Soil Science, Climate Change, and Property

A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself –Franklin Delano Roosevelt

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Saturnalia is a good time time to write about soil, since Saturn was the Roman god of agriculture. In my perambulations through the biosphere, I’ve previously halted at mangroves, coral reefs, and estuaries; now it’s time to move onto dry (but not too dry!) land. I’m going to begin by asking What is soil?, and finding that the answer is less clear than you, a gardener, say, might think. From there I’m doing to move on to what I suppose could be called “The Standard Model” of soil science: Textures and horizons. However, it seems that soil science is in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval, and so I’ll give examples of the newly known, and the unknown. Finally, I’ll briefly discuss climate change, and sketch one answer to the question “Why aren’t we mobilizing to protect the soil?” I do apologize for what will be a rambling post, but as a gardener I think soil is complex and fascinating, and science seems to be catching up with my sense of wonder.

What then is soil? Let’s start with the dictionary definition from my online Oxford English Dictionary:

soil [noun(1)] soil /sɔɪl/
noun1. Also (earlier) †soyle. lme.

1. The face or surface of the earth; the ground, esp. considered as the source of vegetation or
†2. A piece or stretch of ground; a site. lme–l18.
3. A land, a country, a region; spec.
(a) one’s native land;
(b) one’s domicile. Now also, national territory.
4. The material comprising the thin top layer of much of the earth’s land surface, composed of fragmented rock particles with humus, water, and air; esp. such material as will support the growth of plants, as contrasted with subsoil. Also, a particular kind of this.

(The confusion, or unity, between terrain (1, 2, and 4) and propertarianism (3) was mirrored in my Twitter searches, where I had to skip over a large number of tweets about the “sons of the soil” in Pakistan. It’s also mirrored in the etymology of the world, where according the American Heritage Dictionary’s Appendix of Indo-European roots, soil derives from sed-, to sit, via the Latin solium, throne, seat (along with settler, sediment, eisteddfod, etc.)

Turning to the Social Science Society of America, we find what I’ve called above the Standard Model:

We walk on it, dig into it, and build with it. We depend on it to grow food and clothing, filter water, and support natural ecosystems. Soil is essential to life, but what is it?

In short, soil is a mixture of minerals, dead and living organisms (organic materials), air, and water. These four ingredients react with one another in amazing ways, making soil one of our planet’s most dynamic and important natural resources.

Soil is used by people in numerous ways. Because of this, it has many definitions. An engineer may view soils as a material upon which infrastructure is built, while a diplomat may refer to “soil” as a nation’s territory. From a soil scientist’s perspective, soil is:

The surface mineral and/or organic layer of the earth that has experienced some degree of physical, biological, and chemical weathering.

Texture, then, and layering are the key entry points to understanding soil (and I find this very congenial, both as a gardener and because this was what I was taught, many years ago, in grade school. The curriculum was also very big on the New Deal: Shelter belts of trees, following the contour of the land when plowing, and crop rotation. Somehow I don’t think today’s curricula cover those topics, but I’d love to be wrong). Here is the USDA on texture classes:

Texture class can be determined fairly well in the field by feeling the sand particles and estimating silt and clay content by flexibility and stickiness. There is no field mechanical-analysis procedure that is as accurate as the fingers of an experienced scientist, especially if standard samples are available. A person must be familiar with the composition of the local soils. This is because certain characteristics of soils can create incorrect results if the person does not take these characteristics into account.

Here is a handy diagram of the “soil triangle”:

There are twelve categories: Clay, sandy clay, silty clay, sandy clay loam, clay loam, silty clay loam, sand, loamy sand, sandy loam, loam (“We’re on loam”), silt loam, and silt. This again fits well with the “fingers of the experienced gardener” (or farmer); I can squeeze my soil and recognize it for the river bluff clay that it is, and know that I have to make it fluffier.

Now to layers, which the field calls “soil horizons” (what a lovely metaphor). Here’s one graphic from the “Soil Secret Agents” at the University of Sheffield:

The present the following classification system of the soil horizons:

Soil consists of different layers that are often called horizons. There are three main soil horizons called A, B and C as well as an organic layer (O) on top of the soil (O) and bedrock (R) below:

O: This is a layer of organic matter that is about 2 inches thick and is made up of dead plant material such as leaves and twigs.

A: This upper soil horizon is also called Topsoil. It is only between 5 to 10 inches thick and consists of organic matter and minerals. This is the soil layer where plants and organisms primarily live.

B: This layer is also called Subsoil. It is mostly made of clay, iron minerals as well as organic matter, which has been washed down to this horizon by rainwater.

C: The C horizon is the parent material from which the upper soil layers developed. It consists primarily of large rocks.

R: This is the bedrock and is located several feet under the surface. The bedrock is made up of a solid mass of rock.

Which is pretty neat. But not very site-specific. For example, I remember when I got extremely over-ambitious about when Spring in Maine really begins, and took a shovel out to the garden, and encountered, about three inches down, a rock-hard layer that I determined to be ice. How to enrich these simple categories? Well, we can combine categories. From P.R. Owens, E.M. Rutledge, in Encyclopedia of Soils in the Environment:

Soil horizons can be dominated by properties of one master horizon but have subordinate properties of another; in which case, the master horizons may be combined to denote this interpretation (i.e., AB… etc.).

And then we have suffixes. From the same source:

Designations of soil horizons are supplemented with suffixes or subscripts to convey more information about a horizon.

Here are the USDA’s (abbreviated, since there are 27):

a Highly decomposed organic material
b Buried genetic horizon…
d Physical root restriction
e Organic material of intermediate decomposition
f Frozen soil or water
ff Dry permafrost….
h Illuvial accumulation of organic matter
i Slightly decomposed organic material…
p Tillage or other disturbance…
w Development of color or structure…
y Accumulation of gypsum
z Accumulation of salts more soluble than gypsum

(So my shovel hit soil that would be categorized as Af, surface frozen.) Now, if you start looking at the categories, things start to look a little unsystematic; this is no periodic table or quark chart. Leaving aside the issue of whether “matter” and “material” are synonymous, we have plant matter (roots), mixed with the results of human intervention (tillage), and abstractions (color or structure). In fact — and very unfairly — I’m reminded to the famous classification of Borges’ (fictional) Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. The list divides all animals into fourteen categories, which again I’ll present enough of to give the flavor:

Those that belong to the emperor
Embalmed ones
Those that are trained
Suckling pigs
Stray dogs
Those that are included in this classification
Et cetera
Those that have just broken the flower vase

So why do we have to accept “The Standard Model”? I think the answer is that we don’t. Here are six reasons why our model for soil needs to go beyond textures and horizons (intuitive though they may seem to “the fingers of an experienced scientist”). In general, they confirm my priors that “we don’t know anything,” which I, for one, find hopeful.

1. Fossil Trees. From the BBC, “World’s oldest fossil trees uncovered in New York“:

The earliest fossilised trees, dating back 386 million years, have been found at an abandoned quarry in New York… Researchers say they also discovered very long, woody roots that transformed the way plants and soils gather water.

“It’s a very ancient forest from the beginnings of the time where the planet was turning green and forests were becoming a normal part of the Earth’s system,” said Dr Berry.

I’m including this simply to raise the question of whether soil was “the same” 386 million years ago (and also to point out trees are quite likely to be Jackpot-ready, having experienced several over geologic time).

2. Biochar. From the Soil Science Society of America, “Embracing complexity while communicating simply“:

I was attracted to understanding soil charcoal, or biochar, upon reading the book 1491 by Charles Mann. His story of Terra Preta is amazing—every soil scientist should read it. At the time, I was particularly depressed about the inexorable progression of erosion and chemical degradation of our soil resource. Biochar gives me hope.We understand so little about charcoal in soils, though, that I feel it will take us generations to learn how to effectively revitalize our soil resource using biochar. Working toward that end lifts my spirits, but beyond that, I am deeply intrigued intellectually. It dawned on me that my soils education—both formal and continuing education—hadn’t included anything about the role of naturally occurring charcoal in soil. This made me want to learn more. Since then, I’ve found that biochar has everything that made me fall in love with soils in the first place: Long, slow changes over time; a diversity of material characteristic; functional complexity beyond what any one individual can grasp; applicability across every continent, yet with dramatic regional differences; and ubiquity, requiring an integrated understanding of all the natural sciences. I am hooked.

