The answer is soil. The question is irrelevant.

I saw an Instagram post from #butterworksfarmvt today with the phrase in the title, “The answer is soil. The question is irrelevant.” (from a book by Didi Pershouse ‘The Ecology of Care’). Made me think of ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’ by Douglas Adams, where the ultimate answer is ’42’. Also irrelevant ;P But then you consider all the garbage in, garbage out, questions and answers that humanity has come up with over the years, and indeed ‘the answer is soil’ (and ’42’ ;P). There are too many books and essays for me to list, linking soil degradation with the fall of various human civilizations, and our current cultures are not immune. What does the soil want? Life. Living roots, microorganisms, insects, animals, fungi, other creatures who we have yet to discover…total complexity. What do we give it? Monocrops (corn, soy, wheat, lawns, planted pines, etc.), and if it’s not growing what we want, it better damn well be bare and stay that way until we’re ready to grow the plants we want. This is also the thinking behind our wars on ‘invasive’ species (check out: https://nowtoronto.com/news/david-suzuki-are-we-too-hard-on-newly-arrived-plants-and-animals ). I grew up in suburbs with the mowed lawn aesthetic, but now I love seeing a diversity of plants and animals all around me, that cause stressful heart palpitations in certain age groups of our population. All of nature is so incredibly diverse, so why do so many human beings have a problem with diversity? Is it really just as simple as power and control? Power and control to do what exactly? I’ve never understood how the need for power and control trumps love, mercy and justice, and I hope I never do. But clearly, I digress. The soil grows our food and cleans our water, without it, we could not live. And so, on this Earth Day, let’s consider all the ways in which we can help our soils, instead of destroying them.

The predicted snowstorm for yesterday did not materialize here at the farm, unlike more southern parts of Ontario, but it was definitely much colder than it’s been in this otherwise super warm spring. I have been taking advantage of the warmer weather and drier conditions, to prep vegetable beds with landscape fabric, wheel hoeing to cut early emerging weeds and laying down organic switchgrass mulch to stop any more weeds from germinating. Eggplant, pepper and tomato seedlings are also starting in the house. And I have my fingers crossed that I will indeed be able to direct seed 3 beds of sugar snap peas on Monday…the earliest I’ve scheduled pea seeding in years!

Moving to a no-till system was partly to be able to get an earlier start on field plantings, so being able to do field work already has been very satisfying! It’s also great to be able to do this work without a loud, gas powered rototiller (sorry BCS, you’re a great rototiller, but I’ve never loved working with combustion engines!), or having to wait until the field is perfectly dry. There’s still tons of labour involved, moving bags of sand and rocks for holding down landscape fabrics, and many trips with wheelbarrows full of switchgrass mulch (21 loads per bed, about 1.5 hours for a wider bed, and 2+ km of total walking). The goal is to have 16 beds wheel hoed for emergent weeds, then covered with switchgrass mulch, before transplanting starts in late May. The other 42 beds in the field will be covered with black fleece mulch (cucurbit plantings) or have landscape fabric on them until direct seeding time (salad greens, peas, beans, edamame, carrots, beets). I have a whole schedule for each piece of landscape fabric being moved off of one bed for planting, to another to prep it for later planting.

If money were no object, and I didn’t dislike using plastic on the field so much, there would be landscape fabric for each bed, instead of having to move 11 pieces around on a schedule. My hope is that using plastic (because all landscape fabric and black fleece mulch is made of plastic) is temporary, and as all the beds become covered with switchgrass and/or compost mulch, and the more difficult weeds, like grasses and thistle, are finally kept out because the soil composition has changed in a few years, the plastic will no longer be necessary. I hope this isn’t a pipe dream on my part 😛

At the end of the day, to grow annual vegetables requires a lot of inputs of human labour vs. machines, tilling vs. mulching, plastic vs. human labour. All the larger organic farms use black plastic and tillage extensively, as otherwise, they just couldn’t afford the labour needed to keep everything weeded to be able to grow harvestable crops. This is the trade off…either labour can be paid justly at the living wage ($21-25/hour depending on the area), or exploited labour (interns, migrant workers), black plastic, extensive tilling, or pesticides are required. This is partly why farming is such a struggle…so many input costs, no matter the organic or non-organic route, and a global food system which doesn’t pay the production cost of food.

So if Earth Day is a day for dreaming and wishing for a new world order, I wish there was a Universal Basic Income, so all those people who would like to have their hands in the soil and grow food in ways which work with our environment, improving soils, sucking down carbon and providing delicious, nutritious foods to our communities, could actually survive, both financially and physically, working on farms. I would like housing to be affordable, so people don’t have to work multiple, terrible jobs, just to have a home and food for their families. I would like all children to experience growing and cooking food, so they know exactly where their food comes from and what it takes to produce it. With all this in place, agriculture could change from strip mining the soil, to nurturing it with the many inspired hands and hearts of all the generations to come.

Happy Earth Day everyone 🙂

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