It's been a busy couple of weeks in the garden. Changes of season are like that. (I have also been doing some serious work on my house and so the blog has been ignored, more or less, for a couple of weeks.)
I have planted carrots, winter lettuces (cos), peas, kale, and an assortment of brassicas. The garlic has been buried, though it hasn't emerged yet and I have a whole new patch of garden that is half way prepared for the broad beans. The fact that I am growing such a lot of potatoes (the easiest carbohydrate to produce) has meant that I need to expand the winter gardens. I call these my "winter gardens" because in summer, when water is scarce, I reduce the area that is in production.
As I have written previously, during the summer I have whole garden beds that are watered and covered with a very thick layer of mulch to protect the soil micro-organisms, flora and fauna and especially the fungi. This fits with my idea of farming the soil and maintaining the soil environment so that the plants are able to take care of themselves. The plants know how to grow well once they have the right environment. This is not a new idea. I have found a lot of old books (usually while browsing in second hand bookshops) that have the same ideas. I wonder whether care for the soil became "old-fashioned" or "out of date" when the green revolution of the last century occurred.
In recent weeks, farmers in my area have been "burning off" or spraying glyphosate ready to plant their crops. This was brought home to me as I drove home one afternoon a few days ago. We had had about two inches of rain. It was wonderful and my garden was/is thriving. (Some actual rain, rather than the water that I add artificially is so much more effective!) It has also produced an amazing crop of weeds. I have spent a couple of hours every day pulling weeds out by the roots.
The farmers, with their broad acres, need to combat these "invaders" as well…. and so they do, with fire or chemicals. As I drove home on that sunny afternoon, the smell of the chemical cocktail was sickening. I don't know whether the smell is from the actual glyphosate or a carrier chemical in the mix, but it reminds me of the smell of burning rubber or contaminated machine oil… quite distinctive.
My first thought was that I'm glad I don't eat anything from those paddocks. (We do have a couple of "organic producers" of grain in the area.)
After that, I remember imagining what the soil must be like. There can't be any worms, micro-organisms or fungi there. The soil is more like a hydroponic substrate to which is added the seeds, fertiliser and a few micro-nutrients ready for the production of "food" for us.
There are numerous examples of foods that no longer contain the micro-nutrients that they did in the past and there is speculation that this is related to the "tastelessness" of modern varieties of old favourites in our food supply chain. There have been articles written about the change in the chemical composition of food, notably one by Anne-Marie Meyer (British Food Journal, 1997) in which she showed that there were significant reductions in the presence of calcium, magnesium, copper and sodium in vegetables; and in magnesium, iron, copper nad potassium in fruits. The only mineral (that she measured) that showed no significant reduction over 50 years was phosphorus. (Phosphorus is so important that it is mined from deposits of ancient bird droppings and added to fertiliser, making it "superphosphate" of course. Supplies are limited and will be scarce in future as we have already passed "peak phosphorus".)
Another interesting statistic that I have found concerns the levels of nutrients in potatoes in Canada. Over 50 years, Canadian potatoes have "lost" 100% of their vitamin A, 57% of vitamin C, 28% of calcium and 50% of riboflavin, along with other measurable losses as well. I suspect that Australian vegetables, fruits and grains have suffered similar losses over the past 50 years or so as well.
There are many micro-nutrients that we need and that have been available in "natural" foods in the past. The artificial production of foods (using chemicals and nutrients applied prior to and during the growing season) have been manipulated to get the greatest volume/weight of food for the minimum input in order to maximise profit, for food production is now an industry rather than a way of life or just "what everyone does" as a matter of course. It is probably also the case that, in adding micro-nutrients to superphosphate, some were overlooked or even unknown. If plants grew well enough to make a profit, then the lack of some element or mineral would not be important…. even if it was to compromise the health of the consumers in the long run.
I have wondered whether the "obesity epidemic" is somehow related to this lack of nutrients. There is plenty of evidence that people will have food cravings when deprived of particular nutrients. If the available food really does lack some essential items, then would the cravings cause inappropriate ingestion of "foods" in an attempt to remedy this lack of minerals or nutrients? Would this cause people to continue eating when it is obvious that hunger or lack of calories is not the issue? Pure speculation on my part, but I can't help wondering.
