Use it for what it’s worth.

written by Matthew Ball 

Soil is everything that matters to all of us.  Whether you are a vegetarian or a diehard carnivore, if the soil that your food grows in and on is not healthful, then there is little left to sustain you for very long.  Organic matter is soil’s  ultimate buffer to stress and rehabilitator for stable structure, chemistry, and biology.

Last winter I read Farmers of Forty Centuries by F.H. King, recommended to me a few years ago by a friend and farmer mentor, Willy Denner of Little Seed Gardens in Chatham, NY.  It follows the technical observations and cultural commentary of an American Department of Agriculture official from Wisconsin on his trip through China, Japan, Korea, and Manchuria.  He set out on a steamship with the impression that he would share his expertise and ideas about  the superior agricultural practices of the West with the backward peasants of East Asia.  Quickly he realized he couldn’t have been more wrong in his assumptions.  We are fortunate that F.H. King met what he saw and heard with a very open mind.







In 1910, these countries were already very densely populated by contemporary standards.  Yet, for thousands of years the same land was cultivated and recultivated without becoming overburndened and exhausted.  Do not get me wrong, this was not an ideal world; this was no utopia.  By today’s democratic-capitalist standards, it was the people who were perhaps overburdened and exhausted.  Despite impressive regenerative practices, the land, it’s people, and natural ecosystems were highly taxed and manipulated.  But, this was before both World Wars, before the Cold War, and before China’s own politico- cultural revolution.  Social and economic woes,  both urban and rural,  abounded, yet we were not yet misinformed and misguided by the haber-bosch process and the ensuing destruction and naive optimism of progress that it produced.  The vast majority of the Asian population was not blinded and, dare I say, jaded by what we might call “modern” or “post-modern” attitudes.    So, F.H. King was met by a rural population of earnest and hardworking, a meaning of hardworking that you and I may never be able to grasp, people who knew the importance of soil. They worked small landholdings, on average about one to two acres, to provide for the sustenance of their large families and to have a bit more to bring to market.  Every last bit of nitrogen, in the form of organic matter,  was collected, applied, and recycled.  This thriftiness coupled with time-proven cultural practices made the land productive century in and century out.  These people and their land, exemplary of many traditional modes of living throughout the world and time, embodied sustainability.

When you flush the toilet, multiple times a day, where does all that nitrogen-rich organic matter go?  Right, it goes into a holding tank in your backyard or at a treatment plant waiting  to be slowly leached indiscriminately into the soil, rivers, and ocean.  There is no question that non-managed organisms take advantage of all your “waste”  for better or for, more likely, worse, but  think of the potential we could redirect our own waste toward.  All you need for an effective compost toilet is a bucket, a large amount of carbon to mix the contents of that bucket with, and a site to pile and frequently turn all the material together.  Animal waste and other nitrogen and mineral rich biomass is better managed than our own in isolated contexts, but there is much work to be done to better capture it, distribute it,  and keep it from being a toxic pollution problem.

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