Topsoil Tragedy

One of the most important concepts of restoration agriculture involves the cultivation of deep, rich, healthy topsoil. Soil that matters most in the terrestrial aspects of farming. The chemical makeup of soil determines what kind of habitat a landscape hosts, cultivation potential, and general ecologic health of a region. Topsoil takes thousands of years to form on its own, yet washes off the surface of exposed landscape in moments in a torrential rain. Here in The Pacific Northwest, we cut the trees and watched feet of beautiful soil rush down the hillsides, clogging waterways and filling The Salish Sea with the most precious layer of The Earth’s crust for habitation, which then destroyed fisheries along inland coastal ecosystems. We are still cutting trees and watching the topsoil wash away, yet we’re also manually removing the fertility of our land for development.

In our human quest to industrialize production, we’ve taken it into our monkey minds that we can control and enhance environment for the convenience of profit. We can’t eat money, but we can consume a lot of everything else with it. Excuse me if there is a tone of agitation within this writing, but the current method of operation humanity continues to embrace regarding land degradation astounds. I’m sure most people have watched a farm field or forest stand leveled by machinery to build a housing development or commercial strip mall. Here in the Duvall area, this has been a mounting trend since the early 90s. What I’ve noticed in witnessing this massive growth is the trucking of valuable topsoil from the construction sites, and the replacement of said soil with industrially composted micro-plastic ridden imposters hidden beneath sprawling lawn.

This was the original look of the lot before landscaping began- already, the topsoil had been scraped off and put in a huge pile further up the hillside for easy “shipping”. It’s usual for a new site to start by removing all the rich topsoil. The developers know the value of this soil, and plan to sell it off as development of the site progresses. Sometimes they haul it off as it’s being excavated to save space on the building site. It is never kept on site to be reused. That would be a loss in profit for many more than just the contractor. The amount of trucking involved alone costs a small fortune, soil is a heavy material to haul, and after the original topsoil is trucked out.

One of the greatest earners in topsoil removal is the soil compost company. King County is very active in composting agricultural, restaurant, and organic commercial waste. This is a good thing in many ways, but it’s also causing extreme detriment to soil and water quality across the county, and considering this practice is happening around the world, the impact is global. Compost has a high rate of micro-plastics in it as a side affect of using municipal waste inputs. There is so much compost created by human consumption, obligatory contracts have been drawn up to ensure the material has a place to go, compelling the use of compost in county projects.

The missing topsoil has not been found, but its priceless value makes it a coveted commodity. I’ve still not been able to track where the top soil goes, but there are traders in fresh topsoil ready to supply. It’s also important to know that the word “topsoil” has no legal definition, so anything can be sold as topsoil. Once you haul off the native topsoil of a space, whatever you replace it with will be subpar. The chemistry, bacteria, and content of in situ soil has evolved in its environment and with the local biome. Imagine the chemistry of soil, how it changes over thousands of years. Then it’s skinned right off the face of the earth and hauled away. After that, compaction from machines and the erection of completely alien compounds in the form of cement foundation lock the ground into dead space. Where daylight still connects with ground, highly manicured landscapes are formed with imported compost and cultivar plantings or lawn. Most artificial landscapes need heavy inputs to survive, including regular irrigation, nutrient replacement, and defense against predation from enthusiastic browsers like deer and pest insects. Before the invasion of development, most landscapes are easily able to maintain themselves, having evolved in place for many generations.

It’s not unusual for soil to be disrupted, in fact, soil is often improved by disturbance, usually from animal hooves aerating it with large herd movement across open terrain. Humans take that disruption to a new level, from lines dug to lay plumbing and electrical, to whole acres scraped clean to pour foundations or parking lots. If the topsoil was simply moved out of the way and then spread back out on the open places, there would be far less detriment to the soil. However, it would not afford a reason to put mass produced compost down, therefor causing a backlog in man made material that needs a place to go. Once the new soil is put down, there is a huge loss in biodiversity, soil microbes, and and influx of micro-plastics. It’s a lose lose for the soil and environment. Man’s complex engineering for self-serving consumption is damaging the living system that thrives without our manipulation. It’s also sad that we think the compost is a good thing, and if it weren’t for all the plastic byproducts that find there way into mass produced systems, it would.

At EEC, we create a lot of great compost- without plastics, but it’s a small scale system. We’re also not exporting our topsoil and requiring a replacement dressing. The soil is our whole mission here- reviving the fertility through microbial and bacterial encouragement- no chemical additives- beyond what comes out the end of our hard working grazers. That relationship between animals and the plants has been in place as a natural compost builder for as long at the two have been in existence- millions of years. Any food waste or carbon material like wood from construction scrap is absent of plastic, but in a huge system like Cedar Grove, our local municipal compost producer, the plastics are rampant. Many larger composting efforts- especially on industrial farms, produces high counts of micro plastics. Most of the contamination is not done of purpose, but the lasting legacy of plastics in the soil and water will be felt for generations to come.

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