I’m including this because everybody should read Mann’s 1491, especially the chapter on Amazonia, “the world’s largest garden“). Again, if we don’t know how biochar works, what do we know? Now to organisms–

3. Bacteria. From the University of Wisconsin, “Hard as a rock? Maybe not, say bacteria that help form soil“:

The problem is this, says senior author Eric Roden, a professor of geoscience at UW–Madison: “The general picture of soil shows solid bedrock a few meters below the surface, then a fractured, crumbly layer popularly called ‘subsoil.’ At the top is the rich, biologically active layer called soil. Chemical analysis links the minerals in soil to bedrock, but how does this extreme transformation take place?”

A full understanding of life requires an accounting of energy, Roden says. “What we have found is that the cells make direct contact with an otherwise insoluble mineral, and they pull electrons from the mineral. They are getting energy from eating rock and along the way supplying nutrients for plants — for life on Earth.”

So at the interface between the C and R horizons are bacteria, eating the rock!

4. Microbes. In Quanta, “Heat-Loving Microbes, Once Dormant, Thrive Over Decades-Old Fire,” a report from a microbiologist studying the underground fires of Centrala, PA:

In a 2005 study in Soil Science, Tobin and colleagues showed not only that microbes survive in the soil above actively burning areas, but that some species thrive there. The overall level of diversity was the same in hot areas (with temperatures ranging between roughly 90 F and 170 F) as in areas that the fire had yet to reach. When the researchers looked more closely, they found that although the overall bacterial diversity decreased with higher temperatures, even the hottest samples apparently still held thriving microbial communities.

5. Insects. From, “Organic crop practices affect long-term soil health“:

The study recently published in the journal Agriculture Systems also breaks down how specific components of soil health—such as the abundance and activity of soil animals and soil stability—affect crop productivity. Also, the study reinforced the understanding that soil animals, such as mites and other tiny critters living in soil, play critical roles in soil health and crop productivity.

Soil animals are known to break down crop litter while indirectly affecting microbial communities in the soil. The researchers’ new findings suggest that measurements of soil invertebrates can inform assessments of soil health.

(The Standard Model, then, would also need to give an account of contaminants and insecticides.) And I saved the best for last–

6. Nematodes. From Nature, “Global maps of soil-dwelling nematode worms“:

Soil organisms are a crucial component of terrestrial biodiversity, and aid human well-being by making contributions in areas such as food security, water purification and carbon storage. However, there is uncertainty about how the dynamics of soil biodiversity will change in the future as a result of agricultural intensification and alterations in climate and land use…. [N]o quantitative assessment of soil animals has been undertaken at the global scale. Writing in Nature, van den Hoogen et al. now fill this gap by presenting the most comprehensive data set of soil-dwelling nematode worms reported so far.

The authors estimate that 4.4 × 1020 nematodes inhabit the upper soil layer around the world, an incredibly large number that is comparable in scale to the estimated number of stars in the observable Universe.

Biodiversity for vertebrates, invertebrates and plants decreases from the Equator to the poles, and many possible mechanisms underlying this trend have been discussed. By contrast, van den Hoogen and colleagues report the opposite pattern for nematodes: the highest abundance and biomass — indicators of biodiversity — occur in boreal forests (such as conifer forests in snowy landscapes) and tundra regions (cold plains that lack tree growth)

The authors’ projections indicate that nematode metabolism emits the equivalent of 15% of the current carbon emissions from fossil fuels. This finding has important implications for our understanding of global carbon cycles and potential feedbacks that could affect climate change, given that, so far, soil animals have been neglected in carbon models.

The results presented by van den Hoogen and colleagues suggest that nematodes are abundant in parts of the world that are expected to undergo substantial climate change, such as boreal and tundra regions. The authors highlight the potential threats to these organisms and to the processes that they affect in a changing world. A warming climate might cause a decrease in nematode abundance that will have unknown feedback effects on the emissions of greenhouse gases from the soil and on other ecosystem processes, such as plant infection by pests.

Again, I don’t see how the Standard Model can give an account of any of this new soil science. For example — thinking back to Borges, and I’m just spitballing here — why must we classify soils by texture, instead of by organisms? And how can we think about “soil horizons” without thinking of the (as it were) APIs at the interfaces between the layers? (However, see this excellent blog for a skeptical view of the new soil science.) As a sidebar, there’s an enormous amount of science to be done simply to understand how soil “works”; remember that “soil animals have been neglected in carbon models,” meaning that all of the models need substantial revision. Citizen science is, I think, exactly the sort of public good that a Jobs Guarantee should massively fund.

Turning to climate change, it’s by no means clear that problems we have with soil are caused by increased CO2 or global warming. That does not mean, however, that soil does not present opportunities to solve them. From Time, “These U.N. Climate Scientists Think They Can Halt Global Warming for $300 Billion. Here’s How“:

The [$300 billion] is not to fund green technologies or finance a moonshot solution to emissions, but to use simple, age-old practices to lock millions of tons of carbon back into an overlooked and over-exploited resource: the soil.

“We have lost the biological function of soils. We have got to reverse that,” said Barron J. Orr, lead scientist for the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. “If we do it, we are turning the land into the big part of the solution for climate change.”

Rene Castro Salazar, an assistant director general at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said that of the 2 billion hectares (almost 5 billion acres) of land around the world that has been degraded by misuse, overgrazing, deforestation and other largely human factors, 900 million hectares could be restored.

Returning that land to pasture, food crops or trees would convert enough carbon into biomass to stabilize emissions of CO2, the biggest greenhouse gas, for 15-20 years, giving the world time to adopt carbon-neutral technologies.

“The idea is to put more carbon into the soil,” said Orr. “That’s not going to be a simple thing because of the natural conditions. But keeping the carbon in the soil and getting that natural vegetation, grazing land etc. thriving again — that’s the key.”.

Key to returning dry lands to vegetation is the use of fertilizer, said Mansur. “Fertilizers are essential for increasing productivity. Good fertilizer in the right quantity is very good for the soil.”

Oy, fertilizer; got to be careful of that stuff — regenerative farming would be better — but soil takes a long time to build. (On the other hand, maybe we could take the oil for the fertilizer from the Pentagon).

Accepting that restoring the soil (however that is done) would be a good idea, what would be the problem? I’d speculate that the fundamental conflation of terrain and property, alluded to at the start of the post, is the issue. From The Baffler, “Land Without Bread“:

The loosely defined proposal for a Green New Deal hits the panic button, American-style, but it does not exactly lay a cornerstone. Which is to say that it avoids prickly issues of land use—generally reserved for states and localities that regularly do battle with sacrosanct private property rights. Yet the choices we make about our land are foundational to any future we construct, low-carbon or otherwise. It has always been so. Just ask the pre-Columbian indigenous peoples, the slaveholders and their human property, the “settlers,” the railroad barons, and the policy architects of postwar suburbanization and urban disinvestment. And consider the fact that sprawling suburban development devoured nearly 31 million acres of agricultural land—cropland, woodlands, pasture, and range land—between 1992 and 2012 alone, according to a 2018 report by American Farmland Trust (AFT). That is an area almost as large as New York State. More than a third of that conversion, 11 million acres, took place on prime farmland blessed with the world’s richest soil. That is an area roughly the size of California’s Central Valley. Protecting such land, and doing so in an equitable manner, is critical not only to our future food supply but also to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

(The BECCS proposal also has this issue, since the plantations to feed biomass to the BECCS plants would need to be the size of the subcontinent of India.) So, when the the UN’s Salazar says “With political will and investment of about $300 billion, it is doable,” does “political will” include the possibility of a major revision in property rights? Is the UN assessing that? Is anybody? And with those questions, I will end my perambulation for this topic.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. drumlin woodchuckles

    This post offers fertile ground for several days at least of quality comments. One hopes it does not get prematurely buried under the ever-self-refreshing landslides of new posts . . . and new posts . . . and new posts. . . .

