Warning: Nerdy Dirt Details Ahead. Proceed at Your Own Risk 😊
It’s difficult to overemphasize how vital healthy soil is to life on Earth. Think about it. Crops and other plants grow in it, not only providing food, shelter, and beauty but also oxygen. In addition to being a critical piece of our overall ecosystem, it harbors its own complex ecosystem of minerals, nutrients, water, and a (hopefully) vibrant microbiome. This ecosystem plays a key role in nutrient cycling and can sequester large amounts of carbon. And it provides a perfectly nourishing home for organic baby spinach, baby kale, baby arugula, baby lettuces, romaine lettuce, butter lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, and all the other varieties of organic greens and organic veggies we grow. Unlike conventional farms, to obtain organic certification, organic farms are required to document the ways their farming practices “maintain or enhance soil quality” as part of their organic systems plan.
What is this important function of soil called nutrient cycling? In healthy soils, that vibrant microbiome noted above is composed of gazillions of microorganisms that harvest nutrients from soil organic matter (like compost, the remains of crops left in the field, etc.). Organic farmers often plant cover crops (crops planted between cash crops that help build soil health) that pull nitrogen (a key element in plant nutrition) out of the atmosphere and fix the nitrogen in the soil so it’s readily available for the next crop planted. Our beloved microbiome even helps extract nutrients from components like rocks, pebbles, sand particles, silts and clays that make up the physical structure of the soil. Even though plants need the nutrients contained in these physical elements of the soil, they are not capable of directly accessing them and need that hard-working microbiome to make the nutrients accessible.
There’s an old saying in organic farming: Feed the soil, not the plants. Organic farmers love to talk about their soil – in ways that other farmers don’t. If you visit an organic farm, the farmer’s as likely to pick up a handful of soil and ask you to stick your nose in it as she is to pick something for you to eat right out of the field. They know that if they focus on nurturing healthy soil, it will be the foundation of a robust ecosystem and give them a healthy organic crop. Our friends at The Organic Center recently shared the results of a study that documented the many benefits of organic farming on the soil:
A recent study published in the journal Biologia adds to the growing body of evidence showing organic farming improves microbial conditions in the soil that, in turn, increases disease control and crop yield. This study compared microbiomes (the genetic makeup of all life including bacteria and fungi) in agricultural soil under ten years of organic management versus conventional management. The researchers found that the use of a combination of organic soil amendments, vermicompost and manure, improved soil fertility and carbon sequestration… These results suggest that long-term organic management not only increases soil fertility, nutrient uptake, and carbon sequestration, it also reduces the risk of plant diseases by altering the diversity of the microbiome in ways that increases beneficial microorganisms.
Earthbound Farm farmer Stan Pura’s experience proves this out. He has noticed a significant difference in the health of the soil on Earthbound Farm ranches that have been farmed organically for 25-plus years. He said that some of the ranches that were “somewhat marginal” in the beginning are so much more forgiving today because we’ve been building the soil health for two and a half decades. It is true that you can certify ground as organic after three years of farming it organically, but it takes about seven years to really build up the health of the soil. (Read more from Stan here). All of our farmers will tell you that organically farmed soil gets more robust and more productive the longer it’s farmed organically. That’s not typically the case with conventional farms.
So call it dirt if you like. Call it soil. We just hope you appreciate our organic super soil and all the farmers who tend to it.