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Composting > Soil and the Nutritional Quality of Food

Soil and the Nutritional Quality of Food

I believe that the purpose of food is not merely to fill the belly or to provide energy, but to create and maintain health. Ultimately, soil fertility should be evaluated not by humus content, nor microbial populations, nor earthworm numbers, but by the long-term health consequences of eating the food. If physical health degenerates, is maintained, or is improved we have measured the soil's true worth. The technical name for this idea is a "biological assay." Evaluating soil fertility by biological assay is a very radical step, for connecting long-term changes in health with the nutritional content of food and then with soil management practices invalidates a central tenet of industrial farming: that bulk yield is the ultimate measure of success or failure. As Newman Turner, an English dairy farmer and disciple of Sir Albert Howard, put it:

"The orthodox scientist normally measures the fertility of a soil by its bulk yield, with no relation to effect on the ultimate consumer.

I have seen cattle slowly lose condition and fall in milk yield when fed entirely on the abundant produce of an apparently fertile soil. Though the soil was capable of yielding heavy crops, those crops were not adequate in themselves to maintain body weight and milk production in the cow, without supplements. That soil, though capable of above-average yields, and by the orthodox quantitative measure regarded as fertile, could not, by the more complete measure of ultimate effect on the consumer, be regarded but anything but deficient in fertility.

Fertility therefore, is the ability to produce at the highest recognized level of yield, crops of quality which, when consumed over long periods by animals or man, enable them to sustain health, bodily condition and high level of production without evidence of disease or deficiency of any kind.

Fertility cannot be measured quantitatively. Any measure of soil fertility must be related to the quality of its produce. . . . the most simple measure of soil fertility is its ability to transmit, through its produce, fertility to the ultimate consumer."

Howard also tells of creating a super-healthy herd of work oxen on his research farm at Indore, India. After a few years of meticulous composting and restoration of soil life, Howard's oxen glowed with well-being. As a demonstration he intentionally allowed his animals to rub noses across the fence with neighboring oxen known to be infected with hoof and mouth and other cattle plagues. His animals remained healthy. I have read so many similar accounts in the literature of the organic farming movement that in my mind there is no denying the relationship between the nutritional quality of plants and the presence of organic matter in soil. Many other organic gardeners reach the same conclusion. But most gardeners do not understand one critical difference between farming and gardening: most agricultural radicals start farming on run-down land grossly deficient in organic matter. The plant and animal health improvements they describe come from restoration of soil balance, from approaching a climax humus level much like I've done in my pasture by no longer removing the grass.

But home gardeners and market gardeners near cities are able to get their hands on virtually unlimited quantities of organic matter. Encouraged by a mistaken belief that the more organic matter the healthier, they enrich their soil far beyond any natural capacity. Often this is called "building up the soil." But increasing organic matter in gardens well above a climax ecology level does not further increase the nutritional value of vegetables and in many circumstances will decrease their value markedly.

For many years I have lectured on organic gardening to the Extension Service's master gardener classes. Part of the master gardener training includes interpreting soil test results. In the early 1980s when Oregon State government had more money, all master gardener trainees were given a free soil test of their own garden. Inevitably, an older gentlemen would come up after my lecture and ask my interpretation of his puzzling soil test.

Ladies, please excuse me. Lecturing in this era of women's lib I've broken my politically incorrect habit of saying "the gardener, he …" but in this case it _was _always a man, an organic gardener who had been building up his soil for years.

The average soils in our region test moderately-to strongly acid; are low in nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium; quite adequate in potassium; and have 3-4 percent organic matter. Mr. Organic's soil test showed an organic matter content of 15 to 20 percent with more than adequate nitrogen and a pH of 7.2. However there was virtually no phosphorus, calcium or magnesium and four times the amount of potassium that any farm agent would ever recommend. On the bottom of the test, always written in red ink, underlined, with three exclamation points, "No more wood ashes for five years!!!" Because so many people in the Maritime northwest heat with firewood, the soil tester had mistakenly assumed that the soil became alkaline and developed such a potassium imbalance from heavy applications of wood ashes.

This puzzled gardener couldn't grasp two things about his soil test report. One, he did not use wood ashes and had no wood stove and two, although he had been "building up his soil for six or seven years," the garden did not grow as well as he had imagined it would. Perhaps you see why this questioner was always a man. Mr. Organic owned a pickup and loved to haul organic matter and to make and spread compost. His soil was full of worms and had a remarkably high humus level but still did not grow great crops.

It was actually worse than he understood. Plants uptake as much potassium as there is available in the soil, and concentrate that potassium in their top growth. So when vegetation is hauled in and composted or when animal manure is imported, large quantities of potassium come along with them. As will be explained shortly, vegetation from forested regions like western Oregon is even more potassium-rich and contains less of other vital nutrients than vegetation from other areas. By covering his soil several inches thick with manure and compost every year he had totally saturated the earth with potassium. Its cation exchange capacity or in non-technical language, the soil's ability to hold other nutrients had been overwhelmed with potassium and all phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and other nutrients had largely been washed away by rain. It was even worse than that! The nutritional quality of the vegetables grown on that superhumusy soil was very, very low and would have been far higher had he used tiny amounts of compost and, horror of all horrors, chemical fertilizer.

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