    A way to counter that over the days and weeks to come might be for commenters who leave a comment here to also leave a comment on whatever the very newest and freshest thread may be . . . and say ” I left a comment back at the Soil Science, Climate Change and Property thread. And here is the link:”

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Thankyou for the kind words and the support-based validation. I’ll do it. If you have something to bring in the next few days, I hope you’ll do it. That might inspire tens of others, or hundreds of others to do it.

        This thread might become a small repository of soil-gardening-agronomy related information.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          i support this as well, since things like this that are up my alley(or down my dirt road) seem to come across my screen when i am least able to contribute to them.
          manana, early

  2. Anon

    Fun read. Thanks, Lambert.

    Here’s an interesting tree inspection: take cross-section of tree branch and a cross-section of a large (observable) tree root. They are not the same in cross-section. Where does this transition take place?

    As for soils: How long would it take forest soils to recover naturally from the unnatural soil compaction (loss of oxygen) caused by logging machinery?

    1. Anon

      Okay, no responses.

      So here’s where you can find the answers, reading required:

      1. Greg

        Roots and shoots grow out in opposite directions from the seed so… the transition is where the seed was. Just below the cotyledon(s), ish.

        1. Anon


          If you read the linked PDF the initial “tap root” (and future roots)of a tree have the ability to transmit soil moisture and nutrients across its full cross-section while the trunk of a tree transmits water and nutrients mostly through the outer circumferential surface (cambium layer). The center portion of the trunk provides structural support.

          The transition occurs at the base of the tree where the trunk diameter swells. The root collar.

      2. a different chris

        >Okay, no responses.

        (Looks up from shoveling at the base of a backyard tree) Well how fast did you expect me to get you an answer? It gets dark by 5:00….


          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            I have read that the base of the tree ( the visibly widening “flare”) is also sensitive to being covered by soil dug up and put on it from somewhere else. Covering up the “flare” base of the tree starts various kinds of rot and fungal infection into motion.

  3. Susan the Other

    Property Rights come with Obligations. Property tax seems to be a catchall covering one’s obligations – but there are others, like keeping your property in good shape; don’t be a garbage dump or a fire hazard; you’ll be fined if you use too much water. It’s certainly not a stretch to add a few more obligations. Yes, you can “own” land if you do blablablah. Or a new homesteading act and the blablablah could entail a concerted effort to get lotsa people organized to enhance the soil; plant trees; grow organic. Do a big fat compost farm. Homesteaders were once rugged individuals – but the homesteader of the future could join a cooperative. Etc.

    1. JTMcPhee

      Homesteaders + steel plow = cut away the prairie soil and bring the Dust Bowl…

      On track for yet another, greed + captured “policy” = still another Dust Bowl:

      Can “we” do any better? What would be the power pathways to putting in place different and better incentives and policies, or maybe enlightened (scary word) mandates?

      Just for fun, how Mr. Market co-opts a teachable moment:

      What kind of political economy do we want, again?

    2. HotFlash

      Homesteaders were once rugged individuals

      I beg to differ. Many settlers came to the New World as part of a group that hoped to set up a community homestead. The Pilgrims, anyone? Here are a few historic ones. Other homesteaders may have been a single family, but often within easy travel of a village, which usually included a general store, a church or two (or more — my town of 36,000 had 102 places of worship in 1970), at least one shoemaker, a newspaper and often, although later, a railroad station.

  4. John Wright

    There is a small formatting problem with a number in the article, at least in my browser.

    “4.4 × 1020 nematodes inhabit the upper soil layer around the world”

    The number should be shown as 4.4 x 10^20 (as in the 20th power of ten)

  5. Eric

    Lambert–a great start for enabling others to understand soil. Collectively, we as humans, must come to understand how important soil is to everything. No soil–no plants–no life. Most enlightened soils scientists (and there many who are not) understand that it is the “life in the soil”–the microbiological community- that truly provides the fertility that makes plants healthy. There is NO soil on the planet that lacks the mineral nutrients necessary for plant growth. The bottom trophic level of the soil community, composed of bacteria and fungi, provide the enzymes necessary to extract those minerals from the rocks, the higher level predators eat the fungi and bacteria and excrete the excess, those minerals are then released in plant available forms. Every time we plow, or spray herbicides and pesticides, or apply inorganic fertilizers (which are really salts) we end up killing the soil microbiology. The end result is we have “dirt” not soil and we become fertilizer dependent. Tilling is also one of the main contributors to atmospheric CO2 since literally tons of carbon is off-gassed during every tilling event. We must reverse our current agricultural practices that treat our soil like dirt, and instead support the microbiological community that makes it soil.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      One way for individual persons to do that now is to find and support ( buy food from) those farmers who are already managing their soil and farming operation to already do that now already. Farmer Gabe Brown in North Dakota is one such farmer who is already doing that now. And the people who pay $20.00/lb for his $20.00/lb beef are supporting that right now, in the only way which matters in this no money = you die society.

      With their money.

      1. Eric

        Agreed Drumlin! There are many folks out there that do follow regenerative practices that support soil building. I saw a talk last year about a small diversified farm, called Singing Frog Farms (ca. 6 acres) in California. Their practices– no-till, inter-cropping, and quality compost addition– have led to a $100,000/acre gross income. They sell to top notch restaurants, and are also a CSA.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Eventually, they and others will figure out reliable ways to measure within roughly acceptable limits the amount of carbon in the soils under their management. When they can do that, they can then start tracking the amount of soil-carbon as it goes up, down or sideways over the years.

          If they can demonstrate it going consistently up till some higher equilibrium level is reached, they can make that a selling point for what they do and the food they thereby grow.

          ” This farm captures carbon”.

          “These cows cool the planet”.


          1. Oregoncharles

            The simplest way to measure soil carbon content is by color (more precisely, shade). How black is it? This is actually reflected in the “horizons” picture up top. Darker is better, because humus is black.

            The other way is by “tilth”: texture. This is more dependent on the soil type, of course. High humus soils are generally very soft and loose. In a book on regenerative agriculture (which I don’t have by me, sorry, but I’ve posted about it before), the author describes shoving a steel bar deep into the soil – herself. I think that was on Gabe Brown’s farm, IIRC.

            Hence the emphasis on soil feel. Darkness is easier to measure with an instrument, of course.

            1. drumlin woodchuckles

              I remember having heard about that and even having seen very simplified versions of such charts. I found a bunch of soil darkness chart images on Yahoo- AllTheWeb search engine/aggregator and here it is, for anyone who wants to find an expression of this chart which they like.

              In some of his talks Gabe Brown has spoken of soil analysis labs being able to measure his per cent of soil organic matter down to large fractions of one per cent. This would allow for even more precision ( and one hopes accuracy) in getting the percent of soil organic matter.

              There is then a rule of thumb about ” how much biocarbon” by weight each One Per Cent worth of soil organic matter contains . . . generally expressed as how much is in the top 6 inches of soil. So reliable measurements of lab-findable soil organic matter by percentage would allow one to rule-of-thumb extrapolate how much bio-sourced elemental carbon is in the soil and is entering it or leaving it over time.

          2. Mike G

            Thanks Lambert for soil post.
            A great book: “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations Second Edition”
            To add to the compendium of important Ag-Tech to know on this thread:

            Gabe Brown, and many others (see the Carbon Cowboys, and Permaculture sites, have lots of You Tube vids going into:

            The soil test mentioned by Gabe is Bioavailable Nutrients, Rick Haney, Grassland Soil and Water Research Lab, 808 E Blackland Rd. Temple TX 76502, (254) 770-6503.

            the myth of slow topsoil growth. When regenerative agriculture is done right, it prevents the factory farming Earth to Dirt to erosion down-stream and dustbowl air pathways. Instead, it is possible to grow NOT JUST an inch in a millennia, but inch in a few (3-5) years! This is a huge tonnage of carbon to sequestrate quickly…while growing chemical low/free healthy food more economically.

            The ‘well-meaning” anti-meat lobby’s association with bad ecology and bad for the planet is a corporate meme Red Herring. A combined animal/plant farm, often with large perennial proportion of plants, is the only approach suitable on rolling hills, 2/3 of all US farmland. This was historically ecologically evolved as grassland-ruminant-pasture-tree savannas. These lands are the most prolific sun energy to biomass conversion known. Without herbivores these ecosystems falter and slow.

