SOIL HEALTH, JONI MITCHELL AND FFA
By Mike Norman
The other day I was working on my farm, hauling manure and straw from where my beef cows ate hay and slept on straw during the last winter. The tractor radio was on some kind of oldies station from the 1960's and I heard a line from a song which was popular back then and the line was "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone?" by Joni Mitchel. I then remembered the story Jamie Scott from the Kosciusko County SWCD shared with us at our last field day about how whenever farmers remove an old fencerow from the middle of a big field, that the healthiest crops and best yield would come from the crops grown where the old fencerow was. This story seems to be universally accepted as true and I've never met a farmer that would question its validity. I heard a farmer once say that he needed more old fencerows to farm and I wondered to myself why we couldn't turn the soil in the rest of the field back into the same condition as the fencerow soil.
When I began farming forty six years ago, I had never heard of the concept called soil health and, indeed, the word soil wasn't used much at all. It was dirt and we were called dirt farmers and not usually with much esteem or high regard for our profession.
But, thank goodness sometimes things change for the better. I no longer farm dirt but rather I am employed in an agricultural venture participating with the soil to the extent that my education and wisdom will allow. Along the way, I've had to change my mind about the practices I use to farm. Ray Archuletta was correct when he said, "you won't change what you do until you change your mind about what you are trying to do."
Recently I had the opportunity to participate as a judge in a regional contest held at the Rochester High School for its chapter of the FFA. I and three other gentlemen judged several teams from various schools on different aspects of soil science. We heard about soil testing, erosion control, nutrient management and soil health in general. They all gave very good and informative presentations, but the best teams absolutely were off the charts with how they could answer questions. I asked one girl to explain acidity, alkalinity and a neutral state of PH and she did that correctly and then she told me which crops could flourish in each state! I'm okay now, but it took me awhile to get my jaw off the floor!!! Later that evening I went back to the rooms we judged in to get my jacket and in one of the rooms was a group of kids packing up their presentation supplies. I heard one of them ask, ‘what was the difference between dirt and soil?’ The question wasn't aimed at anybody in particular but it was kind of like in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" when a frustrated Charlie Brown said: "Can anybody tell me what Christmas is all about?" So I offered "Sure I can tell you the difference between dirt and soil." Dirt is like a house, while soil is a home. A home is so much more than just a house, no matter how fancy it is. Soil is so much more than dirt when you consider the amount of microscopic life that lives there. One student said that what I said was amazing and she asked me where I got it.
Another made the observation that I couldn't have gotten that out of a book. I thanked them for the compliment and then I told them that being sixty years old had its perks!
I recently purchased the book called Enriching the Hoosier Farm Family" - A Photo History of Indiana's Early County Extension Agents" In reading the book I came across an observation by an early extension agent- that sometimes agents couldn't convince the older established farmers to consider new concepts, but if you could teach a 4-H kid to raise pig and get it to market weight six weeks sooner than his father could, sometimes the kid could "break the ice" and pry open a closed mind. I wonder if it would be useful to have FFA kids do a demonstration of some kind at a field day for soil health.
All progress begins with a single step. Change is hard for anyone, especially me. But, on the other hand, I like to try new things and if progress can happen, it is sure hard to consider going back to old habits or ways of thinking.
The soil is alive and it always has been. I wasn't taught that and I didn't learn it until my journey as a soil and water Supervisor came along and its seminars and other chances to learn from the people I've met. Ignorance is bliss but it surely is no bargain.
Back in the 1970's there was a TV show called MASH. It was about an army hospital during the Korean War. It was near the front lines of the war and it dealt with lots of casualties. Some were alive and some were covered with white sheets to signify that they were deceased. In one particular episode, a young soldier was carried on a stretcher and he was covered with a white sheet. He didn't move and, of course, he didn't say anything. The whole show was a flurry of activity around him with other casualties being treated for their wounds. Nobody paid attention to him. Why would they? They thought he was dead. Until something accidently moved the sheet that covered him and it was the character called "Radar" that noticed a teardrop rolling down his cheek. He shouted for the doctors and they sprang into action to save him.
