The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

By Bill Duesing
I’ve been studying about, working with and excited by soil for over 40 years, yet Kristin Ohlson’s book, The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet produced a number of exciting a-ha moments.

Published just this year, it is a very interesting book about an extremely important topic. Understanding her message and putting it to work in our farming, gardening and grazing should provide many important benefits for us and the planet.

Ohlson writes about scientists who see the potential for, and agriculturalists who are, putting more of the carbon that plants take out of the air into the soil for long term storage with the support of the billions of organisms that occupy the soil food web. This is a strategy to both mitigate and adapt to climate change as well as to encourage plant and animal health.

Learning to store more carbon in the soil not only keeps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, it feeds the soil food web and allows the soil to absorb and hold onto more water.

The farmers and scientists Ohlson visits and interviews encourage a different approach to agriculture, one that will resonate with many organic folks. In short, disturb the soil as little as possible and keep it covered with a diversity of growing plants.

Ohlson describes her travels to Zimbabwe and Australia, Ohio and North Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon and Vermont to talk to folks who have learned how to manage land in a way that both stores carbon and builds soil health and resilience.

Her engaging style makes for an easy but informative read. Ohlson weaves political and historical perspectives in with the stories of what has led the farmers and researchers to their interest in and success with moving carbon into the soil.

She writes about cover crop cocktails, mob grazing and the length of fungal hyphae in a cubic food of soil, She paints a compelling picture of the way forward.

Ohlson writes about Louis Bromfield and the inspiring books he wrote about his restoration of eroded Ohio farms after the Dust Bowl and about Timothy Egan’s recent book about that period, The Worst Hard Time. J. I. Rodale and Elaine Ingham are included. Toward the end she writes about Eric T. Fleisher, a land care professional who uses these practices and understanding to care for places such as New York’s Battery Park and Harvard Yard with organic land care.

The book ends with descriptions of two exciting developments. One is the trend for carbon farmers and environmental organizations to be mutually supportive and work together. The same practices which store carbon and increase soil health and functionality also protect water supplies and encourage biodiversity.

The most recent research Ohlson writes about is from New Mexico State University molecular biologist David C. Johnson. He found that compost made without turning was lower in salts and better for growing his test crop of chilies in a greenhouse. He thinks it is likely the fungi that make the difference. They are harmed when compost is turned.

He took the work outside, built up soil biology using cover crops, and planted directly into the debris. After two years, he found a 67 percent increase in organic matter and a 30 percent increase in water holding capacity.

He “showed that you can grow more crops faster, better, and with less water on soils where we’ve improved the population of microbes, both fungi and bacteria. The carbon sequestration is the icing on the cake.”

Johnson said “Once that population of soil microorganisms is established, there are greater efficiencies in both growing a crop and growing soil carbon.”

The reality is that if we create the right conditions, nature will move inevitably toward greater biodiversity, will store more carbon and create greater structural complexity, all leading to greater metabolic stability or health.

Although our current knowledge of a few details of soil life and function (a mere glimpse into unknowable and ever changing complexity) is only a few decades old, the idea of treating the soil well and working with nature is not.

In the winter of 1972, I was drawn to NOFA, very soon after it started, in part because of two books about agriculture. In Farmers of Forty Centuries: Or, Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan, published in 1911, soil scientist F.H. King, describes his visit to those countries. He brought back a message about composting all organic wastes, using cover crops and growing food locally for a permanent agriculture.

In Pleasant Valley, published in the 1940s, Louis Bromfield inspired me with his descriptions of returning pastures, forests and springs to health and functionality by working with nature.

One of my oldest NOFA conference memories is of Samuel Kaymen, who founded NOFA and also Stonyfield Farm, talking about the importance of soil and recommending the book Soil and Civilization by Edward Hyams. That may have been at the first conference in 1975.

Hyams and Samuel emphasized that no civilization outlasts its soil. Ohlson’s book provides an inspiring primer on how soil can help solve the biggest challenges our civilization faces.

Despite experiencing a few bumps early on as our understandings clashed a bit, I highly recommend this book. It inspired me to expand my growing and eating of perennial crops and to write this blog at http://ctnofa1982.blogspot.com/2014/05/going-underground-by-bill-duesing-ct.html#more