Identifying healthy soil
To understand exactly what’s in their soil, farmers typically rely on soil testing, but Kittredge says you can get a pretty good idea by simply looking at and touching your soil.
“It should have the structure of chocolate cake,” he explains. “It should be fluffy with some structure. You can break it apart into little pieces, but it still holds itself together. It should be not dirt. It should be not dry. It also should not be waterlogged.”
“But it’s not the soil itself that you need to observe, it’s the whole thing,” he continues. “The soil is never separate from the ecosystem. So, what you want to see when you walk into the field is flourishing vitality. If you see bare earth, then it’s more like dirt than soil.”
Another way to tell, according to Wilson Chang, the farm manager for Orchard Hill Organics in Katonah, is the flavor of the produce. If the plant is growing in healthy soil where everything is working as it should, then it can devote it’s time and energy to non-survival activities, such as its flavor.
A third tell-tale sign: who is feasting on the plants (besides humans)?
“Insects are pests who are looking for weak plants,” says Chang. “What is a weak plant? It’s a plant that’s barely surviving, which means it’s photosynthesizing and producing a lot of simple sugars. To an insect, that’s fantastic. So, pests attack the weak plants because they’re loaded with sugars and not a lot of nutrition. But mammals, like rabbits or deer, are a lot like us. They want healthy plants with the complex flavors and nuances. The complex proteins and complex carbohydrates that are produced by healthy plants are actually a deterrent for the insect, but they add flavor and nutrition for us.”
Today, farmers with an eye towards the future are already testing their soil to determine what supplements are needed for optimum health. Some, like Chang, do it annually, while others do it less often.
Regardless of how often, testing soil requires collecting soil samples from various plots and sending them to a lab. Chang says he tests his soil around the same date, with the same weather conditions every year to get a “as similar of a snapshot as possible to best compare them, even though it’s never really comparing apples to apples.”
The results often confirm what they already know and provide specific details that guide them towards building healthier soil.
Creating healthy soil
“Everyone is focusing on soil because we know how sick our soils are,” says Lekometros. “And we know that it’s not that difficult to feed our soil and make it healthy, but it does take work.”
There are various ways to bring soil to its optimum health and maintain a proper balance, and farmers say the best ways are natural – no harmful pesticides or insecticides are needed. Kittridge relies heavily on earthworms to maintain a proper balance, while other farmers amend their soil with micronutrients and/or practice crop rotation.
Chang says he does a combination of both, and he carefully plans each step so he can determine what does and doesn’t work for his particular soil composition.
“I use things that are slow-acting, and some of them are mineral-based elemental forms of nutrients,” Chang explains. “They’re micronutrients as opposed to the macros, and when it’s in an elemental form, it takes a while to integrate into the soil biome. I’m always wary of doing too much at once. If you pull a single thread of nature, you never know exactly what the cascade will be. So typically, I do small, incremental changes over long periods of time, based on my knowledge and intuition, and then I watch how things react.”
Other farms, such as Hilltop Hanover prefer rotational cropping (growing different types of crops in a spot each year) and/or cover cropping (planting certain crops that you cannot sell but improve the health of the soil) and rarely test.
“We’re returning to intensive rotational cropping and intensive cover cropping on this farm,” says Lekometros. “We have nine acres, and about eight of them are in production from year to year. But half to one-third of those eight acres are filled with cover crops. After we’ve produced on them for about a year, we let them go fallow for a year because a lot of the diseases that affect these plants are really hard to get rid of – they’re harbored in the soil. So, if you keep coming back to the field with the same plants, they will host those diseases, spread them elsewhere and all your fields will become infected.”
“We also rotate our crops because different plants have different nutrient needs,” she continues. “For example, tomatoes are very heavy feeders. If we kept planting tomatoes on the same field, by the third or fourth or fifth year, if we don’t heavily amend the soil, we would see the results. Instead, after we’ve grown the tomatoes, we’ll plant two rounds of cover crops to replenish the soil’s nutrients.”