By Holly Arbuckle, CEO of Singing Pastures
“First published in The Disruptive Quarterly”
What do you think of when you hear the word “dirt”? Probably nothing positive. Think about it. An object can be “cheap as dirt”, an idea can be considered “dirty”. And yet, the whole world’s food supply depends on a thin layer of topsoil on the Earth’s surface. Talk about being underappreciated. It’s time to rethink soil.
Some of the most basic ideas about soil are misdirected. Most people see it just as a substrate, something to walk on. In conventional farming, they also think about its chemical properties. The industry creates and sells synthetic nitrogen, herbicides and pesticides under the premise that we have to add human-made inputs in order to keep land productive. The idea that soil is not capable of production and regeneration is fundamentally flawed. As soil scientist, Ray Archuleta states “We didn’t understand how soil works.” We missed a major biological principle: Soil is alive.
In fact, there are more living organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people living on Earth. The opposite can also be true; under the pressure of heavy tillage, fungicides and herbicides soil can be dead, devoid of life. As Ray says, “Soil without biology is geology.” It turns out that the difference between living soil and dead dirt has huge implications for erosion, the water cycle, carbon sequestration, and even the nutritional content of our food.
My husband, John, is a 9th generation farmer. We own Singing Pastures, a multispecies farm that is centered on pasture and regenerative farming. He grew up on a GMO corn and soy farm in Illinois. His family and their community are some of the best people I know. He farmed with his dad for years, but in his education, he bumped into new ideas that changed the way he did things by the time we had our own farm. In the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
We use a holistic ecosystem approach to farming. We don’t take credit for figuring it out, our management is based on a holistic managed grazing plan developed by Alan Savory. And, if you go back in time, one also discovers that what we do is not really any different than the processes that nature already had already come up with. In animal agriculture, the key is movement.
Just like the Bison herds of the Great Plains or the Wildebeest of the Serengeti, our cows and pigs will graze one area intensively. They will tramp down the weeds and manure the ground. This grazing event will only take a few days to accomplish, then the animals are whisked away onto another green, lush, grassy pasture. Afterwards, the grazed pasture will “rest” and the grass will rebound even stronger than before. In nature, predators would keep bison tightly bunched into a herd and moving. In our case, domesticated animals don’t have the same prey instincts and predator threats. We keep them moving frequently and contain them with electric fence.
In our time managing our pastures in this way we have seen some great, and sometimes unexpected, successes. We now have abundant bird populations, including grassland birds like Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows. The many creeks that run across our property run clear and cold. Our farm is home to Great Blue Heron, Osprey, Bald Eagles, owls, racoons, bobcats, coyotes, skunks, otters, beaver and more. You just wouldn’t see that incredible biodiversity in a field of corn or soy. It would be quiet to the point of being lonely, rather than an orchestra of living creatures. And let’s not forget all the life in the ground. In a conventional farm field, the soil is mostly dead. Beneath our land, is a rebounding community of insects, nematodes, fungi, bacteria and other microbes that are the very foundation for the abundance of life above ground.
Soil is a solution. We don’t need to invent a new way to produce food. Living ecosystems are perfectly capable of self-regulating and regenerating themselves. Our job is to trust the life beneath the surface as the world reconsiders food production.
Holly Arbuckle is the co-founder and CEO of Singing Pastures, a regenerative, pasture-based farm in Midcoast Maine. She and her husband, John, are deeply committed to creating healthy, delicious food in partnership with the planet. Singing Pastures produces the highest quality pasture-raised charcuterie and hickory-smoked snack sticks on the market today. They are advocates for Regenerative Agriculture and healthy soil. Singing Pastures Website: https://singingpastures.com