            Much of the reported methane production of cow-fart/burps is actually sourced at buried, maintained, half-lost with criminally poor mapping of the paths of “natural” gas pipelines, that quickly begin leaking. Soil bacteria called methanotrophs (means “fueled by methane” eat enough methane to absorb all animal emissions.

            And, multiple yearly pulsing/pruning off of plant root biomass by roving high intensity-short duration grazing, sequesters far more CO2 than herbivores that process old growth on it release through breathing. That approach MIG, or more intensively, Alan Savory approach improves water penetration and mycorrhizal (good fungus) “water-nutrient” accelerator “internet” that supports diverse communities able to thrive in diverse conditions. FYI- “Mycorrhizae are symbiotic relationships that form between fungi and plants. The fungi colonize the root system of a host plant, providing increased water and nutrient absorption capabilities while the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates formed from photosynthesis”.

            The grazing rule of thumb is ruminants get to eat about 1/3, then move on, as bison herds would do. The other 2/3 is food for the soil biome or “armoring” the soil, i.e., shading the top of soil from direct exposure to the sun/rain. This balance fuels much better production and improvement of the rich black (carbon rich) good smelling tilth, “live topsoil”, which can be MANY FEET DEEP, not just inches.

            Bottom line–IF. If the biosphere respectful know-how and scaled tools to farm this way can be spread and if the SNAFU political-economics were brought in-line to support the transition to social-environmental improvement, we can, probably, cope well with Global Hotting. This is the only path forward I see to a rich life, life consistent with a future for homo “sapiens sapiens” AND WITH the rest of the biosphere.

    2. Rudolf

      +1, Eric. Big agribusiness is killing the soils with pesticides, fertilizers and tilling. Even badly degraded soils can be reclaimed, but it takes a radical shift away from “traditional “ farming methods. “Growing A Revolution” by David Montgomery, documents how it can be done with examples of how it’s being done. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in this topic.

      1. Rudolf

        See also “Carbon Cowboys” on Visio that shows how cattle ranchers (yes cattle can be raised and improve the land too) have reclaimed degraded pastures, sequestered carbon and made profits while providing top quality beef without chemicals.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Gabe Brown claims that his soil biocarbon is rising even faster AFter the introduction of livestock onto his no-till system than it was until just before the introduction of livestock.

          Alan Savory makes this claim for his method of livestock management and deployment as well. And certainly the Great Plains and Prairie had a lot of wild livestock on it in The Good Old Days.

  6. Shonde

    In Minnesota, high producing cropland not needing irrigation is currently being planted with solar gardens. Possibly what I see as a misuse of this land can with time become a positive since beneath the solar complex native flowers are being planted to stabilize the earth. So maybe carbon capture and natural soil build up will end up being fringe benefits of these solar gardens.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      If enough space is being left between the stilt-mounted solar panels that significant light can get between them and reach the ground below, then it could indeed work out that way.

      1. Tyronius

        Turned out that research is being done along these lines, to both get solar energy from panels mounted above ground, high enough to work the ground and grow crops on the ground beneath. This is an approach with enormous potential.

      2. Mike G

        Yes. A dappled light under the spaced solar panels can actually improve grass yields, especially by keeping temperatures under 85F, where growth slows/stops. This is a variation on the ‘silvo-pasture’ model.

        This can also be an opportunity to give resting herds a temporary shady rest to “chew their cud” and reduce stress, thus improve health and meat quality and taste. It just makes for an enjoyable place to be.

  7. Henry

    Great post here are a few links that might add to the conversation:

    Here is one way to grow the fertilizer/compost on the land on a large scale rather quickly with all sorts of side effects. like food production and habitat for wildlife:
    Syntropy —
    Here is another better adapted for grasslands
    along with
    Restore the Rain:

    Don’t forget the fungi

    If you get a chance might enjoy watching Fantastic Fungi (

    Biochar production should be linked with carbon neutral energy production particularly for powering agriculture and forestry:
    Or for a bit more

    Here is a more conventional solution:

    I can add more when I have more time.

    1. Henry

      Here are what I think are some good sources to listen and learn from. Many of the talks/discussions involve soil health directly or indirectly.

      Permaculture …

      Regenerative Ag …

      And here is a little optimism since I’m pessimistic that it will be the pessimists who are going to get us out of the predicament we’ve got ourselves in.

      1. Darius

        An interloping troll on this site once tried to put over the notion that hydroponics could be labeled organic if it was done with organic inputs. Then the commenter tried to dismiss the whole question since what difference did it make whether an input came from an organic or chemical source.

        I thought about this for a while and landed on the proposition that the essential element in sustainable agriculture is healthy soil, which isn’t a matter of inputs but of practice. Trying to engineer the process can damage rather than enhancing the soil. For example, conventional fertilizing practices kill the mycorrhizal fungi, which are a key factor in healthy soil. Soil is more a question of not doing than doing. A complex biological community is a defining characteristic of healthy soil.

        I believe certain practices can help though. The gas company recently dug up a flower bed at my place leaving raw dirt. After a suitable period of mourning I applied all the compost I had and grew Japanese daikon radishes to establish organic material deep into the ground. It’s only been six months, but it’s an interesting experiment.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          There is I believe a hybrid between basic daikon radish and oilseed radish which has been developed for narrower but even deeper roots. It is called tillage radish and it is supposed to be able to force its roots down into heavy clay subsoil.

          It is available from various sources now, including places like Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Seeds ( I believe), and Fedco Seeds ( I think).

          One wonders what a mixture of other deeply taprooting plants could also do in that circumstance. If I ever get organized enough to do it, I will ( maybe) prepare a little bed by
          removing the topsoil, deliberately compacting the subsoil, replacing the topsoil, and then planting various tap rooters to see which ones are merely passive taprooters of opportunity which will turn sideways or stop at the compacted layer . . . and which ones are aggressive ram punch taprooters which will bore a way down into the compacted layer. The things I think I would plant just to see would be tillage radish, fennel, burdock, teasel, and some others which I would learn about in time to use them.

          1. Oregoncharles

            Sweet clover, a major nitrogen fixer, and chicory grow deep tap roots. At our place, wild chicory was planted in the field but grows mainly in the compacted, gravelly soil around the driveway.

            Bird’s foot trefoil also is another taprooting legume, quite drought resistant. That one stays in the field, but is very persistent.

            Good bee plants, all of the above.

            1. Amfortas the hippie

              the hated “careless weed”…an amaranth…don’t know if it’s native or not…does this pretty well, but it’s a big chore to get rid of it, due to the million tiny seeds.
              when we were putting in the first garden out here…at mom’s…where the big stand of that stuff was was noticeably easier to dig down into.
              the run of the mill pasture turnips and mustards i use don’t go as deep, but they’re much easier to control.
              but virgin dirt around here seems to be anathema for all the tap rooters mentioned here(really, anything but curcurbits and beans and sunflowers). after 100 years of cotton and abuse, one needs to import great quantities of manure to get started….something i wish i had had the werewithal to do much more of.
              and i’ll hammer on my favorite nail again…all our hopes of mitigation through soil regeneration are moot unless we address the “persistent herbicide” problem.
              herbicidal manure and compost, indistinguishable from non-herbicidal manure and compost, ain’t gonna cut it.

        2. juliania

          Think of soil as the skin of the planet. Just as, for the body, the skin is the largest organ, so it is for the planet. A person cannot live without skin – the call that went out when those unfortunate tourists in New Zealand were so badly burned was for — skin. On a very small scale, that of an individual person, the ability to replenish soil comes down to enabling soil makers to do their job. Collect your vegetable offscourings, peelings, rotten bits in a small tub with holes in the bottom. sit or sink it in any place where there is earth – poor quality, rich – it does not matter.

          Worms will come. And on a sunny day your tub will be warm and safe from predators underneath. And your worms will be free to go elsewhere, call their friends in, socialize and propagate. And you will be making skin for the planet.

  8. Steve H.

    For soils, there is a gel aspect which needs inclusion. Mycorrhizal fungi create a gel which stores water, is protective against chemical intrusion, and helps keep the soil sticky so it doesn’t blow away. Pollack’s work on structured water (H3O2) ties directly with this, and also with electron gradients that potentially provide energy usable by the living.

