The Soil-Life Connection

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Eco-Farm, by Charles Walters. 

Few people use the fingerprint left in the soil to identify the drum rolls of history, and yet the connection is so obvious that only the simple-minded, the boasting dishonest or the rank opportunist can manage to ignore it. Goethe touched on the genius of Joseph, who saved Egypt from starvation by foresight and wisdom, at the same time putting the Pharaoh Mephistopheles do the opposite, creating inflation rule, as have government economists in centuries 20 and 21.

We were told that the Xhosa and Zulu of the African continent once enjoyed the lush savannahs of the area now known as the carbon-less Sahara. The bottom line that adjusts history is always the food supply and man’s witless destruction thereof.

Even without recent studies, USDA cannot pretend ignorance of this fact. In 1938-1939, Walter Lowdermilk, formerly assistant chief of the Soil Conservation Service, toured the Middle East, North Africa, Cyprus and Europe to study food production and discern what separated desert from fertile soil. The lands he inspected had been cultivated hundreds and thousands of years. He wrote that “in the last reckoning all things are purchased with food.” He went on to propose that food buys the division of labor that begets civilization. He discerned land and farmer and soil life as the work foundation of our complex social structure.

The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.

The farmers of 7,000 years ago could not have known what we know now. But they must have had some appreciation of fertility. Ancient artifacts reveal slaves wringing the sweat from their garments for a soil amendment. In Egypt as well as Mesopotamia, Telus learned how to grow wheat and barley, giving rise to a renewable civilization. Flood irrigation and silt from the Nile charged and recharged the soil, giving a fix of nutrients for prolific soil life, year after year. It was perhaps in the Valley of the Nile that a genius of a farmer learned how to disturb the soil with a yoke of oxen and a plow, unwittingly re-establishing nature as a mandated balance between bacteria and fungi.

Bible students will recall that King Solomon nearly 3,000 years ago made an agreement with Hiram of Tyre to furnish cypress and cedars for the construction of Tyre’s temple. We are told that Solomon supplied 80,000 lumberjacks to work in the forest and to skid the logs to the sea. Only about 40 acres remain of a forest that was once 2,000 miles square. Obviously, clear-cutting annihilated the microbial population, especially the mycorrhizal. Apologists for man’s debauchery cite climate change, intervention of the gods, the cycles of life and death, whatever.

Lowdermilk’s message was clear. Man’s intervention prevailed. In Babylon he pondered the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s canals. At the ruins of Jerash, one of the ten cities of Decapolis—once populated by 250,000 people, now 3,000—he wondered aloud about cities under erosion and silt. He was told that the French archeologist Father Mattern counted at least 100 dead cities in Syria alone.

The Sahara is expanding in excess of 30 to 40 miles a year. The Aswan Dam, a mechanical marvel and an ecological disaster, will silt over in 500 years. The common denominator everywhere is the death of life in the soil. Man proposes, but God disposes.

Often, analysts became lost in their metaphors. The Seattle Indian with that same name may have been the first to make clear what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves. In fact, there is no food chain; rather there is a food web, a mesh of life in the soil, this according to Elain Ingham, Ph.D. of Soil Food Web, Inc., formerly with Oregon State University, Corvallis. Ingham wrote a sizeable chunk of Soil Biology Primer, the most useful booklet published by USDA since that agency gave its imprimatur to Walter Lowdermilk’s Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years well over half a century ago.

1. A connection

When life in the soil becomes a consideration, it is no longer time to indulge in single-factor thinking. The irrigation pump may deliver fluid, but the impact on root organisms could be devastating. Microorganisms that live rent free in nature’s settings often die or leave the scene not only when the weather changes, but also when salt fertilizers or rescue chemistry put into the pet the land. Only recently has university science assembled the data base and the insight necessary to identify Ingham’s food web. Hints for the direction trail back to the beginning of the last century—as illustrated in previous chapter—but definitive answers are as new as the present edition of Acres U.S.A. Primer.
What then are the right food webs needed to support wholesome field-ripened crops without reliance on inorganic fertilizers and/or toxic rescue chemistry? How can the grower identify the organisms that power crop production?
Poverty acres support weeds, as Albrecht pointed out, because the bacteria dominate, the way mycorrhizae dominate woodlands. Grass systems seem to have two times more bacteria than forage. Row crops, in turn, require an eight to one ratio, forage to bacteria. The Wisconsin ginseng grower who expects open prairie under wooden slats to approximate the environment of shaded woods is either ignoring Ingham’s food web or is still ignorant of the concept.

