180. The Soil Will Save Us | Author Kirstin Ohlson

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

I finally booked a lot of guests today on my one day off who talked about soil health. Last year I talked with Patti Armbrister who said you have to get Kristin Ohlson on to talk about her amazing book The Soil Will Save Us!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I come from California, in a very agricultural part of California, one of the strongest memories of my youth is my father and my mother and I driving around, and my parents just oogling and ogling over all the things growing there.

The fruit trees and crops! Stopping and looking at people’s gardens. Sometimes mortifying me by stopping and taking clippings out of peoples gardens!

It was a very garden friendly family.

I can edit this part out, are you a millennial?

No, I’m old  …

I had this last guest that said, the hippie generation… I have this theory that millennials were raised by hippies…

Yeah! I’m a baby boomer

My parents views on gardening really came out. I’m a baby boomer, but  I was their last child born when they figured they weren’t gonna have any more children. Born late in life.

Their ideas were shaped by the depression, around WWI, where gardening meant survival. So they were really serious about their gardens!

Were they organic gardeners? I know in a lot of ways people used to all be that way…. I had a guest one time talking about how when his dad came home all excited, looking at chemical pesticides  and things as this brand new technology and thinking this is gonna make life easier etc!

I don’t really remember if they used chemicals. I’m sure they did they were of the generation that because smitten by the modern view of everything. And chemistry making life better.

I’m sure they did but I don’t recall it but they were always very focused on there composting elaborate series of their compost bins! They were always interested in that part of it.

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

Right. With our parents so honestly to be truthful about it are just miserable ones laboring when I wanted to do other things. In Oroville, CA. We used to get those horrible huge horned worms on the tomato plants, it was sort of my job to poke them off the plants and squash them! I was horrified by that! 

Horse Garden

When I got older and had a horse and my parents prepared my first garden. They got a garden bed ready for me, and said here’s where you can grow carrots fro your horse. So I grew more interested in growing carrots for the horse. 

Later when after college first started probably with marigolds and zinnias. Then I moved onto growing food.

Tell us about your book.

When I started growing my own food I was interested in doing it organically even if I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I became more and more conscious as a consumer of buying organic food. 

I’m a writer. I had written a few pieces about food production. I wasn’t interested in writing about restaurants or recipes. I was interested in how food was grown.

There was this one chef in Portland. His restaurant got started in the by the 80s area farms. He lived in France for a while. He was impressed by how the restaurants in France had a connection to local farms. 

When he moved back to Cleveland it didn’t exist. By the 80s all those connections between al the foods and the people who actually ate there had been broken.

So he developed the pipeline by driving out to farmer’s markets… and to farmsteads along the side of the road.

food

to a big farmer’s market that started in Cleveland and he was really a pioneer

issues about food

He used to call up the members of the state legislature and complain about various bills that would impacting farming He called up this one legislator and say that’s gonna be terrible for the soil! The legislator was like what do you care? you’re a chef

we became friends so he was

He was updating me on things that were happening on thing  that was happening between farmers and food and one day he said.

Carbon farming

that’s what some of these young progressives are talking about building up carbon in the soil instead of depleting it!

i was fascinated by that and it immediately set off this explosion of connections for me. Knowing that global warming is the biggest environmental threat and challenge that we face. Part of that has to do with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What if all this farming going on all over the world instead of adding carbon dioxide to that load?That  legacy load in the atmosphere farming could start to bring that down?

I started working on the book

I started calling some of the farmers he told me about. I started calling some of the scientists who were providing some of the guidance and in sties to these famers. It was the farmers who were making great strides and experimenting

That was how it all got started. Anything when you start off and then sort of dig deeper and understand a little bit it opens up this whole world of questions and possibilities …. and I’m still exploring that world.

In the book you do a lot of traveling do your want to talk about some of the places you went to?

I did do a lot of exploring. It all sort of fell under the category of soil health. 