    1. deplorado

      Wikipedia says structured water is a scam. I don’t know anything about it but I think that it says so should be considered?

      1. Greg

        Well, both plants, insects, and fungi contribute viscous substances that are important to binding soil particles together into useful conglomerates. Mucigel which plants use to lubricate root tips is a key one.
        Water storage is mostly in the smaller pores in the soil (the large ones drain quickly, the very smallest ones never drain but are also inaccessible to plants because the capillary action is too strong). Organic material (alive and dead) plays an important role in helping ensure there are a good proportion of open spaces in pores of the right size range.
        That’s important with or without whatever structured water is meant to be.

      2. Steve H.

        Structured water sold in a bottle is pretty much a scam. Pollack’s research, on the other hand, is critically important to understanding terrestrial processes, including soil. Pollack notes any health benefits can be had by eating plants, which have structured water in every cell.

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Wikipedia is just a platform. It is people who say things ON wikipedia. I imagine the concept of “structured water” is contentious in certain circles. Self-appointed quackbusters would be vigilant over any wikipage about “structured water” and would make sure that such a wikipage always represented the quackbusters’ confidence in the scamulous nature of the “structured water” concept.

        I don’t know enough to know, myself. I have merely heard about it.

      4. Mike G

        Actually, the variety of hydrogen bonds available create lots of different macro-bond possibilities that change H2O’s behavior. Consider how many forms of ice are known. At lower end of temperatures (below boiling) water is also able to form various ‘fluid’ arrangements, especially in-between macro-molecules that “buffer” the entropic micro-turbulence, that do effect physics, and bio-physics.

    2. Ignacio

      Mycorrhizal fungi also interact with bacteria that in turn help mycorrhizal growth. Bacteria help with mineral weathering, gathering phosphorous etc. Bacteria in soils typically form biofilms by secreting polymers with gel forming properties. They have important roles in the decomposition of organic materials, particularly the recycling of organic nitrogen into nitric oxides that can be metabolized by plants.

      1. rd

        Mychorrhizal fungi are incredibly important to healthy soils and biomes:

        A very large percentage of biomass in a forest is actually the underground fungi working in concert with the plant roots. disrupting this system means losing the forest or prairie. They are vital in helping plants take up water and nutrients, act as a transfer mechanism between different species of plants, and help breakdown dying plants and recycle their nutrients back into the ecosystem. Subterranean fungi are believed to be the largest individual living things on earth:

        Clonal forests are also massive biomass systems:

  9. The Historian

    So, when the the UN’s Salazar says “With political will and investment of about $300 billion, it is doable,” does “political will” include the possibility of a major revision in property rights? Is the UN assessing that? Is anybody?

    The first question to be answered is: “Is it doable?” and I would say the answer is no. The earth has an amazing ability to sequester carbon, but it does so by turning that carbon containing soil into rocks or trapping it (oil) under caprock, and that takes geologic time – at least 50,000 years. Each time you break up rocks containing carbon or till the soil, you make that carbon again available for release.

    I was fortunate enough to pay for college by doing bench tests for professors with EPA grants. Ideas that work well on paper or in test tubes rarely ever worked using real world materials, like dirt. There are just too many variables. I would say that applies here also.

    1. Mike G

      Another path is low-temp anoxyic conversion of carbon into (bio) charcoal. This is a permanent sequestration form that also acts as ion exchange sites indefinitely. Humus, the direct regenerative agriculture result, isn’t ‘forever carbon storage’, but it can store carbon in the time range of centuries.

  10. notabanktoadie

    Citizen science is, I think, exactly the sort of public good that a Jobs Guarantee should massively fund. Lambert

    Actually, a lot of scientific knowledge was produced by people of independent means AND thus independent thought.

    And we could have a LOT more citizens with independent means AND thus independent thought with a just economic system.

    And a just economic system does not include government privileges for a usury cartel and, by extension, for the rich, with wage slavery to government as “compensation” for their victims.

    Sure, let’s have generous government funding for research but let’s have a strong citizenry too.

  11. JeffK

    First, a scale issue. There are 1.16 billion acres of developed Ag land in the USA, making the 32 million acres lost to development rather small by comparison. The amount of carbon converted to CO2 from tillage and herbicide use is enormous. Reduced tillage and no-till farming practices is a huge step in the right direction. One problem is that farmers are already economically stretched and will avoid any potential loss in yield – even though there is evidence that regenerative agricultural practices add resilience to farming systems. The USDA would rather provide farmers crop insurance than reduce potential yield with regenerative practices that make the cropping system more drought tolerant and require fewer fertilizer inputs. That’s the pinch point. Maybe we should spend fewer tax dollars supporting poor farming practices that result in crop failures for which we compensate, and more tax dollars incentivizing reduced or no-till practices that regenerate soil. Provide a dollar reward for every percent carbon added to and retained in the soil.

    A simple way to think of soil is to ask what is the difference between “dirt” and “soil”. Dirt is an engineering medium or a waste product. We build roads and tarmacs and railroad beds and concrete with dirt, or we wash it away in the laundry. Soil is habitat for everything from microbes to plants and fungi which supports all terrestrial animal life. Human activity can turn soil into dirt by killing everything in it and keeping water out of it.

    1. Mike G

      Excellent comments. The price of off-the-shelf large no-till (or really mini-till strips) seed drills is a pretty high barrier.

      But the biggest barrier in Southern Oregon, likely elsewhere, is government at the city/county level corroding land-use law and effectively stealing U.S. farmers/rancher’s land using bogus corrupt legal means. These sometimes are extensions of the 2008 degradation of mortgage titles (i.e., MERS, and the failure to register deed changes at the county level to avoid local fees and make piracy possible), making private property piracy a writhing reality in the shadows of the ‘Land of the Free’.

  12. jef

    We have known everything we really need to know about soil for hundreds of years. We have known exactly what and how critically important old growth forests are for 50 to 100 years. We know just how interconnected everything on Earth is and how critical everything is to maintaining life on Earth for 1000s of years.

    We need to stop muddling up the conversation with all this talk about “new understanding”, it’s bs and implies that we “can’t know”, can’t know what is best until we have more and more “new understanding, or that maybe we can do something simple once we understand it, or that we shouldn’t do anything until we understand it all. BSBSBSBSBSBSBS!

    We know exactly what to do and what not to do so for christs sake lets just do it and stop bringing up more BS!

  13. Sub-Boreal

    This soil scientist thanks you for your public service in providing some overdue attention to a field which tends to work in obscurity much of the time.

    Perhaps there is something about the personality types attracted to this discipline – largely practical folks, who are satisfied by the delights that come from understanding small wonders of nature, and not much given to self-promotion – which tends to reinforce this. Plus, it’s just about impossible to get rich in this profession, so that’s another selection pressure which shapes the ethos and behavioural norms. Mostly for the better, in my experience.

    You have correctly picked up on the recent ascendancy of the biological side of soil science. It is certainly true that this is where lots of exciting discoveries are happening, and where we’re seeing more clearly the links between what happens under our feet and the state and functioning of the biosphere as a whole.

    But I’d like to make a plea. As we advance this science in new directions, we must ensure that these forays don’t forget the entire soil “organism” within which the horizons are analogous to organs in the anatomy of soil bodies, and embody distinctive functions as well as record the history of the environment.

    It’s easy for both scientists and laypeople to be so caught up in the excitement of new advances that we forget that these discoveries will only realize their full meaning when they are linked back to the whole entity.

    I’ve been influenced a lot by a fine 1993 essay by Rutgers biologist David Ehrenfeld, entitled “Forgetting” (which is available via Google Books in a collection entitled, “Beginning Again: People and Nature in the New Millennium”). Although much of the essay is given over to a satisfying (and still relevant, alas) trashing of administrative bloat in academia, his most useful point is the reminder that science is not necessarily cumulative. Without continual regeneration by recruitment of new practitioners, entire areas of knowledge can go extinct: “A whole continent of important human knowledge gone, like Atlantis, beneath the waves.”

