A Spoonful of Soil

No-till farming will create the soil that will save us.

A Spoonful of Soil

The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson. Rodale Books. 256 pages.

ONE BRIGHT MORNING last July, on a small farm not far from the celebrated coast of Downeast Maine, I was bent over a whiny, whirring cement mixer the size of a small bear. The farmer, Amanda, instructed me to reach into the mixer and help the machine break up clumps of the dark, rich compost that we were feeding into it. The blade gnashed menacingly. I stuck my arm in and grabbed at a handful of the precious organic matter. It crumbled gently between my fingers.

We were making soil. After the compost, we added peat, sand, and minerals measured in careful quantities from old tin cans. When the mix was ready, we poured it into a kiddie pool and sprayed it generously with a mist of water. The resulting mass was heavy but fluffy, dark but not black, pleasingly fragrant. We used it to plant lettuce seeds in trays, which got a few weeks to become seedlings in the hoop house before we transplanted them into the garden soil. A lot of area farms were having soil troubles due to the season’s unusually wet weather, but not to worry, Amanda said: “Our soil is extremely well drained.” She takes a lot of pride in the quality of her farm’s soil.

With good reason: soil is the foundation of her livelihood, and she has worked hard to improve her land’s sandy loam. Unlike potting soil, which takes just an hour to make if the compost is good and decayed, garden soil can take years, even decades, to grow fertile as its microorganisms transform organic matter into available nutrients. And according to Kristin Ohlson, author of The Soil Will Save Us, the same biological process that produces fertile soil could also be a solution to climate change and a host of other environmental woes. Happily enough, techniques that are good for the farmer — they produce bountiful crops economically, in other words — also turn out to be good for the planet.

Ohlson focuses most of her attention on a technique called “no-till” farming. Farmers who deploy it go against the tradition of countless generations and do not plow their fields under after harvest. Like traditional farmers, but unlike industrial farmers, they plant cover crops to replenish the soil’s nutrients and microorganisms rather than let the fields stand bare half the year. These methods, Ohlson says, cause soil to start sequestering carbon dioxide rather than emitting it, at once improving the health of plants, which need carbon to grow, and removing CO2 from the atmosphere, where it is contributing to climate change.

The Soil Will Save Us is an important book and a pleasure to read. Ohlson, who has traveled the world to meet with innovative farmers, soil scientists, and environmental activists, writes her adventures while foregrounding her own vibrant personality. This tactic improves the book’s readability but sometimes hurts its credibility. Ohlson shows her own ideological cards a tad too frequently to provide any semblance of journalistic objectivity: she is an avid gardener, agrarian sympathizer, and general hippie. She decries the environmental atrocities of industrial agriculture — and rightly so — but never talks to any responsible farmers who do not use the no-till method. My friend Amanda, for example, is an incredibly eco-conscious farmer who does till her soil. Reading this book did not give me a sense of how much buzz the no-till movement already has in farming communities, or how likely it is to expand, or whether there are any responsible counterarguments. Ohlson’s prose is almost uniformly breathless and buoyant: she is clearly convinced that the soil really can and will save us, and she wants her readers to believe it too. The book swaps evenhandedness for enthusiasm, in other words; and although Ohlson’s wholehearted endorsement of carbon capture through agriculture breeds skepticism, her optimism is an invigorating change from the doom-and-gloom climate change conversation we are accustomed to. Every day, we hear that the oceans are rising and coasts are flooding; droughts are spreading and deserts are growing; humans are suffering and species are dying out. In recent months especially, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its latest set of reports, the news media has been presenting climate change as a disaster already happening.

A lot of climate scientists, activists, and writers think that we need to go even further in spreading the bad news and, more specifically, in spreading the true badness of the news. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for example, recently put together a public information campaign called What We Know, designed to teach Americans about the urgency and certainty of climate change. The program is an important step, but, as many people have already pointed out, it does not do enough. Public scientist Phil Plait and environmental writer Brentin Mock think the campaign is too mild: it lays out the risks associated with the issues, but its language is scientific and evenhanded rather than emotional and attention-grabbing. The writers want people to smell the scientists’ fear.

A few weeks ago, I would have agreed with them wholeheartedly. Now, after reading The Soil Will Save Us, I’m not so sure. Scientists do have to scare people; they do have to enumerate the alarming risks of climate change. But they also have to present specific, detailed solutions to the climate problem to prevent us from slipping into apathetic despair.

Teaching a class on climate change writing at the University of Virginia, I met recently with a disengaged student who was falling behind. Did he care about the issues at stake? I asked. Was he concerned about the dangers of climate change? He said he was interested, and he was concerned, but the problem seemed so huge and hopeless. He could not bring himself to commit time and energy to an issue that seemed ultimately unsolvable.

Climate writers are actually doing a decent job at terrifying the public and convincing them that life as we know it will change dramatically. But a lot of people in this country are like my student: paralyzed by the problem’s magnitude and complexity. And we are not doing a good job of convincing people and especially governments to take action. Maybe the missing link is a healthy dose of optimism, a reminder that plenty of solutions to the problem exist and that it is possible to deploy them.