Once I started to understand there is a different to what I thought of good soil

  • pliable and
  • rich
  • and all that
  • really good soil meant that it had this healthy populations of soil microorganisms
  • that when you look at plants and growing plants
  • trying to do as a gardener your trying to support the relationship of those micro-organisms
  • there’s like billions of micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil and they are all interacting with the plant

activities

those are the ways that plants get the nutrients they need

that’s the way they always got the nutrients they need

If you look at a meadow or a forest any natural area plants are growing like mad, it’s not because somebody threw fertilizer out there. It’s because that relationship they have with the micro-organisms is bringing them the nutrients that they need. Plants and micro-organisms together combat disease.

that breaks down that whole system

Symbiosis

  • plants relationship with those micro-organisms leads to soil that has pockets in it so water can stay there.
  • well engineered soil
  • micro-engineering of soil

that’s our best role as gardeners is trying to help that relationship between plants and soil microorganisms

There are all sorts of ways people are doing that around the world. 

Holistic Grazing

One of the trips I took to come up with the material for the book, I went to Zimbabwe where

Alan Savory

he’s a biologist and former land manager. He studied how lands become degraded when humans change the behavior of animals on the land. He was looking at that in Africa.

If you look at an example here in the US. Look at the herds of buffalo. They used to travel over the lands. The soil of those lands are highly coveted.

The reason they are such great soils is because of this bigger interaction of plants between plants and microorganisms and animal impact on the land and the way animals move over the land before humans interfered with that was that they traveled over the land

  • bunched together to protect themselves from predators
  • traveled at a steady pace
  • constantly keeping away form predators
  • didn’t want to eat their own dung and urine and their hoofed popped up land so rain could break down in
  • hooves also trampled down vegetation so the soil microorganisms could get at it…
  • bit down the grasses to absorb. They bit it down but not to the soil line, they would bite it partially and moved down.

So it was a really healthy impact on the land.

Alan Savory came up with this idea of holistic grazing. Grazing that mimics the natural pattern of animals moving on the land. 

That’s one way people are building soil health around the world.

The place where it all came together for me was of all places in North Dakota!

Sort of the super star farmer in my book is a guy named Gabe Brown.

He had bought a farm and he had these 4 years of terrible terrible weather conditions!

One year

  • crop was wiped out by hail
  • frost
  • drought

In 4 years he had no crop to take to market and he was in danger of losing the farm. He started to change the way he did things. One of the reasons was he couldn’t afford all those chemicals.

The

  • fertilizers
  • fungicides
  • pesticides
  • fly chemicals to keep the flies away from the animals 
  • he couldn’t afford the diesel for his machines

he really cut back on all that stuff. He became a no-till farmer

that was the first big change on his land

Living Ecosystem

If we don’t think of the soil as a living ecosystem we don’t realize how devastating tillage is but if you imagine that the soil is a living ecosystem with billions of billions of micro-organisms making their homes there. Engineering the soil to make protected areas for themselves and to control and protect the flow of water and gases in the soil.

If you look at the soil that way it’s a community that is kind of like a coral reef you can sort of understand that when a big plow comes through and churns the soil up a couple of feet it’s like Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans every time there’s tillage.

He started to understand that it was not healthy….he didn’t understand why it wasn’t a good idea completely but he realized tillage made his soil dried out and unhealthy.

He didn’t understand why completely he just realized that tillage made his soil dried out and so he became a no till farmer.

He had his 4 terrible years so to not lose his farm financially. What he would do is instead of using machinery to get rid of that ruined crop he would send his cattle out in the field.

He would have them chew down and stomp down that ruined corp that was there. He started noticing his land, his soil was becoming more resilient. He was having fewer problems with it, and when there was dry periods his crops were holding up  and his neighbors were falling over.

This is the stuff that I love!

Just as there are these incredible reaffirming relationships between plants and soil began a fertile partnerships with a couple of scientists:

Kris Nichols who is now the science director of the Rodale Institute but at that time she was a soil scientist with the  USDA where he was farming. And Jay Furere who was with the conservationist who is with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

He was working with them to understand what was going on with his soil.

Now that he had seen that he didn’t necessarily need these chemicals and tillage and didn’t need all these things he had been taught in Ag school.

He started working with them by understanding these partnerships of working with nature and pushing them farther and farther.

Cover Crop Cocktails

one of the things they started going in that area, they had heard a scientist in South America heard him talking about cover crops. He was talking about an idea of cover crop cocktails. Cover crops are things farmers have used for millennia to protect soil during fallow periods

When you’re out driving around, I see it so much here in Oregon. When you’re going through the Willamette Valley and there are farms on either side and there are bare fields on either side. 

