Sunday, April 1, 2007

A Bountiful Table

The soils workshop was affirmation of many of the principles I've established through various readings, as well as my own observations of my land and other land.

The greatest gift of the workshop, to me, was a new insight/understanding/analogy/parallel that seemed to crystallize sponanteously from comments by several growers throughout the workshop. The process by which this happened was almost as fascinating to me as the concept we discussed various aspects of soil biology over the course of a couple hours, one or the other of us would comment on connections between that concept and the analogy we were building.

Rhonda Janke, soil specialist from KSU, mentioned early in her talk that we could think of the soil as a giant stomach, referring to the vast community of micro-organisms, naturally present in healthy soil, all busily digesting organic matter (including each other). Since the dominant stomachs on my farm these days are sheep stomachs (processing something on the order of a ton of hay a week), the parallels between a ruminant's internal processes immediately struck me.

Like a sheep's rumen, the soil breaks down cellulose/organic matter (OM) through the symbiotic relationships of a complex community of micro-organisms. Factors that influence this process include temperature, pH, the type and quantity of OM present, etc. The breakdown of these materials makes the nutrients in them available to the beneficiary of the system: sheep, for the rumen, or plants, for the soil.

One of my observations/insights this past couple years has been that one simple principle is perhaps THE key to the success of my farming system: Generosity. The soil and the livestock both respond to generous feeding with vibrant health. Stinginess begets disease.

But it must be a dependable generousity, a bountiful table spread at all time. Poverty and want must be only rare things, if present at all (occasional fasting is not necessarily harmful to beings who are in robust good health, and many traditions swear by it as a technique for physical healing and spiritual growth.)

When we are dealing with a poor soil, trying to amend it with strong chemical fertilizers, it is easy to create imbalances. Deficiencies are obvious. Reactions are quick but not sustained. We must keep testing, fine-tuning, micromanaging, reapplying chemicals at intervals. If we stop, things quickly revert to their original situation. In livestock, if we try to feed them a concentrated diet, we must be careful that it meets all their nutritional requirements. It's also critical to feed metered amounts at regular times. If we skip a feeding, the animal's system gets out of whack. If we suddenly over feed, the animal can get sick and even die, because the sudden abundance overwhelms the animal's digestive system. The microbes need time to adjust to changes.

If instead, we feed that soil generously, year after year, with a diverse banquet of OM, then the soil will have a diverse, self-balancing abundance of micro-organisms releasing a wide range of nutrients and micro-nutrients from the OM on an on-going basis.

If we spread a bountiful table for the soil, the plants and the livestock that eat them will thrive, and spread a bountiful table for us in turn.

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