How many of us are tuned into soil? Oh, another lecture on soil? Any farmers in the audience are shaking their heads and clicking back over to comedic news stories or, more likely, USDA paperwork. But for those of you willing to take a moment, this article tries to spell out soil fertility additive basics and how they translate into holistic management at EEC Forest Stewardship. Anyone tending soil can learn from this experience, and I hope to continue updating as the stewardship continues.
Our focus will orbit around organic inputs (fertilizers) to the soil, which raise fertility (production) in the topsoil for long term ecological (crop) viability. The three big conventional inputs are Potassium (P), Nitrogen (N), and Phosphorus (K). They are very important to condition high production style growing, where you take much from the land and remove the physical matter out of the soil for consumption. The harvest takes away water and nutrients needed for further soil productivity. This is why NKP is pushed so hard on large farming operations- get the nutrients back into the soil fast for more production. But there’s so much more to the soil than these three inputs.
Pure chemical fertilizers support the plant growth, but not the larger soil ecology, or surrounding environment for long term abundance. It’s a quick fix to condition a field with lime to balance out Ph, or spray liquefied aged manure across the tilled soil to rebuild nitrogen, but these mass coverings often leech out of the bare soil when it rains, spilling off into our water systems where they cause large algae blooms which kill life in waterways; ultimately causing toxicity in us. To retain fertility in soil, you need a lot of other inputs to cultivate long term productivity.
When I walk bottom land fields that have seen nothing but till and plant methods of mass cropping, I see a severe lack of organic matter and micro-organisms in the soil. Tilling the soil to “mix in” fertilizers and churn up soil to prevent compaction has real unintended consequences, which industrial agriculture is still grappling with. Turning soil over interrupts the delicate network of living organisms in the soil. When that live culture dies, the soil dies too. Without that important network, any inputs added will have minimal effect, because the living biome within the soil is what collects, stores, and transmits fertilizer to the plant. Tilling also causes severe evaporation, because all the dampness in the soil is brought to the surface, where it is exposed to UV (which also sterilizes soil), and evaporation takes what life was left in the soil. The list of why tilling is bad goes on and on, but we’ll keep focused on inputs. More on tillage here.
Fertilizers work for short term profit, but the soil its self continues to die, and more and more fertilizer must be added in to keep up with the degradation of the land. Eventually, no commercial add ins work, and a field will then usually be abandoned to cattle as marginal pasture. Or worse, sold for development, lost to any future agricultural production to feed us. It should also be understood that the majority of farmland in The US grows commodity crops- soy, wheat, and corn. This sustains the additive rich box food (googling this blew my mind!) you see so much of in stores now, as well as feed for livestock, and most often, industrial products like ethanol.
Modern farming has come a long way in understanding the care of farm land, but we’re still throwing things at the soil without understanding its place in cultivating stable environment for production. Mono-crop agriculture still forces soil’s maximum output. There is no fast way to replace good fertile topsoil once it’s dead. The organic material and microbiome cannot thrive in constantly tilled soil. Even with cover crops, the soil is dying across the world, turning to desert in more extreme cases. Instead of trying to address large commodity farming practices, I’d like to focus on small agricultural operations where diversity and restoration are possible.
Here at EEC Forest Stewardship, we take fertility seriously, and fold it into a greater health vocabulary for our environment, going beyond mere production as the standard. Non-chemical is a number one priority, and our land does not receive any commercial fertilizer inputs. Instead, the land follows as closely to nature’s already implemented process as possible. Animal systems are a big part of our restoration plan. At EEC, we recognize that what we feed our animals it what’s going into our soil. So we use only organic whole grains and no-spray or organic hays (all within state). The overall health of my stock reflects the health of the land.
Even with abundance, there is still a gap in sustenance, which is filled by inputs like grain and kitchen scraps. We occasionally receive free organic bread from a gleaner friend. What is a gleaner? Without going too far off track, gleaners were once in fields after harvest gathering any dropped kernels of corn or damaged stalks of wheat left by the farmer. Today, there are still gleaners in fields, but in more urban and suburban developments, grocery stores replace farms, and yet there is still much to glean in good food. Two local organic bakeries in Seattle give their day old bred to the gleaning organizations, which then disperse free surplus into the greater community.
My friend takes the not fit for people bread leftovers for my animals- what a deal! I in tern also take her compost from the gleaning, which is all organic food fit to break down into soil with other amendments like manure, straw, and cardboard. These inputs are what I would consider the best kinds of fertilizer. Handling larger amounts of food waste is not easy, and I don’t suggest this system to backyard suburban homesteaders. However, if you have acreage, and animal systems already in place, large scale composting should already be a part of your routine. In suburban homesteads, your own kitchen waste should be enough, combined with garden/grass clippings, leaves, and cardboard.
More organic options to build up garden and land fertility include coffee grounds for added acidity- I put mine on roses and blueberry bushes. Feather and bone are great too, though blood can be challenging to collect and distribute evenly into the soil. I’ll put the coagulated blood from slaughtering into the compost bin. Feathers I collect when I pluck at slaughter are usually add to the compost bucket, though sometimes I mix with leaves and spread right onto the surface of pasture or gardens in late fall. Chickens also help by molting their feathers, usually in the fall, and drop them all over the landscape as they forage. There are also a lot of feathers mixed in with coop bedding, which is piled to form new planting beds in our zone one areas of the land.
Utilizing animals to spread nutrients across the landscape is a great way to thoroughly inoculate soil with needed inputs like calcium and phosphorus. Look at what this amazing grain packs for the bird, much of which ends up coming out the other end onto the land. I’d say there is a perfect amount of most inputs soil needs for continued production. By investing in this full spectrum feed, though it’s a “huge” expense, when I add up the total cost of all the other inputs, time, and energy to condition the soil, the savings are obvious. Yet farmers I work with continue to claim the organic full spectrum feed is too costly, and they would rather buy the cheaper conventional grain.
These same farmers then have to go buy costly inputs for their soil and run tractors with costly attachments to till these expensive conditioners in, also disrupting the delicate ecology of soil microbes. What a nightmare. EEC Forest Stewardship does not own a tractor, has no tilled pasture, and yet, we manage a healthy stock of animals on ever improving forage and grazing on small acreage adding only a quality organic feed and local hay/straw. The proof is also in the pudding, and our soil tests reinforce the productivity, showing that our only low count nutrients in the soil is magnesium. However, too much causes compaction, and introduces rampant weed growth. However, the natural Ph of our soil demands occasional lime inputs, so by selecting dolomite lime, our soil receives the additional magnesium. Again, the soil profile was determined through a lab test of soil samples taken from different locations throughout the EEC Forest Stewardship property.
In taking the time to trace the inputs going into your soil, you can determine fertility short falls and know exactly what additions might be needed to cultivate better pasture, gardens, and forests. At EEC, we hope that the forests can eventually support themselves, with plenty of canopy protection and good nutrients shared through a complex ecosystem. In the areas of heavier cultivation, we must continue to manually input additives to keep the chemical balance of the soil productive. By keeping these higher input systems small, input demand remains easy to manga by hand, without tractors, heavy bags of expensive fertilizer, and the danger of runoff into our water systems. These practices keep our soil alive and productive, while remaining affordable and organic. This is the advantage of holistic management.