In Willamette their fields last crop in the fall and they wont work  that crops again till April and so it’s been months and months that soil is naked and exposed in the air. The carbon is volutalizing and drifting away and the soil being subjected to wind/rain erosion all those forces that are just so bad for it. Nature never intended for soil to be naked. So cover crops is an idea that is coming back, because more and more scientists and farmers are understanding

what a plant does

what it does for nutrients and water control

how a plant services that community in the soil

that the plant relies on for

  • water control
  • nutrients
  • plants are continually pumping out a carbon based fuel
  • plants through photosynthesis are making a carbon based fuels

Plants thorough photosynthesis

  • sugars,
  • carbs
  • proteins
  • build their stems
  • fruits
  • flowers
  • roots

up to half of that carbon fuel is leached out through the roots to feed those microorganisms

The scientists and the farmers started understanding how important relationship is for anything to grow, for any plant to grow. They started understanding that it’s a terrible assault against natures when you have those fields bare for 6 months!

So they started investigating and investing in cover crops over those fields.

More and more farmers are doing that. Still only around 3% of nations farmers who do that.

More and more farmers are using cover crops

Then this idea from South America was plants.

It’s like there is a big church potluck and you have (Im using a funny analogy I’m making up right now)

and you have 100 women named Betty bringing a chicken casserole but they all make it a little differently

some put in

  • olives
  • green peppers
  • tomatoes and cheese

it’s a little different depending on which Betty made it and it’s sort of that way with different plants they have different needs. So if the carbon leaked into the soil microorganisms …. the cover corp cocktail thing is just like creatures above ground that prefer one type of food over the other one of the Betty’s casseroles vs another Betty’s casserole

soil microorganisms

lets get lots of different cover crops

plants instead of 2-3 plants lets’ get 10, 15, 50 in

Some are experimenting with up to 60 different cover crops in a field in fallow field or rows in between

or along their other crops

So like if they are growing corn they will have these companion crops growing alongside

The idea is to never have bare soil and to have as much plant biodiversity there was possible

So when they bring in their animals to eat remnants of cover crop or the remnants of the market crop it’s also also animal biodiversity there as much as possible!

The farmers and scientist they are working with are just endlessly creative at coming up with ways to make soil healthier

  • observe
  • respect nature

farming we have practiced ever since humans started to farm especially in the last 100 years,

  • mechanized tilling and more destructive and invasive then ever before
  • chemicals we employ in conventional agriculture
  • impacts that the highly engineered high tech seeds have
  • all of those things subvert the natural process

So these farmers are trying to understand how natures grows things and to work with that.

I read a book by Liz Carlisle, and her question was why do only 3% grow cover crops in her book the Lentil Underground.

Lentil Underground Book

by Liz Carlisle

I recently wrote an article for an online environmental magazine about that questions. 

Yes! So many people do recognize it as a practice! NRCS really pushing with farmers!

So why aren’t more people doing it. That’s one of the really big questions… all these farmers like Gabe Brown.

not that they just environmentally successful

no just producing a crop that is not only not hurting the environment but it’s nourishing the environment

They are also

really successful financially

not spending all that money on chemicals which is a huge amount of money!

a greater production then their neighbors do!

how to produce a crop in collaboration with nature. When that natural system gets established you’re not fighting nature all the time.

  • You’re able to produce more
  • greater disease resistance
  • greater resilience to bad weather

in the face of that why aren’t more farmers doing it? One of the things that I found when I was researching this article is that 

government policies don’t support them doing that

most of the farmers get crop insurance

some who are environmental

  • get federal crop insurance
  • taxpayer subsidize heavily

guaranteed a profit

and that’s really important to farmers. They often can’t get a bank loan without that federal crop insurance. For these big farmers its absolutely essential  for them to have it! It is what allows them to sleep at night when they start a growing season and they are not sure they are not going to get hit with a drought like we had in 2012. 