Back to my own garden…. as I pull up hundreds of weeds by the roots, I unearth tiny worms of the new generation with every root extracted. Worms have always been an indicator of "good" soil. Darwin wrote a whole book, published in 1881, about earth worms, and the amount of soil that they produce. Darwin dissected worms, weighed castings and calculated how much topsoil they were able to produce and calculated that worms in England and Scotland were able to produce half a billion tons of topsoil every year. I am not sure just how accurate his calculations were, but worms are significant, nevertheless. Worms are fragile. They don't survive dessication, exposure to ultraviolet light or water-logging. The soil environment needs to be maintained in a good enough condition for them to live there. I am not sure, but in my own mind, I imagine that they are the "canaries in the mine" that indicate the health of the other micro-organisms and the soil itself, micro-nutrients and all. For me, they are the only organism of that sort that I can actually see. My hope is that if they are healthy, then so are the other microscopic organisms. (Is this why common wisdom, as stated by my grandmother, is that if there are earthworms in the soil, then the the soil is said to be healthy?… perhaps they are just an indicator species for their environment.)
The other really significant parts of healthy soil are the fungi. I have written about Paul Stamets, his talk in 2008, and the importance of the mycelia that grow in the mulch and in the healthy soil. These too need a healthy environment. Fungi may be able to survive the unlivable conditions in the summer as spores, ready to grow again when the rain comes, but the fire and chemical assault in the broad acres is surely detrimental. I know that keeping a reservoir of living soil, damp and underneath a blanket of mulch during the dry months improves the condition of the soil in the long term. I have tried it and it works.
And so, back to the awful smell of the paddocks that have been sprayed with glyphosate and the barren patches of burned stubble, neither of which my trusty worms would survive, I'm sure. As I "farm the soil" in my small garden, I find that my attitude to both the garden and the food that it produces changes. Most of my meals come predominantly from my garden now. I do buy some items from the farmer's market, mostly those fruits or special items that I love, though could "do without" if need be. There is a real thrill when eats food produced in the garden and a feeling of pride and joy when one has the first meal that doens't include any "imported" produce. Once this is underway and happening, there is a new and particular identification with the garden that is hard to explain. (I should add that this is "new" to me, as an wscapee from the supermarket chains, but probably "normal" for my ancestors who produced all that they needed. For me, however, the garden is no longer an "arm's length" enterprise, but it feels as though we are "all in this together", the worms, the chickens, the vegetables and I. There is a feeling of being a part of the land because ones livelihood (in the real sense of the word) comes from there.
Derrick Jensen has said that people will defend to the death their means of survival, their source of food, water and livelihood. (I am not thinking of dying for my garden, by the way,) Indigenous people all over the world have done just that. Sadly, invaders did not understand and the land was ruined for survival. This civilisation that has built unsustainable cities that depend upon factory farming, broad acre raiding of the soil and the "green" revolution, is running out of the resources needed to maintain it. The "unlimited" supply of energy needed for survival has proven to be more limited than anyone imagined. People who inhabit this modern civilisation sees their means of survival as the supermaket supply chain and the water tap in the kitchen and apparently, the population is ready to defend this means of survival to the death. Sadly, those same invaders who didn't understand the indigenous people and their need to defend their means of survival have forgotten that they, too, are limited to this planet and its fragile environment. The "gloom and doom" climate scientists are now threatening civilisation's means of survival. These scientists are ignored, vilified and even sacked from their workplaces and it seems that "civilisation" is ready to defend to the death the supermarket food chain, the tap in the kitchen and the cocoons that they have manufactured in order to isolate themselves from that indigenous environment and its creatures. People nowadays need to clean themselves of "dirt" and avoid any contact with all but the most civilised parts of nature. There is even some concern about a new condition that is called Nature Deficit Disorder that is beginning to concern some people.
I do wonder where we are heading…. and all of this because I was weeding the garden!