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3/11/2009
Dining on Delicious Dirt
Dining on Delicious Dirt

WE’VE WALKED on it, stomped on it, played in it, smelled it and probably even eaten it. Beautiful, delicious soil. As dirt that’s come to life, soil lies at the heart of an organic system.

Rich, lush soil begins with dirt—essentially nonliving matter made from the weathering and breaking down of “parent rock.” “The base, or mineral part, of soil comes from sand, silt and clay,” explains Dr. Elaine Ingham, president and director of Soil Foodweb, a soil-testing and -health consultancy firm. “When microorganisms and plants interact with these minerals, organic matter known as soil is formed.”

THE APPETIZER (and more…)

In order to grow and thrive, plants need nutrients from minerals found in soil, including nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. But plants can access these minerals only with the help of living matter. So bacteria and fungi go to work to convert these substances into plant-friendly form. “These microorganisms change minerals and naturally add nitrogen to the soil,” explains organic chef and cookbook author Wendy Cook.

Animals such as earthworms make their contribution by giving the soil pores, like the holes in Swiss cheese, so oxygen can pass through. Plants likewise bring oxygen into the soil to help with water and nutrient drainage. Through this symbiotic relationship, healthy soil builds vibrant plants, which happily give support to the soil.

“Like humans, soil needs others to exist,” says Ingham. “Communities of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes make up this food web. Diversity within this community is key.” Ingham explains that each plant has its own nutrient needs and balancing point. Those who cultivate plants—gardeners, farmers and everyday growers—must discover this unique balance in order to be successful. “You are constantly fighting nature if you don’t understand that she is maintaining these natural balances when we support her with what she needs. She’s had billions of years to work with this system, so she’s quite experienced,” declares Ingham.

THE ENTRÉE (hold the chemicals, please)

All organisms need sustenance to survive, and true nutrition comes in organic, chemical-free form. Soil—including the microorganism communities that are part of it—as well as plants, need “food” just as much as animals and humans. “In order to achieve a healthy, effective soil system, you must have sufficient amounts of high-quality, organic matter in your soil and rotate crops to provide diversity,” states Walter Goldstein, research program director for the Michael Fields Institute, a non-profit, sustainable agri-culture center. “This is the only way we can eliminate disease problems within the soil and plants.”

Despite agricultural and nutritional health reports supporting the benefits of organic and Biodynamic® crops, the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers is widespread. “In conventional agriculture, mineral fertilizers are valued versus organic matter,” explains Goldstein. “As a result, our soils are becoming harder and denser and crops become more prone to root disease.” One essential element missing from this heavy, nearly impermeable soil is oxygen. Poor soil conditions stress plants, making them more vulnerable.

In contrast, soil’s well-balanced diet requires many different plants, including various types of straw, hays, green plants and crops high in nitrogen, such as legumes. This comes best in the form of compost, which allows the plants to blend together and pre-digest nutrients for better absorption by the soil.

All this can be seen in the success Ingham experienced when regenerating the soil for strawberry crops in California. The fields had been treated with methyl bromide, a known lethal chemical and developmental toxin, used to eliminate diseases, nematodes and insects. This substance, which has since been banned worldwide, was sprayed on the soil two to three times each year. For many years. “We had to be responsible for bringing the land back to health by replacing anaerobic, depleted soil with aerobic compost,” explains Ingham. “The soil needed organisms so a lot of oxygen could pass through and rebuild the soil and plants.” By tuning into the earth’s natural, organic needs, they transformed the soil in three weeks. Sweet, juicy, vibrant strawberries began to emerge—as rich and balanced in flavor as the renewed soil itself.

Like these strawberries, other plants grown organically often look, smell and taste livelier than their conventional counterparts. Cook’s trained senses are honed to recognize the distinctions. ”Aroma and real flavor is so lacking in most of our chemically grown food,” she observes. “It looks pretty and fresh because growers usually pump nitrogen into the produce to keep them looking good. But once you taste really good food and feel its liveliness, you’ll understand what is really fresh and nutritious.”

THE DESSERT (we can’t live without)

Far beyond simply being chemical-free, and even beyond organic practices, Biodynamic® agriculture supports the health of the soil, plants and an entire farm in a self-sustainable way. What began in the early 20th century—in response to farmers’ concern over the degradation of their land by chemical fertilizers—remains vital. Today, the earth is overloaded with chemicals and, as a result, stress. It is therefore crucial that plants be strong enough to survive despite climate changes, pollution, water contamination and other health threats.

Biodynamic® preparations make it possible to feed the soil and plants without looking far beyond the farm. Each fertilizer is made from homeopathically blended herbs, including yarrow blossoms, chamomile flowers, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion flowers, valerian or horsetail—ideally grown on the farm itself—and applied to the plants during specific times of the day, month and season. “The Biodynamic® preparations seem to act like a steering system for the organic matter [such as compost] an organic farmer is already using,” says Goldstein. “They help to support the plants’ root growth.” A larger rooting system lets plants find the moisture and nutrients they need in the soil. Manure from livestock on the farm is also recycled as soil-building compost. Together, the plants and animals form the basis of the simplest, sustainable and healthy farming system.

The soil that gives root to such a healthy haven is full of zest. In raw form it is pure and palatable, and through the crispy-crunch of a fresh-from-the-farm carrot or the sweet savor of a ripe strawberry, it is a five-star dining experience.