    In biology, Ehrenfeld sees this submergence happening for anything which resembles the natural history of whole organisms. In soil science, perhaps less dramatically, there is definitely less emphasis now given to the basics of what we call “pedology”, which is essentially the study of whole soils.

    This isn’t just a matter of the harmless comings and goings of academic fashions; certain kinds of ignorance can eventually undermine the gains expected in the areas of most rapid advance.

    This was brought home rather vividly to me more than a dozen years ago when I was briefly visiting a research station in the boreal forest of northern Canada. A graduate student in soil microbiology took me out to look at his research plots which were nested within a long-term experiment involving manipulation of plant communities. At some point in our field trip, we started to discuss the practicalities of his sample collecting, and he showed me the manual augering tool that he was using. And he mentioned that he was using this gadget to collect samples from the same standard depth – I think it was either 5 or 10 cm – in all of the research plots.

    I don’t think that I gasped audibly, but I realized that this lad needed a quick rescue if his planned molecular and genetic analyses were going to yield anything worthwhile. I gently pointed out that in some plots – due to the vegetation composition and history – his sampling interval was going to be almost entirely in the surface layer of forest organic matter, while elsewhere, the same interval might consist of half or more mineral soil. In the soil domain, these are radically different habitats. It would be like having a medical researcher collect human tissues from a diverse population by sampling at exactly 1 m above the subjects’ feet. Depending on age and physique, this could yield bits of genitals, intestines, lungs, and perhaps even brains. Not too meaningful.

    When we looked carefully at the soil anatomy together, he picked up on my point right away, and understood how he needed to rethink his sampling plan. But it wasn’t his fault that he didn’t know about this stuff; apparently it hadn’t occurred to his supervisor and advisory committee either.

    So it won’t be a surprise when I tell you that at his university, the pedology professor had retired a dozen years earlier and hadn’t been replaced. Later, I remembered Ehrenfeld’s essay, and realized that I’d experienced my Atlantis moment!

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Fascinating comment, thank you. And I think that’s a very relevant point about pedagogy, especially in the biological sciences where it seems to me that an emphasis on molecular biology and statistical analyses are resulting in a loss of scientists who can do the old fashioned thing of observing and sampling in the wild. Its always a joy to read the writings of many early biologists and naturalists – they were above all, observers of nature.

      On the point about soil scientists, there was the famous example of policy failure after the Chernobyl explosion where a committee of the great and good for the UK government advised that the fall out was far too attenuated to present a health hazard in Britain. Within a few months of that, they were detecting radioactive sheep in the uplands. It turns out the committee was made up entirely of physicists, none of whom understood the well studied topic of the bioconcentration of cesium in acid upland soils. It simply hadn’t occurred to them to ask a soil scientist (or a sheep farmer).

    2. Steve H.

      Huh. I just re-read an Ehrenfeld comment this morning:

      > Have a practical trade, a skill, or an alternative occupation that you can resort to if conservation biology cannot support you on a full-time basis.

      As you say, about impossible to get rich…

    3. drumlin woodchuckles


      What books or other sources would you recommend to the interested layperson who wants to know something about soil and soil science beyond the simplest-level cookbook for garden soilmaking?

      Who are some of the historical Great Names in the development of soil science and what did they do or discover that remains classic, not obsolete?

      1. Sub-Boreal

        Two great reads for the soil-curious:

        Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, by Wilson Bryant Logan. Norton. 1995.

        Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery. U Cal Press. 2007

        (Side note: Use of the “d-word” is a complex and slightly touchy matter among soil folk. We are publicly appalled when we hear a layperson using it, and eye-roll at this mark of ignorance. But amongst ourselves, it’s OK to use it ironically and sparingly, perhaps in the way that some minorities might use a slur-word ironically in within-group conversation. Logan and Montgomery get passes in these instances, I guess because there is a greater good being served by their efforts at popularization.)

        Montgomery (U of Washington, Seattle) is actually a geologist, but has done excellent work in the last few years in popularizing the unsexy environmental crisis of soil erosion. He’s a terrific writer. This video of a lecture covers the main points of his book: (as does this article: )

        Regarding the history of ideas about soil, it’s important not to forget that Charles Darwin did his bit! His last book was about earthworms, after all. This article looks at his contribution, and counterpoints it to that of Dokuchaev, the Russian who is usually regarded as the father of soil science:

        If you want to get deeper into the history of ideas about soil, this is a great collection: It’s a bit expensive, and likely to be found only in academic libraries, but well worth tracking down.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          Thanks for these leads.

          I have read that some people suggest a working non-slur distinction between soil and dirt. Dirt being a pile or layer of strictly a-biotic mineral matter of sand-size and smaller pieces, with zero meaningful biological activity or microbial or macrobial presence within it.

          And after enough microbes and macrobes have entrenched themselves into it and conducted enough meaningful bio-activity within it, they have now enabled enough plant-supporting bio-functions and plant-nutrition-availabilizing functions to have earned itself the name soil.

          Petrochemical Toxicorporate Cancer Juice agribusiness has converted a lot of farmland right back down into dirt. If we are considering the dirt versus soil distinction a distinction worth honoring.

          Are we? Should we? I ask as a layman.

  14. Danny

    Picture the paint on a basketball. Make it millions of times thinner; Whatever percentage that 2″ or so is of the Earth’s radius.

    Remove most of it. Cover half of what remains with grey paint. Wash much of it off. What remains is all that prevents you from choking and starving to death.

  15. Lambert Strether Post author

    Thanks for the kind comments, everyone; I wasn’t sure whether this piece would resonate or not. I got the link to skeptical blog — perhaps anti-hype would be a better word than skeptical — wrong: the This is it. From its conclusion:

    That is my take on the big-picture, agronomic view of recent advances in soil science and how they relate to practices in the field. However, when you start looking at the details of an immensely complex environment like the soil, you are bound to find some contradictions. For instance, highly biodegradable materials do not always convert better to SOM (Kallenbach et al. 2019). Science is slow, especially ag field research which can take years or decades to get clear answers to some questions. Compared to farmers for whom every crop is a risky entrepreneurial startup, science is a risk-averse, deliberate method. So, it will take a while to either confirm these ideas or test new ones. In the meantime, there ARE proven benefits of keeping the soil covered (by living plants when possible), cover crops, perennial crops, etc. The real questions are in the details of how far these time-proven practices can take us in improving and managing our soils.

    Sounds like the Lindy Effect…

    1. Sub-Boreal

      With all this enthusiasm, some here might also enjoy a recent short paper by Duke University’s Daniel Richter (and co-authors).

      They make a strong case that soil science needs updating in 3 areas:
      (1) recognizing the human imprint on soil formation,
      (2) the much greater depth needed to measure and understand soil processes (i.e. dig deeper holes!), and
      (3) appreciate the complex intermingling and overprinting of environmental histories as recorded by soils: “Soils are therefore historical bodies, archives of accumulated and inherited features from past conditions of formation — some features persistent, others disappearing, and others completely erased.”

      It’s open-access:

    2. BillG

      This a lament for the ‘good old days’:

      Until a couple of decades ago I used to get regular top dressings of soil from my cropping neighbors properties as they tilled the soil, left it fallow and then re-tilled it prior to sowing a winter crop. As I commented to them. I was not complaining in telling them I was getting their soil blown onto my property, I was thanking them for the annual free-gift of topsoil (which would have cost thousands of dollars to acquire in any other way).

      Now, that never happens – they have, over the last couple of decades, learned the wisdom of no-till agriculture – sometimes with a pre-sowing stubble-burn to kill lurking weeds, though more often with a pre-sowing spraying of glyphosate (when will we ever learn!).

      And, of course, though my property is still richer for all the years of blown topsoil we rejoiced in, we are no longer the beneficiaries of what can only be described as the ‘dark-ages’ of land management.

      Woe are we! When/ where will we find new benefactors to ensure the richness of our soils? Perhaps one day the current croppers will be replaced by pre-enlightenment farmers and we will, once again, enjoy the bounty provided by ignorance!

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Hmmm . . . if their soil ever starts blowing off the surface of their fields again, for whatever the reason, you will be getting a fallout of glyphosate-contaminated poison-soil. Layering over onto your good clean soil.