What is it going to take for more people to notice that our soil is in trouble because of the war we've put it through? For me it was the fencerow effect I mentioned earlier. I did notice and never forgot but there wasn't anything more I could do about it at that time. We kept on plowing and chisel plowing because we didn't have any other options at that time. I believed that I "smelled a rat" and "something was rotten in Denmark", but I couldn't put my finger on it!
I'm sure progress has been made, because now, with no-till, we can achieve nearly one hundred percent stands in the clay hills that used to slab over or make a long ribbon when we plowed them. After the hot sun baked it we would disk it to break it and then we planted our seed into broken shards of pottery! Seed-to soil contact was impossible until it rained hard enough to melt it all down and then we had a crust for the seed to push through if it did germinate.
When I was in high school I read about some great Commander in a battle in World War II and he had a very famous quote accredited to him. When he was finally contacted after a long silence during battle, he reported, "We have met the enemy, they are ours." I always liked that quote and saying it and pondering
It was kind of intoxicating to me when I was a teenager. Actually I was a teenager when I bought a seventy six acre farm on a land contract. I tilled the ground and added an extra pass with the disk to shuffle the clods some more and we had a three inch beating rain on it. God must have thought that it was enough for a while because the sun came out and baked it for five weeks before it rained again!
I sobered up pretty quickly and got my teenage giggling under control when I went out to my farm with a hammer and screwdriver to try to find the seed! I remember being on my knees looking for any sign of life when I thought to myself that I need to change my favorite quote. So it became "We have met the enemy they are us!!
Being a farmer became much more personal after I heard Ray Archuletta point out how abundant life is in the soil and he described it in great detail. I really believe the greatest fact which causes a complete paradigm shift for me was that many of the organisms in the soil are aquatic in nature. (I still get goosebumps just writing it!) They have gills and they swim to get around. About one second after I heard that fact for the first time, my mind thought about the Dust Bowl and the pictures I've seen of it and my immediate reaction was that there is not much aquatic about a dust bowl cloud! Hearing the aquatic story caused such a transformation in how I think and I loved that story so much that I even, in a friendly way, "called him (Ray) on the carpet" for leaving that fact out when I heard him speak at a seminar. He heard me and thanked me profusely for listening that closely. During a later seminar held for the Kosciusko County SWCD, he mentioned it about fourteen times and then he came over to where I was sitting and asked me, "Are we okay now?" I gave him a thumbs up!!
The paradigm shift was completed and set in stone and "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" when he taught that plants feed the soil and what occurs when a single root enters the rhizosphere. The soil organisms rejoice and party and dance and get high and really, really enjoy each other's company. I went to a party like that once back in the 1970's, but I don't remember it all that well which is proof that I was there! I definitely told my Mom that I did not inhale, but it was FAR OUT, man!
So... back to the song I mentioned in the first paragraph of this blog (I really mean BOOK). "Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone?" For me, as I am using it, it refers to components present in the soil when it is most healthy. Things like carbon, organic matter, tilth, water holding capacity, glomalin and biomass. (Thank you Jamie Scott and Andrea Baker).
I think the greatest part of the word health is in the first part of it which is "heal". It is amazing to me how fast the soil will heal itself if but given a chance to do so and it doesn't hold grudges but is eager to forgive the bad things done to it. It is an understatement to say that it seems like it was created to do so, which it certainly was. And...So are we.
That's what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown!
P.S. My favorite quote of all time is: "We live by encouragement and die without it-slowly, sadly, angrily." - Celeste Holm
This is what you get when you ask a crazy farmer to write a blog and, yes I DO need to get out more. Just think how dangerous I will be when I learn to READ!
Michael W. Norman, E.I.E.I.0
Fulton County SWCD Supervisor since 1992
Another favorite quote is: “An ugly idea left unchallenged begins to turn the color of normal”, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.