DIRT. It’s a living and breathing labyrinth of beautiful complexity and mystery. Yet to most, it’s just a surface we use to get from point A to point B. Very few of us understand just what’s happening down-under. It was my farming journey that made me take a second look at the ground and the crucial role it plays in every life form.
Most farmers pay close attention to their soil’s PH balance, nutrients and mineral composition. While these soil components are essential to crop health and production little thought is given for the “bugs” living in the soil.
Soil is a complex mixture of four primary components: water, air, granular rocks and minerals, and the living creatures that thrive within the soil environment, as well as their decaying bodies. Perhaps the most intriguing component of soil is its living organisms. Scientists are just beginning to understand the mind-boggling complexity of the microbes, fungi, nematodes, mites, insects and other animals that can only exist in soil.
Let’s unearth interesting facts about soil microbes!
Bacteria and fungi are required to maintain a healthy environment. Not only do they recycle natural wastes and dead animal and plant matter, they also produce many of the nutrients that plants need to grow. Bacteria, in particular, are the only living things that can fix nitrogen for use in plants. (The plant absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, as the carbon moves into the roots of the plant microbes convert the carbon into nitrogen which is released into the soil). At the same time, microorganisms work in tandem with certain plants to aid them. Some viruses have been found to provide heat resistance to grasses in arid locations, and many plants store bacteria in their roots to help absorb certain nutrients more easily.
In addition to their direct environmental benefits, microorganisms are important partners when it comes to the work of creating food. They can be used to increase the fertility of the soil and increase crop yields, and they are necessary when making products like bread, beer and cheese and when growing coffee. There are thousands of different types of bacteria found naturally in soils. These bacteria in soil and dirt historically performed many beneficial functions for us. It appears they help our bodies regulate immunity, and protect us from bacterial and fungal overgrowths in our intestinal tracts. Research has even discovered a specific microbe of bacterium in soil that improves the feeling of happiness. Mycobacterium vaccae, has been found to trigger the release of seratonin, which in turn elevates mood and decreases anxiety. (I told you the farm is my happy place!) Up until 100 years ago (or less for some people), soil based organisms were an everyday part of the diet. Not that long ago, our country was comprised mostly of farmers. Agriculture was more about getting dirty than about efficient machinery and chemicals inputs (i.e., industrial agriculture). At that time, almost everyone would have consumed soil based organisms on vegetables and other foods from the fields, gardens, and orchards. Nowadays due to lack of exposure to soil based organisms resulting from modern food processing systems and the extensive use of pesticides that destroy the organisms, the average person has a very different composition of intestinal flora from their ancestors. There are far fewer soil based organisms, and more lactic acid bacteria. In addition, the use of antibiotics for young children has further swayed the balance away from these beneficial bacteria.
Ways to find food from good soil:
Buy biodynamic, organic and naturally grown. Paying extra for organic food will protect you from pesticide, herbicide, and fertilizer residue, as well as subtherapeutic antibiotics in meat and GMO crops. According to a growing body of research, organic food may support the soil in such a way that it delivers more nutrients.
Talk to the farmer or even better, visit a farm. Ask questions the next time you’re at the farmers’ market: Do you practice no-till agriculture? Do you use synthetic fertilizer and killing chemicals? If so, how often? How does your farm promote biodiversity? Are there animals on the farm? Do you live on the farm? According to integrative physician Daphne Miller, MD, author of Farmacology: Total Health From the Ground Up, farmers who live on their land and eat from it themselves are more likely to take good care of their soil.
Use all your senses. When you’re shopping for produce, rely on more than your eyes. Plants interaction with soil and the environment produces strong smells and tastes. These can be markers for higher phytonutrient levels. They’re like mini-medicines and are good for health.
Embrace blemishes, let go of vanity. I tell my kids that when you see a little bug hole on a fruit or vegetable, that’s often the healthiest one.
Buy meat, dairy, and eggs from pastured animals. Pastures are intact landscapes with healthy soil (most are rarely tilled or sprayed with agrochemicals), and the wide variety of plants growing there provide great forage. Much of what grows in a native grassland or healthy pasture has some medicinal use. Grazing animals are basically eating herbs all day long, and many of those plant essential oils have positive health benefits.
Grow your own food or find a local farmer you trust. Nothing is fresher and has more intact nutrients than something picked minutes before you eat it. (Of course, you need to start with healthy soil!) Check with your local university extension service for advice on how to create your own healthy-soil ecosystem.
Understanding the importance of these soil microbes is one of the many reasons our farm nurtures our soil and grows our crops in the living ground. The single greatest leverage point for a sustainable and healthy future for the seven billion people on the planet is thus arguably immediately underfoot: the living soil, where we grow our food.