We’ve been farming many of the fields where we grow your fruits and vegetables for twenty years or more. Over those years, we have added hundreds of thousands of pounds of organic material to every acre of our soil in the form of compost and cover crops. And we have seen the results of that stewardship in better and more abundant crops. Other organic farmers have seen the same results. And now the latest research is proving what we already knew, and providing some of the science behind it.
For many decades, most farmers have treated soil as a neutral media, like clay to make pots or a canvas to paint on. They added the exact chemical compounds that the plants needed to grow each year and nothing more. Organic farming began with a different operating principle: the soil is alive, and must be fed and nourished. In return, it would produce better crops. And for that attitude, organic farmers were ridiculed by other farmers and the researchers who worked with them. The academic establishment at agricultural universities was closely aligned and funded by the petrochemical companies that make pesticides and fertilizers, and their research focused on those products and their benefits.
But as organic agriculture grew into an economic powerhouse — thanks to you, our customers — it began to push for research and demand public funding that reflected its growing market share. For many years the research was underfunded and piecemeal, actively disparaged by the establishment. Academics who chose to focus on organic farming faced an uphill struggle and saw their work marginalized. But finally, a new generation of researchers has reached critical mass, assisted in particular by funding from the CA State Water Resources Board as part of its effort to reduce contamination of surface and groundwater by agricultural chemicals. (Terra Firma has been participating in some of the studies) And the results are backing up the outcomes that organic farmers have been seeing for decades.
Over the last couple of weeks, I have been attending training sessions that are now required by SWRB regulations. I’ve seen numerous presentations by academics that confirm and elucidate my own experience as an organic farmer: applying compost and growing cover crops improves the quality of the soil over a five-year period to the point where very little additional fertilizer is required. And in doing so, it reduces the contamination of surface and groundwater.
I’m not a scientist, so I have only been able to speculate as to why my crops seem to grow so beautifully in the fields that we have been farming the longest. And it is empowering to now have the data. But more than anything else, it is redemption, pure and simple. I am not a religious person, and I don’t believe in miracles. We have been following a set of practical guidelines at Terra Firma for 30 years, and we have seen — known — that it works.
Even more redemptive than the data that the soil studies have revealed though, is the amount that the researchers still don’t understand. Under questioning from myself and other organic farmers, they admit they are still just scratching at the surface of understanding. They have proven that organic soil building practices work, but they still haven’t uncovered all the mechanisms — the hows and whys. For example, they have identified hundreds of different species of microbes, but they don’t know what role each one plays in the soil. It is not an overstatement to say that the soil below our feet is a universe not unlike the one above our heads. Despite our proximity to it, we still know almost nothing about it.
The research being done on organic farming practices is not just applicable to organic agriculture. Since the first UC studies on compost came out five years ago, many if not most conventional farmers have begun to incorporate the use of compost into their farming practices. And federal funding for conservation practices now pays for part of the cost of planting cover crops. The possible environmental benefits of widespread application of these two practices to hundreds of millions of acres of farmland could possibly be the biggest improvement in environmental quality achieved in the U.S. since the Clean Air Act was passed.
And if every farmer in the world were to use compost and cover crop on their fields, the increased food production could offset a significant part of the anticipated shortage of food coming in a decade or two. Both practices are carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative depending on the circumstances. Compost is at its root a form of recycling. And cover-cropping turns the most abundant substance in the atmosphere — nitrogen — into fertilizer without using a drop of fossil fuels. There are no downsides to either practice.
The shift towards widespread use of these two 100% positive practices would not have happened without the pioneering organic farmers who proved that they work. And organic farmers could not have done that without the financial and moral support of the customers who literally put their money where their mouth is.