Eating Dirt

by Ana Grarian

My father used to say “You eat a pound of dirt a day”. This proverb was usually in response to something falling on the floor and was an “ok” to brush it off and eat it. Today we use the “5 second rule”. Turns out my father was more correct than I imagined, though perhaps, he knew the origins of the phrase.

For every unit of food we consume, using the conventional agricultural methods employed in the U.S., six times that amount of topsoil is lost. Since, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the average person eats a ton of food each year, that works out to 12,000 pounds (5,443 kilograms) of topsoil.

20th century or what is now called “conventional” agriculture is very wasteful of soil, as well as water and nutrients. I remember being puzzled at seeing the seedbed of farm fields laying so much lower than the edges of the field. This didn’t make sense to me. As a gardener I felt the productive land should be higher. After all manure was added to the soil. Crop residues were plowed in. In a well tended home garden the soil becomes deeper and better as composted material is mulched around plants and then turned into the soil.

I thought it must be a trick of the eye. Certainly there could be compression as larger tractors and bigger equipment was used to accomplish normal tasks in less time. What I didn’t realize was how much normal farm practice had changed during my lifetime.

Before the World Wars brought us the petrochemical era, cultivation and use of the land for growing crops was more beneficial, both to the consumer and to the soil. As we have depleted our soils, our produce has also become depleted of vitamins and minerals.

When livestock were bedded with straw and ate a diet richer in dry matter, the manure returned and plowed into the soil, returned nutrients as well as substance to the fields. Before the mono-cultures of corn and soybeans became entrenched, rotation of crops meant that most fields had a crop growing the whole year. This protected the soil from run off. Though we didn’t know it at the time it also helped with Carbon sequestration and hindered global warming by reflecting rather than absorbing heat from the sun. Before we separated livestock and crops onto separate farms and increasingly into separate areas of the country, nutrients were returned to the soils from whence they came. Crop rotation allowed one type of plant to return nutrients to the soil that had been depleted by a different crop.

And as the population is more and more removed from their food sources, their waste stock is not returned to the soil either. Nearly one-fourth of municipal waste is thought to be from food scraps and lawn waste. Another source of nutrient depletion that instead of being returned to the field is going to waste in landfills and we are substituting harmful petrochemicals.

Have you had the opportunity to watch a compost pile? Or perhaps to repeatedly walk a forest trail and watch a tree decompose? In my yard we had a huge old tree stump. It must have been three foot in diameter. Around the base of it I had a garden. The soil there was so wonderful as the tree stump shed bits and peices of itself and they were chewed up and excreted by a plethora of bugs and worms. The soil would flow through your hands and smelled so wonderful. Not to mention the stump provided many afternoons of interesting exploration with my grandchildren.

Our lives and practices should reflect that natural cycle. What we take with one hand we should return with the other. The problem with measuring value with money, is that it limits us and others from continuing to prosper. Perhaps we should put all those greenbacks into the compost piles instead of Goldman Sachs. A soil bank is actually a much better investment.