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Soil: The Foundation of Life
Healthy soil makes healthy crops, healthy people and a healthy society.

By J. Patrick Madden, President, World Sustainable Agriculture Association

Healthy soil is the foundation of a healthy society. Just like a healthy person who rarely (if ever) needs medicine, healthy soil rarely (if ever) needs synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Recent flooding in middle America reminds us of one of the social benefits of healthy soil. Dick and Sharon Thompson's 300-acre crop and livestock farm in Iowa is like a huge sponge. Rain and melting snow sinks into their absorbent soil. Millions of earthworms per acre perforate the soil so rain can quickly penetrate, and high soil organic matter from the Thompsons' careful management of livestock manure and crop residue gives the soil outstanding moisture-holding capacity. As a result, the ditches between the Thompsons' fields and the road are virtually free of silt.

In contrast, their neighbors' ditches must be dug out nearly every year. In their fields, insecticides kill most of the earthworms, and the soil surface is crusty. Rain puddles and forms gullies, washing the sickened soil away in a torrent of runoff water from a heavy rain, filling the ditches with silt and swelling the already over-flowing creeks and rivers. As I watched the television news stories of record-high flood waters in the Midwest, I wondered how much less damage would have happened if every farm was managed like Dick and Sharon's.

Healthy soil is the key to healthy crops and health-enhancing foods. A Japanese tomato grower using Nature Farming (as taught by philosopher Mokichi Okada) provides an outstanding illustration. Conventional tomato growers never plant tomatoes in the same soil two years in a row because the accumulated disease pathogens will destroy the roots of the second crop. Consequently, less profitable crops are rotated for at least two to five years before tomatoes are reintroduced to the field.

But this Japanese farmer was harvesting his 19th consecutive tomato crop, and getting outstanding yields (100 tons per hectare) of beautiful and delicious Nature Farming tomatoes! How does he do it?

After each tomato crop is finished, he removes and composts the tomato vines, applies last year's finished compost to the soil, and plants a cover crop of sesbania -- a fast-growing tropical legume. When the cover crop is about 5 to 6 feet tall, he flail-chops it and turns it under the soil surface as a green manure.

Later, when he transplants the new tomato crop, he also plants an onion, leek or garlic plant next to each tomato. The roots of these Allium-genus plants growing among the tomato roots support a beneficial bacterium (Pseudomonas cepacia) which repels and inhibits root pathogens -- such as fusarium -- thereby protecting the tomato plant and ensuring a healthy crop. The secret is keeping the soil healthy and interplanting with another plant that provides the necessary habitat for the natural enemies of the disease-causing organism.

For a long time, scientists were puzzled by the observation that crops on organic farms in rain-fed areas are much less vulnerable to moisture and heat stress on hot, dry days in late summer, compared with the wilted fields of their conventionally farming neighbors. Scientists now explain this seemingly mysterious phenomenon as the result of a symbiotic relationship with a beneficial fungus, called VAM (vesicular arbuscular mycorrhizae).

VAM harmlessly infect crop roots, then spread far out into the soil, reaching moisture and nutrients far beyond the gasp of the roots. Scientists have found that the mass of the VAM can be 100 times greater than that of the roots. In return for providing abundant water and nutrients to the crop, the VAM take from the plants small amounts of sugar photosynthesized by the leaves. It's a splendid partnership. And it explains why organic farms and Nature Farms get crop yields far higher than agronomists predict according to the nutrients available in the soil and amounts added in compost or manure -- without chemical fertilizers. Crop rotations and other practices used on organic and Nature Farms enhance VAM activity.

The soil is a living organism. With proper management, the soil thrives, breathes, drinks in the falling rain, and supports healthy crops. A Japanese physician I met recently in northern Japan, Dr. Nitanai, told us he encourages his patients to walk in the organic gardens surrounding his clinic, so they can "absorb the healing energies of the soil."

Healthy soil makes healthy crops, healthy people and a healthy society.

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