the form of hundreds of millions of tons of biologically active, incredibly fertile compost if we would stop throwing it away and start putting it back where it belongs: into the dirt.

So, consider this: stop throwing your organic waste away. I’m talking about all of it: food scraps-even bones and fat, paper, cardboard, or anything like it. If it came from a plant or animal, it’s probably organic. Then, compost that stuff. If you don’t want to or can’t compost it, find someone who will and can.

It can be done. We can even compost our own waste along with the rest, ensuring that it all goes where it is supposed to go: back into the dirt where it belongs, just like it was supposed to all along.


Read more at my Farming weblog…


This morning, I heard an astounding advertisement from an “organic” garden supply company that claimed that manure was bad for you and your garden.

Now, to many people, their logic would sound solid. According to the ad, manure based gardening soils are low energy and stink, and if you’ve ever purchased such soils from a garden center or home improvement store, in a lot of ways, they’re right.

That’s because they’re doing it wrong.

Manure is, in fact, a significant part of the way nature produces soil, as is polyculture and a sufficient amount of time. Natural–and I use that term to distinguish from “organic”–soil production starts when the animals producing the manure eat food natural to them and then that manure is deposited on a sufficient base of cellulose (in nature, thatched prairie or forest floor debris form that base, while in food production, straw or wood chips are often the choice). Once deposited, a whole host of creatures break down the manure into its constituent parts along with the action of the wind, sun, and rain.

On our farm, the manure we collect in quantity over the winter because the animals tend to congregate where we feed hay has usually completely transitioned to what most people would call dirt–that is, without the smell associated with most store-bought garden soils–by the following fall. We regularly use that dirt in our gardens and planters to great success.

Of course, our method does not even address another failing of the no-manure claim. Even if they are producing soil solely from vegetable matter, if the process is really organic, what do they call the leavings of the insects and microbes they then call soil? Sure, it’s not cow manure, but waste products are waste products even if they’re useful to us.