Crop insurance rules are sadly out of date

  • not up with science
  • informed by old conventional mindset

bad farming practices that are bad for

  • farmer
  • food
  • land
  • environment

they can get kicked out of crop insurance

if they are using cover crops that don’t fit the micromanagement of that agency. Farmers aren’t doing these things because it’s too hard they can’t make money doing it. That’s not the reason they are not taking up these practices some are just these stupid obstacles we need to get rid of right away.

Tell us about something that grew well this year. Do you have a garden in Oregon?

I have a tiny little yard, I kind of thought that Ohio and Oregon since they both get a lot of precipitation that gardening would be very much like gardening here. But it’s really different so I’m learning a lot about those differences.

what grows better here…

when I first bought this house

There’s sort of this baked grass pounded down grass kind of baked, there had been a boat stored in the yard … was not  a very spot to begin gardening although it was great because I could start from scratch. 

I put in

  • lots of shrubs
  • dwarf fruit trees
  • blueberries
  • huckleberry

2 dogs that come out to the yard with me

not so much because they rampage around and knock it over so I put in 2 raised beds

I didn’t want them walking in my vegetables.

Une thing you can do here in Oregon is that you couldn’t do in Ohio is have things I could grow through winter that I could eat… so the best part of my day is going out first thing in the morning and peeking around to see what I can eat there’s almost always something there…

My kale plants and collards are still producing new leaves throughout the winter!

My garlic and chives and my parsley are starting to produce again…

Other greens that persisted through the winter it’s been fun to keep nibbling,

Is there something you would do different next year or want to try/new?

I have a wonderful garden supply store near me I’m looking forward to seeing what kind of vegetables starts she has… I recently in the last few years I became acquainted

Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds

did an article about him a couple of years ago.

He’s an organic plant breeder and seed sales man.

He’s mostly growing seeds that farmers who supply our farmers markets buy…

He makes selections based on characteristeics he likes. I think he often sells them in quantities that would be too big for me. He has a whole line of red lettuces

He’s enamored with red

breeding

more intense the colors have on these vegetables

One is being grown on the space station the more anti-oxidant rich.

He has a catalog of really great seeds and plants. I’d like to try some of his.

I always have a preference for red leaf lettuce, I have been told it’s more nutrient dense. I just like the flavor.

I know some of the plant breeders out here were working on a variety of purple. The plants that have organic seeds. There are people focused on organic seeds, I kind of thought well, what’s the big way the deal with organic  seed? Doesn’t it make a difference the way that you are growining it? What does organic seed matter? does it matter how it started out?

I thought as long as you are growing it organically that was fine but it really does matter.

One of the things I learned is that 

Non-organic seeds

plants that are expect to have chemical fertilizers.

  • they are not naturally resilient
  • not naturally good at foraging for nutrients from the soil
  • naturally good at repelling insects and diseases
  • not naturally good at foraging for water

organic plants people were selling seeds to those are the plants that have flourished without chemical fertilizer! They have flourished without pesticides! So if you are an organic gardener you’re giving yourself a leg up with these seeds!

I always just bought seeds, that’s one of the things that I learned since my podcast that saving your seeds makes such a big difference! And picking the best ones! The ones that produce early when you live in an area like I do in the Rocky Mountains where you have a short growing season, the ones that come up earliest will come up earlier and earlier as you plant them each year. 

The other things I was thinking about is Bob Quinn has a patent for ancient KAMUT® wheat he’s not into organic because he’s a hippy, I mean he cares about the environment but he got into organics because it was more profitable.   The cover crops…. lentils….

Is there anything that I have forgotten that you want to mention or that we didn’t talk about?

Paris Accords

At the Paris Accords France and 100 governments launched the increase in the reduction of carbon emisions by 0.4% per year. It’s a small boost but if it were done over all the farmlands in the world it could really radically improve soil fertility  and food production but it could also halt the annual rise of carbon dioxide! 

The whole idea of tackling our climate problem by tackling our depleted unhealthy soil problem is one that is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the conversation worldwide.

I can’t find what I was looking or about the mayor in Paris working to make one of the biggest changes for climate change.

Final question-

if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?

I think it’s our agriculture… the way it’s practiced it’s practiced in a way that makes our water sicker … our people sicker ….

Im excited by the whole Plate of the union

To Connect with Kristen Ohlson the Soil Will Save Us

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