Monday, July 11, 2011

Driving Dirt Uphill: In Partial Praise of Fossil Fuels

"A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." Thomas Jefferson

So reads the sticker on the rear bumper of one of the farm trucks, not the one, unfortunately, that I am driving to town on the Saturday town run. I'm headed into town in the Ford pickup as part of a thrice weekly ritual. Every Monday, Thursday and Saturday someone gets to escape from the usual farm work and drive to town to collect the mail from the post office in Rumney, and then continuing on to Plymouth, to run errands, and most importantly, to collect ingredients for our perpetual project of soil rebuilding in the form of waste food and cardboard. This is precious organic matter we add to the compromised soils up here in the hills to help rebuild the complex ecosystem of a healthy soil.

The original rich forest soils were washed downhill and out to sea long ago, as a result of a couple of hundred years of poor management practices. Did the first white settlers here realize that they were in effect mining the immense wealth under their feet when they clear cut the forests, tilled the cleared ground, farmed the fields to exhaustion and then brought in sheep to finish off the last of the vegetation? At this point it is impossible to tell, but the legacy of these practices is all too evident in the thin, sandy soils dotted with large chunks of exposed granite covering these hills. In the years that have passed since the sheep pastures were abandoned, the land has slowly been recolonized by forests and new soil is beginning to accumulate as the exposed rock weathers and organic matter in the form of dead leaves, decaying plant matter and the occasional deposit of moose droppings or coyote scat pile up. Natural soil rebuilding happens very slowly, however, in the range of inches of precious, life-sustaining topsoil per decade at best. So if farming is to be feasible here without dependence on artificial fertilizers, we have little choice but to rebuild the soil by carrying tons of organic matter back up hill. We'd like to avoid the use of artificial fertilizers, and not just because "organic farm" sounds so sexy.

Yes, organic farming is often looked at as a niche market, a trendy idea for many mainstream Americans, but there are some pretty good reasons to adopt organic practices, like building soil rather than applying fertilizers. Conventional agriculture makes liberal use of artificial fertilizers, and treats the soil as little more than a place to put plants which are kept alive by the application of fertilizers (not to mention herbicides and pesticides) a practice fraught with problems. Even if the standard issue ammonium nitrate fertilizer does provide plants with needed nutrients in the short term, its use has far reaching negative effects both before and after it is used. Since it is water soluble and easily washed away, it tends to be over-applied with the excess not absorbed by plant roots entering streams, rivers, lakes and eventually the ocean. In all of which places it leads to the process of "eutrophication" -- the sudden flush of excess nutrients in a body of water following a storm causes algae to grow rapidily and then just as quickly to die off once the nutrients are depleted. As the dead algae rots, the water in which it has temporarily thrived is stripped of oxygen and all aquatic life suffocates. As a result of the use of artificial fertilizers throughout the immense Mississippi River basin, to take the most dramatic example of this problem, a dead zone devoid of aquatic life about the size of Texas appears in the Gulf of Mexico every year during the growing season and only partially recovers every winter. This is a pretty serious problem and one that organic farming practices don't create. Good on us organic farmers!

But even before it is sprayed onto fields, artificial fertilizer indirectly causes another form of damage to watersheds all over the country. This is because the primary feedstock for the production of ammonium nitrate fertilizer is natural gas, and natural gas is increasingly being extracted from shale deposits through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." After the initial well bore is drilled into a bed of shale, it is pumped with high pressure chemical soups designed to fracture the "tight" shale rock containing natural gas, allowing the gas to bubble upwards to be collected at the surface. Unfortunately, fracturing the rock also allows both toxic fracking fluid and natural gas to enter water wells and to poison springs. We watched a film last week here at D Acres called "Gasland" which has some pretty stunning footage of people lighting their formerly drinkable tap water on fire. Everyone laughed, but it was still pretty depressing to see how damaging our efforts to scrape up the last natural gas under our soils can be.

Even if we just ignore these problems with using and producing artificial fertilizers, spraying them onto fields does nothing to restore the health of depleted soils. It only serves as a temporary solution to the problem of exhausted soils. Sometimes, like when I am digging a hole and hit rocks two inches under the surface of the soil, it is hard to imagine that the natural prairie and forest soils of North America were among the richest ecosystems on the planet. They have all but disappeared as a result of the last two centuries of careless use and abuse. If we have any hope of living in greater balance with such ecosystems on which all life depends and without relying entirely on a tightening supply of fossil fuels, we'll have to rebuild the soil fertility that previous generations have unknowingly squandered.

So we drive tons of waste food uphill, along with cardboard for sheet mulching, as well as mountains of horse manure, barrels of bird and rabbit poop and truckloads of hay from local farms. The waste food is fed to the pigs, who seem to love it when they get buckets of old cafeteria food dumped onto their heads. Nobody intends to dump it on their heads, but they just won't get out of the way, especially when cheese sauce is involved. The oxen prefer less sloppy meals, so they get old corn, squash and apples along with their hay. We use ungodly amounts of cardboard to suppress weeds on the edges of garden beds, where it slowly rots into the soil and keeps the weeds at bay for a little while at least. The manure we truck up here is mixed with soiled animal bedding in our compost piles and then applied directed to garden beds. It is hard work loading and unloading all of this material from the farm trucks, turning manure piles with a manure fork, stacking bales of hay into storage areas and carrying five gallon bucket loads of compost over rock walls into the fields where we grow crops. But it is worth every sore muscle and drop of sweat since we are rebuilding the soil's capacity to sustain the lives of worms, insects, fungi, microorganisms, and as a result, the plants and animals we eat. Healthy soils cycle nutrients effectively from plants to animals and fungi and back again thus enabling plants to effectively capture the solar energy that drives the entire system. We are using fossil fuels to rebuild our soils with the goal of freeing ourselves gradually from their use. Conventional farms, on the other hand use fossil fuels as a replacement for the lost functions of healthy soil in a never ending battle against the ill effects of their own poor soil management. And it is kind of fun loading the trucks with as much hay as possible -- so far the farm record is 128 bales on the Ford pickup and its trailer.

So, in spite of our use of hand tools for many jobs that fossil fuel powered machines might do for us, we still do admire these potent sources of energy. And they are pretty astounding substances when you think about where they came from. We sometimes forget that coal, oil and natural gas are essentially super-concentrated solar energy, millions of years worth of energy from the sun stored up in plant matter that was trapped under swamps and slow cooked in the earth's crust over many more millions of years. It is also astounding to think that we have spent just about half of these millions of years of solar energy savings over the last 250 years or so. No wonder modern life moves so quickly compared to the lives humans lived ever since we emerged from caves or trees or wherever we came from. The half of the fossil fuel legacy that is left, such as shale gas, deep water oil and the tar sands of places like Alberta, Canada is increasingly difficult, expensive and environmentally destructive to recover. So we may as well use what is left in projects like rebuilding the capacity of the land we live on to make effective use once again of the slower and steadier rhythms of the rising and setting sun as the seasons slowly roll by. Time to unload what other people call waste and feed it to the soil. Do the people who are giving us all of this good stuff for free really know its value? Shhh, don't tell them.

== George Matthews ==

1 comment:

Rob Cooley said...

Well said, George. I also like to look at fossil fuels as a luxury to be used and appreciated as needed rather than a staple guzzled without a second thought.