Perennial crops, vines, blueberries, blackberries, strawberries—all require more fungi than bacteria. The ratios vary. Indeed, the grand mosaic of nature’s whole is an exponential infinity of variations. Deciduous trees demand at least ten times more fungi than bacteria. Without the ratio, growers are forever spraying and waxing fruit to preserve a cosmetic look. Conifers simply won’t survive without 1,000 more fungal life forms than bacteria, all according to Elaine Ingham’s research.

Investigators have categorized the twenty or so microorganisms we refer to as soil life. Their names—genus and species—are of interest in the same way postage stamps are of interest to collectors. The names create arrays under heads such as algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, micro anthropods, earthworms, vertabraes and, not least, plant roots. All of the above eat. All move through the soil. They filter water, decompose organic matter, sequester nitrogen, fix nitrogen, preside over aggregation and porosity. They prepare nutrients for assimilation, they battle crop pests, and, with biblical dedication, present themselves as food for above-ground animals.

About the Author:

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

More By Charles Walters:

Browse the Charles Walters Collection for all of his titles and works.

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The Master Line System

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Water for Any Farm, by Mark Shepard.

In attempting to design a Keyline system on this property I discovered all kinds of things that just didn’t make sense. It all started with the basic vocabulary describing land shape. It was fairly easy to define the “hills” on this farm. There were four low “knuckles” rising out of the general lay of the landscape, the highest in elevation abutting property owned by none other than Bud and Dee Hill. The Hills on the hill. It was fairly simple also to find the primary valleys. They were the valleys that cut into the sides of the main ridge where water first began to collect and flow in flash-flood events. But that is where a dogmatic adherence to the Yeomans’s plan began to unravel. For one thing, there were some primary valleys on the farm that had no clear keypoint. There were other primary valleys that appeared to have multiple keypoints cascading down the primary valley like a series of pools in a mountain stream. Which one was the “true” keypoint? Where do I start?

The next puzzler for me was the fact that yes, the main ridge was cut into by primary valleys, but in our case the primary valleys didn’t feed a “main valley” but joined another primary valley to form a secondary valley. The secondary valley joined with another to form a third that joined a fourth, then finally a fifth (with the named Camp Creek in the bottom) before it reached what would have qualified as a main valley in Yeomans’s terminology. But even that continued on… What I considered the main valley—Camp Creek—joined with the east branch of the Kickapoo, which joined the west branch of the Kickapoo, which joined the Wisconsin River, which joined the Mississippi before returning to the ocean. Nine valleys?

What I had discovered was that the Yeomans terminology completely failed to describe the landscape that I was working in. What I had discovered on the ground (and not from a book, a satellite, or a GPS unit) was what is known as the Strahler, or Horton-Strahler, stream order classification system used by ecologists and hydrologists worldwide. In the Strahler system, a Yeomans “primary valley” is called a first-order stream. When two of these first-order streams come together, they form a second-order stream. If the second-order stream is fed by primary valleys only, it still remains a second-order stream, but when a second-order stream meets with another second-order stream, they become a third-order stream. This combining of stream orders continues until, as in the case of the Mississippi River, you get a tenthorder stream.

The Horton-Strahler stream order classification system. “Primary valleys” in Keyline design vocabulary are “first order streams” according to the rest of the world.

The majority of streams in the world have a stream order of three or less, and it is within that context that the Yeomans plan was developed. I was attempting to take a simple water management system developed in a geographically simple landscape and apply it to one of the more complex watersheds in all of North America. As a matter of fact, I was attempting to apply it to the most complex watershed on the planet! Although 3+5=8 is beautiful, accurate and true and perfect every time, the mathematics that second grader uses to solve that problem are not adequate for solving.