As far as solutions go, Ohlson’s is idiosyncratic. A lot of environmentalists are wary of the agricultural carbon capture method simply because it doesn’t fit neatly into climate mitigation efforts. In other words, it is not directly related to cutting back on fossil fuel emissions and eventually eliminating them. Nor does carbon farming fit into the adaptation mentality, which calls for preparing humans for the upheavals that a changing climate will inevitably bring: building seawalls, relocating vulnerable communities, and rethinking resource management. Instead, no-till farming sucks carbon dioxide that is already in the air out of it, and stores that carbon in the ground indefinitely if the land is managed properly. Responsible farming is a way to reverse some of the damage that we have already done, but certainly not a mandate for us to keep spewing coal and oil fumes into the air.

Ohlson’s no-till solution also happens to dovetail quite elegantly with current trends in upper-middle-class professional and social culture — a fact that makes The Soil Will Save Us at once suspicious (is this solution real, or wishful bourgeois thinking?) and potentially practical (people with money and influence are likely to support these methods, bolstering their chances for success). No-till farming relies on the underground activities of soil microorganisms that eat carbon and lock it in the earth. After suffering decades of research neglect and the downright disgust of humans, those busy bacteria and fungi are now enjoying a new vogue. Doctors and scientists are learning that well-calibrated human microbiomes might be able to alleviate conditions as wide-ranging as obesity, ear infections, and allergies. The time seems right for us to start appreciating the organisms in our soil along with those that live on our hands and in our guts.

Even more popular than bacteria among the educated urban set, oddly, is farming. Witness the explosion of farmers’ markets in this country, the last decade’s profusion of “farm-to-table” restaurants, the veneration of all things local. Witness people like me, a PhD student, spending summers working on farms — which I did because I wanted to, not because I needed to. In 2013, the magazine Modern Farmer was born to sate the appetites of those hungry not just for local organic beets but also for attractive images of the farms and farmers that produced them. The trend is real, and growing, and the climate community ought to take advantage of it. Of all the responses I saw to the AAAS’s “What We Know,” 100 percent came from people who are already involved in climate communication and were probably already familiar with all, or nearly all, of the facts and ideas mentioned in the campaign. It’s sadly ironic, given that the project is intended to convey ideas to a wider public. Books like The Soil Will Save Us invite in a broader audience of people by coupling the environmental issue — climate change — with a topic that already appeals to them — responsible farming. A spoonful of sugar, or soil, as it were.

Crucially, Ohlson also challenges the assumptions of the nouveau-farming crew in necessary ways. Contemporary farming enthusiasts tend to idealize the agricultural past and to advocate a complete return to methods used in earlier times. In the food(ie) world, the expression “don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t eat” has become a commonplace; in a recent column, Mark Bittman reiterated it when he advised readers to “avoid anything that didn’t exist 100 years ago.”

This message has crossed over from food consumption to food production, and it is important to a degree: the methods of modern industrial agriculture, which harm ecosystems, people, and animals, do need to be stopped. But with a world population heading toward nine billion and atmospheric carbon dioxide at over 400 parts per million, resuscitating old-timey agriculture isn’t going to solve our new problems. In The Soil Will Save Us, Ohlson acknowledges that farmers of the past made mistakes, too. Big mistakes, in fact, and for a very long time. Soil is much, much lower in carbon in areas that have been cultivated for thousands of years than in recently farmed and uncultivated areas; our agrarian ancestors made things worse. Farming is a science, Ohlson suggests, and smart, environmentally conscious scientific advancements can make us better at it in the future than we have been in the past. The past helps us only to a point.

To that end, the farming and wannabe-farming communities need to find a new way of looking — literally looking — at agriculture. The first issue of Modern Farmer has a short article on the famous landscape photographer Alex MacLean, who has been shooting images of farms for decades. Of the present day, MacLean says, “A little of the romance of the family farm is gone.” When asked why he doesn’t like industrial farms, he says, “They don’t make for as good pictures.”

The sentiment might seem heartwarming to farm-lovers: there is something inherently beautiful, something right in a commonsense way, about the pleasing look of old family farms. But such nostalgia is dangerous. It mandates that our practical behaviors should follow our aesthetic tastes. Really, it should be the other way around.

When Ohlson visits North Dakota to see the farm of the famous Gabe Brown, one of the most important no-till innovators in the country, she sees crazy, unkempt-looking clumps of vegetation, instead of neat rows of corn and wheat, separated by aisles of bare soil. Brown’s farm is an agricultural eyesore that happens to be extremely productive. The scene dismays Ohlson at first, but rather than dismiss Brown’s farm as unpicturesque, she writes: “This was one of those moments when I realized I had to retrain my sense of beauty when it came to farming.”

Ohlson recognizes that she needs to adapt her preferences to the needs of the warming world — not stick to tradition for its own sake. For all her boundless no-till enthusiasm and hippie partisanship, she lands on an admirably humble attitude toward the world’s complexities. To stop the climate from changing, she realizes, we need to change ourselves first.


Stephanie Bernhard is currently writing a dissertation at University of Virginia on modern agrarian literature.

LARB Contributor

Stephanie Bernhard writes about environment and literature for public and academic audiences. Her essays appear in Slate and Orion, among other publications, and her academic work is forthcoming in Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities. Her first piece of fiction is also forthcoming in The Literary Review. She is the New Media and Public Humanities Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute of the University of Toronto and an assistant professor of English at Salisbury University.


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