        One wonders whether you should plant the edges of your land into porous wind-slowing deeply layered windbreaks to slow-down and stop and trap-in-place any windblown soil which might reach your soil from your neighbors’s Fields Of Glyphosate.

        1. BillG

          Sad but true – The filters are already in place but strong winds whip the soil into clouds of dust! And, of course, as neighbors point out, in a warming climate they are also ‘hazards!

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      when the peanut subsidies went away out here, my neighbor’s fields went mostly fallow for a couple of years…so no ammonia fertilizer, no careening crop dusters spraying whatever they were spraying, no tillage…and within a year, the fields he didn’t plant in high gear(a sorghum hay)or winter wheat were covered in sticker burrs and “careless weed”(an amaranth)and all manner of non-native, pretty much useless weeds.
      the contrast between the hay/wheat(still fertilised, but not really pesticided) and the fallow fields(no intervention, at all) was obvious.
      the fields of weeds thrived….laying the groundwork(!!) for future soil if allowed to continue(succession).
      the hay/wheat, oth, if he neglected, or was unable, to fertilise,irrigate, etc…it would die.
      compare with my 20 acres: i’ve been collecting native grass and wildflower seeds on the sides of highways and dirt roads for 25 years, and strowing it all willy nilly, and stringing old barbed wire in the resulting tall grass to prevent my mother from having it all mowed(!—this part in the last 12 years or so since i convinced her to get rid of the damned cows…and goats and barbadoe sheeps…land was overgrazed terribly, and consisted of the stickerburrs and amaranth, named above. said barbed wire repels the guy with the brush hog…and is only actually real on my 5 acre portion. rest is entirely mythical, but nevertheless, effective)
      so the grass and flower planting has been the primary activity in our pastures for 12 years.
      on my 5 acre portion, it’s been ongoing for about 24 years.
      the three areas…neighbor’s, mom’s front and back pastures and my 5 acres are a study in succession, and in how to build soil.
      my little pasture across the road has rich, mostly black-ish topsoil…the lovegrass is giving way to broader swaths of wildflowers and other native grasses…pecans and mesquite and oak seeds ive tossed are coming up under grass cover(hiding them from deer)…and there’s earthworms and ground beetles and the odd handfull of dirt smells like Life, itself.
      mom’s front and back looks, smells and feels(and tastes!) like my pasture did 10 or so years ago.
      neighbor’s is still pretty much frack sand, with a coating of the most undesirable and prickly weeds.
      and, with the last 4+ years of the composting toilet, the process of soil building is on overdrive…especially with those dry composting barrels that have oak leaves instead of shavings(still ramping up leaf collection and storage to last the whole year…metal trash cans with tight lids, so as to cook the leaves and kill the scorpions, etc(grabbing a handful to toss in the potty and getting stung at 3am sucks))
      as for soil biota….behold!:

      my part of the place has frogs and lizards and quail(!) and lots and lots of “Good Bugs”…mom’s part, less…neighbor’s, none

      i’ll test my hopefully regular new supplier of horseshit(a mere 30 miles away) next week…if that plays out, i’ll further ramp up the (non-toilet) composting efforts…both in the composting bins(washer/dryer hulls) and in situ in the 20,000 sq feet of raised beds…currently, lack of clean, non-herbicidal manure is my biggest problem. cleaning the chicken house every month and a half, and raking and hauling all manner of leaves, is not really enough.
      (and for the biochar/tierra prieta thing: experimenting with all that. we heat with wood, and cook outside on the pit a lot…and the resulting ashes invariably contain chunks of charcoal, that i sift out and crush and soak in water from the goose pools(or in the shit tea i make from neighbor’s cow patties, that he laughingly allows me to collect) and spread all over the test beds.
      i intend to build a charcoal retort to turn the damned bamboo into blacksmithing coal…and tierra prieta, too.
      and this winter…since my pasture is so lush,lol…as well as to get a handle on the bamboo stand…I’m finally fencing the across the road pasture(waiting for gate money) and getting a few goats and barbadoes. I can make a little money off the offspring(if we don’t eat them first), and their manure will be welcome, too…now that the place is actually ready for them(previously, mom’s management meant that we had 5 cows, 20 goats and then 30 barbadoes…on 20 acres. far too many! mom has long been a brick wall on which i uselessly bang my head)
      the break on the property taxes will be welcome, too.

      1. sd

        That’s lovely!
        I was recently reading about Bronson Alcott’s failed utopian farm at Fruitlands (father to Louisa May Alcott). He was so strict I’m about being a vegetarian, that he didn’t allow chickens or other animals on the farm. So in addition to the late plantings, he didn’t see the interconnectedness of things, it’s really no wonder it failed.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          not just the ignorance of carbon/phosphate cycles, but that Strictness…not being bendy enough when dealing with Mother Nature.
          It’s that Cartesian Duality Problem, again.
          shoehorning the all but ineffable into a formula/equation.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        One wonders if such a tiny few-acre place would support experiments in tightly controlled managed micropaddock-to-micropaddock grazing under the Savory paradigm or the Farmer Gabe Brown paradigm to see if that way of managing livestock will further speed up the restoration of high biocarbon soil. . . . . as Brown and the Savorists and etc. claim to be doing.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          unfamiliar with them. noted for later.
          last maybe 10-12 years it’s been geese and chickens, with the latter rotated through various orchard and garden pens at mom’s(her hard head applies there, as well,lol)
          geese spend winters over here(i manage the cover cropping better, so have green stuff for them to eat, as well as cleaner goose pools to facilitate mating*), summers are spent mowing mom’s.
          i want goats specifically for the bamboo, and can easily sell surplus in the barrio.
          sheep(barbado) are what i want for pasture and manure…i loathe goatmeat, due to college and a billy goat that got mixed in with the rest in the freezer.
          last i looked, 20 qualifying animals on the place on January 1st gets the ag exemption.
          so everything will depend on when i can get them to get jiggy…it’s not as instinct-bound as deer, or whatever.
          because 20 is really too many.
          (unless i somehow get mom to OK cross fencing the front and back pastures(bangs head))
          of course, texas in it’s wisdom doesn’t do ag exemptions for grapes or fruit or tomatoes or chickens, unless(i guess) it’s industrial scale.any that get sold will be in county, so the ear tags and such don’t apply.

          * goose mating habits are even more entertaining (and disturbing) than goats. clean water in winter, raucous, violent, splashing, thrashing…with the rest of them standing around flapping and honking…near drowning for the females. first time i heard them(from inside) i thought there were coyotes or something.
          i pump out those goose pools pretty regularly(moms is harder) and shovel the muck into the compost/beds.
          and when they bivouac under the big oak, the poop collects right there, and the feathers(which compost, too) blow against the little fences i put on the work tables and such that are over there, for raking and incorporation into the compost..
          geese are great for managing cover crops in big raised beds…their digestion is such that all that greenery goes right through them, so they fertilise as they eat down the cover. still working out what they like and dislike. Mustard and turnip tops aren’t very popular…but millet, buckwheat(in summer/fall) and various small grains and hairy vetch in winter gets them pretty excited.
          i do french intensive(no rows), so geese aren’t welcome in the producing beds…they’ll trample what they don’t eat….and they love lettuce and spinach and green bean leaves.

  16. David

    Beautify read. Beautiful writing. Thank you.

    Almost meditative. Powerful.

    I love the use of agronomy in general. And as a model for thinking about almost anything.

    Reflection is necessary. A time to slowdown and question our assumptions. Science evolves. It is a good model for asking why we have a certain position on some issue. An Aristotelian 360 degree perspective for truth and nuance (and how one factor affects so many perspectives). Nature and Nature’s laws. Sober and rational. There is so much to unpack and reflect upon.

    Yves’ work on the Repo ripple reminded me how many of us remain vigilant for a repeat of 2008. With this community, one feels some security because of the expertise . . ., and reflection. In the neoliberal world, 2008 remains a trigger that is continually reframed. Yves provided a comprehensive and detailed overview of the issue, and explained the larger impact, including one would look for to see if this is contagion.

    NC is rewarding. It is time well spent. The comments are intelligent. The engagement by the Lambert and Yves nurtures. Yves and Lambert, as well as all the contributors, provide references for facts when needed (thank you) and provide well-curated links to pieces of wisdom or simple reflection.

