Digging in the Dirt

Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.

Paul Harvey, “So God Made Me a Farmer” (1978).

As fall winds down and leads into winter, I struggle with what to write on a weekly basis. Sure we’re still collecting eggs and preparing for the long winter ahead, but late fall and winter on the homestead take a on very different feel compared to the more photogenic and bountiful seasons of spring, summer, and early fall. Beauty is still there to be found for sure, but I find Christine and I both reach for the camera less in the winter months.

Leading into winter, homesteading becomes more about “turning our waiting room into a classroom.” Thank you, Jessica Sowards, of Roots & Refuge Farm, for that pearl of wisdom. This is the time of year when we begin leafing through seed catalogs for next year’s plantings, commit our poultry orders for spring, dream of what we want to expand into as we grow, and learn what we can in order to plan for the future.

Learning comes in all shapes and forms, none of which should be discounted. Whether working hand-in-hand with someone more knowledgeable than you, participating in a more structured educational endeavor, or simply reading, watching documentaries, and searching the internet, learning something new, in any form, is a valuable pursuit.

BUT… yes, there’s a caveat.

All information is not equal. Information without critical analysis can be just as bad, if not worse, than no information at all. Foregone conclusions can lead to misinterpretation of data. Malicious manipulation of fact can lead one farther away from truth.

We need to ask the question, “Why?”

With that being said, I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference of turf grass managers and professionals. This was a great educational opportunity, chocked full of relevant information presented by industry professionals, seed growers, ground level turf technicians, and academics from both our local and out of state university extension offices. While geared towards the care and management of turf grasses for residential lawns, golf courses, and recreational areas, the information presented – e.g. disease prevention, pest mitigation, general aesthetics, plant health, pollinator attraction, and environmental impacts – all had potential connections to the health of our own homested.

Full transparency: I entered this conference slightly biased. I am not ashamed to admit that I am greatly alarmed by the number and nature of both pesticides and chemical fertilizers currently applied by society in the maintenance of lawns and for use in industrial scale agriculture. Regardless, I tried to keep an open mind. However, in entering this conference for the first time, part of me feared that this would be a prolonged commercial extoling the virtues of glyposate for all applications. Thankfully, it was not.

What I did notice though was the tendency towards chemically enhanced pest control throughout the conference sessions. No matter the pest, be it invasive green kylingga sedge, white grubs, chinch bugs, brown patch, black leaf spot, or pink snow mold; chemical application and treatment, including recommended products by scientific and tradename, were always the most heavily discussed courses of remidial action. To be fair, there were occasional nods to cultural controls along with mentions of organic alternatives. These, however, were never the loudest voice in the room. And often alternatives were dismissed as cost prohibitive (ie. the case for corn glutten as an effective preemergent for weedy grasses) or having less residual affect, thus requiring more frequent reapplication for treatment.

Along with chemical pest control continued the dependence on chemical fertilizers. The drumbeat of NPK (Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potasium) that Justus von Liebig started nearly 200 years ago still echoes today in the turf grass and agricultural industries. And while Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potasium are, undoubtedly, important plant macronutrients, it is the tendency to focus on plant health overall that I find concerning. While there was much lively discussion and debate on plant growth, maintenance, and overall health, very few seemed to be talking about something much more important. Soil.

Yes, soil. That rapidly depleting, six-inch layer of topsoil on which nearly all terrestrial life on planet earth depends. A complex living supraorganism to which we owe our very existence. Literally the very matrix into which nearly all our food sources are initially rooted. Yet, as important as soil is, soil health and soil relationships did not play as much of a part in the conference discussions as I would have hoped. Soil seemed viewed as a secondary or tertiary factor to plant health and pest management.

I think that in order to both survive and thrive, soil health must advance to the forefront of discussion in both the turf grass and agricultural industries. Actually, soil health is a topic that should be on all of our minds. We all need to become better soil scientists if we are going to reverse the depletion of this readily renewable resource. The paradigm must shift from an increased input of chemical pesticides and nutrients intent on increasing crop yields or maintaining greener monocrop lawns at the expense of soil health to instead, a focus on soil regeneration and rejuvenation. We’ve demonstrated we can make soil here on our little 5-acre homestead (see: https://headwatershomestead.org/2022/08/23/weve-got-soil/). Imagine what we could accomplish by putting all our heads together in stopping the degradation and loss of our soils.

Fortunately through this conference opportunity I found a handful of folks who were looking at the soil as the answer. They may not have been the mainstream content presenters, but neither were they the extreme fringe. I take this as a positive sign that more and more people are questioning the existing paradigm of chemical induced plant heath and instead looking to a holistic, soil-centric future across the turf grass and agricultural industries.

We can literally make a better world if we would all just shift our focus a little more to digging in the dirt.

Digging into some new reading material

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