Why did it matter that the Mississippi River watershed is so complex? First, the complexity of the water system made it difficult to find the keypoint. It appeared to me that this farm’s primary valleys had several keypoints, but according to page 13 of Water for Every Farm: “ONLY A PRIMARY VALLEY HAS A KEYLINE” (caps original). If only a primary valley has a Keyline according to Yeomans, then it follows that only a primary valley has a keypoint from which it is derived. Simple! But wait a minute…. A few pages later (page 32), Yeomans writes:

The Secondary Valley

On occasions a series of primary valleys on the one side of a main ridge will join up with a larger valley, which does not contain a channeled water course in the bottom of it. Such is named a “Secondary” valley, and it will have at its commencement its own keypoint and Keyline.

Now I was really confused. First, Yeoman’s says that only a primary valley has a keypoint, yet at least one primary valley on this farm had what appeared to be several keypoints. Then I read that not only do primary valleys have keypoints but secondary valleys do as well? How can both be true?

Although the principles of Keyline geometry are simple, most land forms are NOT! This photo shows the
infamous “starting point” on New Forest Farm where multiple, unclear, “apparent keypoints” were maybe somewhat visible.

I staked out and flagged many of the other apparent keypoints to see how the geometry would work, and none of them really did. Again I was confused. It turns out that while actually attempting to design a system on the ground, I had discovered something Yeomans only once barely mentions. On page 47 of Water for Every Farm, he writes, “some steep primary valleys cannot be cultivated as described, because the shape of the valley contours may make turns in the valley floor impossible.”

Now, not only was I attempting to use first-grade math to send a spacecraft to Jupiter, I was attempting to take a simple water management technique designed in simple land forms, and apply it to a complex landscape, and not only did I have primary valleys, secondary valleys, and third-order valleys to deal with, I had multiple keypoints and contradictory information about them. I was setting out to do what the master himself claimed was “impossible.”
Yeomans’s recommendation on how to deal with such tight primary valleys did come to inform my designs later on, however. Later, when describing tight primary valleys, he describes in one brief sentence a technique which I have come to learn is as revolutionary as the Keyline pattern cultivation itself. “These valleys are most suitably worked in a herringbone pattern with a tractor-attached rather than trailing implements.”

My biggest frustration in attempting to apply the Yeomans plan to this farm was the Keyline pattern cultivation itself. As mentioned above, Yeomans himself realized that it didn’t work in every primary valley. Whether it did or did not work, what Yeomans failed to mention was that one of the benefits of Keyline design—making regular, machine-friendly patterns on the ground—actually backfires in a complex landscape. If each primary valley gets its own cultivation pattern derived from its own Keyline (some of which won’t work and will require a herringbone pattern), and if each primary ridge gets its own cultivation pattern derived from its own unique contour reference line, then this farm would have no less than eight separate ridge cultivation patterns. It would have seven or more valley cultivation patterns depending on whether the Keyline geometry actually worked in that particular valley, whether you classified one “sort-of-kind-of-possibly-a primary valley” as one primary valley or two primary valleys, and whether the herring-bone pattern needed to be applied.

About the Author:

Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, an 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that was converted from a row-crop grain farm. Trained in mechanical engineering and ecology, Mark has combined these two passions to develop equipment and processes for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of forest-derived agricultural products for human foods and biofuel production. Mark is a certified permaculture designer and teaches agroforestry and permaculture around the world. 

Also by Mark Shepard:

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Tractor Time Episode 64: Defending Beef with Nicolette Hahn Niman

On this episode we welcome Nicolette Hahn Niman.

The name might sound familiar to some of you. She’s married to the pioneering California rancher Bill Niman, for one, but you might also know her as the author of two seminal works on ethical meat production, Righteous Porkchop and Defending Beef.

Over the years, the former vegetarian and environmental attorney has become a passionate and outspoken advocate for sustainable food production and improved animal welfare. She’s published pieces on those topics in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, HuffPost, and The Atlantic.

And Chelsea Green has just published a new and expanded edition of Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat. A lot has happened since the first edition of the book was published back in 2007. Since then, cattle have become nearly synonymous with human-caused climate change and environmental destruction. But are cattle inherently bad? Or … is there another side to the argument?

In this conversation, you’ll hear why she believes cattle, and other grazing animals, can be used as tools for restoring both human health and ecological balance. Beef, Niman argues, doesn’t have to remain an environmental villain. She believes that wisely managed livestock can help repair ecosystems, fight climate change and improve human health — all at the same time.

Purchase Defending Beef: The Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat at the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.