    All of that from this beautiful writing by Lambert. A reflection piece of what it feels like when digging in the garden and you inevitably hit that hard clank and think . . . what is that?

    What a gift of knowledge. Thank you.

  17. Wukchumni

    I’m curious in regards to growing food @ higher altitudes, where here in the Sierra, the soil is poor and really the only attempts to do anything have come via the various Mexican marijuana growers using copious amounts of off the shelf fertilizer in off-trail gardens far from prying eyes.

    For every 1,000 feet of altitude gain in the summer during the growing season, it’s about 3.5 degrees F cooler, the same 2 degrees C expected from the high heat to descend upon us, so you could even it out just by going higher.

  18. Quanka

    The soil article was great – the links and comments even greater. Amazing to think I will spend the better part of this cold and dark holiday thinking about the rewards to be reaped from my garden soil next summer.

  19. farmboy

    “Before I was born, generations guided me.” Being a 4th generation farmer in the desert at 3000ft, the cosmos rests at my feet and swirls through my night. 30 yrs ago made the change to notill,stopped soil erosion dead in its tracks. Organic matter %’s climbed above 2.5%, alkalinity declined, mycorrihazae bloomed,soil moisture increased, all good. Glyphosate doesn’t work anymore, broadleaf herbicides are mostly ineffective in harsh environs so light tillage with n-fixing covers every 3-5 years and in furrow chicken manure for sulfur and other nutrients. No fallow, always a crop, reintroduce cattle to terminate covers. If that sounds organic it is, so now have to find some customers for bulk grains in an area with no large organic milling capacity for white flour. Smells like opportunity

  20. Wukchumni

    Now that more arctic soil is being exposed, here was what went down in Alaska way back when…

    In 1935, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration created an experimental farming community known as the Matanuska Valley Colony as part of the New Deal resettlement plan. Situated in the Matanuska Valley, about 45 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska, the colony was settled by 203 families from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

    The Matanuska Colony produced a range of crops and livestock. The primary cash crop were potatoes. In 1947, it was noted that approximately 2,500 tons were grown, with yields of 10–17 tons per acre, with the quality being excellent. Additional successful crops yielding thoroughly ripened grain included wheat, barley, oats, and winter rye. Hay, crops of oats, alone and with peas or vetch, also did well. Silage of oats and peas were also very successful. Farmers found that a wide variety of vegetables could also be grown and produced an extraordinary quality product.

  21. Arctos

    In the early 1970’s I read Edward Hyams 1952 book, Soil and Civilization. It was described as “The first book of its kind to cover the vast panorama of human history from a strictly ecological point of view.” in a review I read. I still have the book and reread it from time to time. It seems appropriate to this discussion of soil on the macro level. It was my ecological epiphany long ago.

  22. drumlin woodchuckles

    Here is a soil-borne mineral-balances relationship chart to go with the sand-silt-clay soil-diagram chart at the top of the article. Its not the best quality version.

    Here is the bunch of images which that image came from. Perhaps people can find an image they like better.;_ylt=A2KLfSjcZwFeQjcA3QlXNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTExZzQ0YmY1BGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDVUlDMV8xBHNlYwNzYw–?p=soil+mineral+interaction+chart&fr=sfp

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      the first one is more than adequate for my purpose, which is “giving a class”, according to the boys and their buddies.
      my own application of all that is pretty automatic by now.
      like i know our whole watershed is relatively high in boron, eroded off the “mountain”– limestone, which used to be a sea floor…which means we lack iron in the form that plants can use(rather, that the plants we like(tomatoes, etc) can readily use…natives do just fine).
      so there’s a couple of buckets of very old rusty nails(like great grandpa old) and other unusable iron flotsam that sit in water,sometimes, which is added to the beds.

      chemistry was my least favorite of the sciences, sadly, but i muddle through.

  23. drumlin woodchuckles

    (Hmmm . . . are my comments getting through?)

    (yes, it looks like they are. So I must have been doing something wrong just earlier.)

  24. J4Zonian

    Reforestation and organic permaculture are crucial parts of an emergency climate mobilization or Green New Deal, the only effective solution to the climate catastrophe. But anyone who thinks they’re all that’s necessary has to do the math. They can’t even keep up with current emissions, let alone get ahead of them and stop the damage being caused by GHGs already emitted. We have to stop current emissions, too, by replacing fossil fuels with efficiency, wiser lives, and clean safe renewable energy.

    Of course, none of this can happen unless we nationalize and shut down the corporations responsible, who are preventing action with billions of dollars spent to buy governments and the media, and lie to and manipulate the public. Fossil fuel, ICEV, agrochemical, banking and other corporations will have to be replaced immediately, and their officers and other Republicans removed from power and kept out of the decision-making process. We have no time left to do these things, and to avoid the collapse of civilization and nature we have to succeed by whatever peaceful means are necessary.

  25. Kristiina Salo

    A new method of quickly composting (or actually fermenting) kitchen waste has become very popular in scandinavia The plants seem to go wild with the bokashi stuff- everything grows really well. As the fermentation loads the bacteria and micro-organisms into the fermented waste, it is improving the soil in many ways.

    1. Rod

      thanks ks
      I do learn something new everyday–bokashi– sounds like i’m doing something new for the garden this year
      and related:
      Although they came in second place, i thought their project had far greater societal ramifications than the selected winner:

      and because of their measured effect, could have some elements of this Bokashi process at play.

      this has been a great Christmas read and enlightening, insightful commentary
      happy new year to all

    2. Amfortas the hippie

      similar o a methane digester, which is what i wanted to build for the bano…but hadn’t the skillset, so settled for the composting toilet.
      it’s the lactobacilli that does the trick.
      currently, our “chicken bucket” in the kitchen is a regular 5 gallon plastic with a lid…and a rock on the lid to keep the coondog out.
      everything but meat goes in there…including moldy cheese, spoilt milk, rinds from the weird eurocheeses i like and sour cream when it turns pink.
      all this is specifically for the lactobacilli(and whatever other critters are in there)…and it does smell more like sour kraut than regular rotting veggies.
      so i might be doing a poor man’s accidental version of bokashi

      and i don’t remember where i read it, but i remember a druid(or druid like paganish monk guy) strowing a mixture of honey and raw milk on the fields to bless them…that’s where i got the idea of using the dairy products.

      1. Kristiina

        Yes, that sounds exactly like fermenting waste instead of composting it. Bokashi will soften the hard vegetable parts so the waste turns into soil really fast compared to normal compost. But keeping the fermenting process up and going takes a bit of attention. Not that different from compost- if you aim for real composting and not just a pile of rotting stuff.

        1. Amfortas the hippie

          I practice both…”real” composting AND piles of rotting stuff.

          I’m stretched pretty thin, due to lack of capital, labor(damned sports!) and cripplehood(bruxist tenacity).
          if i could ever finish the infrastructure(and obtain a small tractor with a loader), i’d be set indefinitely, even mostly on my own.
          IOW, if the rest of the infrastructure was in place, I could do the management in my preferred glidepath,”walk by and get it done”, wu wei manner. “Smarter, not Harder” is the idea.
          the good thing in this glaciality is that i have time to think about things…been honing the “Grand Plan” for the interconnected system of systems for 25 years…and implementing it as i can, bit by bit, often in spite of mom and the larger world.
          it would be cool to be done with that phase,lol.

          barring another major catastrophe(like wife’s cancer), I hope to have all the remaining necessaries finished by the time eldest runs off to college, this summer.
          mostly construction…otro birdhouse(quail, second set of banty chickens), sheepshed, woodshed(for storage and cutting out of the north wind), a shed to store the various materiel i accumulate,and the rest of my shop(welding/metal side).
          we’re getting water to the rest of my part of the place this weekend(lessens the dragging of hose), and i think i’ve almost got mom sold(bangs head on her front wall) on FINALLY getting water to the front and back pastures for drip irrigation of trees and vines.
          planting, pruning and moving small animals around i can handle by myself….as could my youngest, who shows the most affinity for this sort of life.
          if the now 3 years of biblical grasshopper plague finally ends, that will be cool, too.

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