One of the greatest aspects of working at the CSA is the opportunity to meet so many interesting people who feel the need to support the production of locally sourced food. In my mind, one of the main incentives for being a part of a CSA is the benefits that truly “organically run” agriculture provides to the environment and to public health. I have been reading a lot about soil science lately and the numerous effects that quality soil (or not so quality) can have on not just the nutritional value of our veggies, but also on the ecology of the entire surrounding environment.
There are numerous elements and compounds that good soil must be composed of in order for a variety of micro-organisms to survive. When certain organisms such as the all-important earthworm are either over-populated, or under-populated in soil, this can severely affect the bio-diversity of soil and a plant’s immune system. Plants usually contain certain “anti-microbial substances” that are produced when they receive any sign that they are under attack by a pest. This phenomenon is called “induced resistance,” in which the plant will create hormones and proteins that help defend itself and enhance its immune system. These hormones have also shown to be stimulated when exposed to a variety of both harmful and harmless entities that are more abundant in soils high in organic matter. Thus the more natural and diversified the makeup of your compost is, the stronger your’s plants entire system will be, and the better it will taste!
In terms of what our farm crew has been witnessing in the fields, we have seen certain beneficial insects preying on the Colorado potato beetle pest in our eggplant. These insects can also be “signaled” by a crop releasing certain chemicals into the air which alert them that it’s prey is here. The corn rootworm is another common pest (which some of you may have seen already at pickup), that can be controlled when the roots of certain varieties of corn release a chemical that attracts nematodes, which can infect and kill rootworm larvae. Unfortunately, during the process of breeding certain varieties of corn over the past century in the U.S, this ability to signal the beneficial nematode has been all but lost.
Optimal soil health not only contributes to stronger, and much more nutritious vegetables, but it can be much more cost-effective in the long run when a plant’s resistance abilities act as a form of pest management. Various pesticides may eliminate the immediate threat of a pest, but they can consequently affect the health of a variety of other organisms within the soil, which can drastically change soil structure and plant health in a negative way. A reactionary “quick-fix” approach to growing food may help increase production, yet in the long-run in can actually be much more expensive due to the heavy reliance on pesticides and fertilizers.
When running an organic operation, the survival of our crops, and thus the entire CSA, truly depend on the ecological conditions to function well. If there isn’t a sufficient amount of organic matter integrated into the soil, then chances of extreme weather such as heavy rain or long droughts weakening and eroding the soil are much higher. Last year for example, we still managed to produce high amounts of produce during a drought which caused numerous farms in Massachusetts to suffer tremendously. This is truly a testament to the strength of our soil and quality, nutrient layden compost tha Wards Berry farm is producing. Moreover, one of the most striking differences between soil that has higher amounts of organic matter versus soil that doesn’t, is the amount of carbon that can be stored in it. Not often mentioned in relation to the carbon cycle, is the fact that there is as much carbon in six inches of topsoil with 1% organic matter as there is in the atmosphere above a field. If organic matter decreases by 1%, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double. In fact, carbon stored in all the worlds soils is over three times the amount in the atmosphere. The way in which we deforest our land or farm the soil, has had and will continue to have drastic impacts on climate change and the quality of the air that we breathe. While we may not always think about some of these issues when going food shopping, the impacts that our buying-decisions have are consequential and real!
Building Soils For Better Crops, 2009, 3rd edition