The Source

Do you ever think about where your food comes from?  I don’t mean the supermarket versus the local farmers market…I mean where it REALLY comes from.  For instance, did it grow on a tree in an orchard or root itself deep in the soil?  I imagine most my age and older could easily tell you where most basic fruit and vegetables come from.  Can we say the same about the generation entering third grade?  Do they know that corn comes on a cob tightly packed in neat rows?  How about that it is cushioned by fine silk like hairs and wrapped in blade shaped leaves?  Do they know that this unit is called an ear?

I often wonder how many people have been to a farm and seen how much work goes into each plant to get a piece of fruit.  As a farmer you hope that your hard work brings large yields.  There are many factors that contribute to yield.  It begins with picking the piece of land and thinking about what you may want to plant there.  Water availability, access to the sun, and whether it is a forest or grassland are all great things to consider.  However, the soil is really the most important, both in quality and quantity.  The soil has to be loose enough for roots to penetrate, while holding in appropriate amounts of moisture without eroding away.

A visit to Sweet Earth Farm on San Juan Island got us down and dirty working directly with the soil.  We talked about what it means to be organic and the different variations it encompasses.  Large scale industrial farming uses  herbicides and pesticides while organic farms do not.  You are probably thinking aren’t you looking for whales?  You don’t need to be a researcher to know they don’t sprout out of the ground.  (Although that would make our job a lot easier!)  So, how does a farm fit in?  Well as a great philosopher of my childhood once said, we are all connected in the circle of life.     Lion King – Circle of Life

It is true in this case too.  Those chemicals used on farms may be directly sprayed onto the crops.  Some may go into the air, but eventually it all settles into the soil when the plants decompose.  The soil acts as a natural filter, but many times those compounds sneak through.  This happens when the soil depth is not great enough to allow for proper filtration.  After passing through the soil, these herbicides and pesticides go into the ground water.  This water and its contaminants may feed a stream or lake that is a water source for the local town, but can also go from those rivers into the ocean.  In areas where farming happens along the coast, water can run directly off the soil into the surrounding ocean environment.  Now these chemicals are coming into contact with our beloved whales and their food.  (For more on what is invading their environment click here.)

~ photo by Carlos Sanchez

Sweet Earth’s land is still fairly wet at this point in the year, so most of the planting still needs to be done.  The orchard however is there year round through all the elements of the seasons.  It was our job to cut back grass and weeds around the base of the tree.  We were attempting to clear out the soil around the tree roots to give them space to grow.  Most of the weeds require complete removal of the roots, so we did our best.  Moving the dirt around you could see all the content creepy crawlies.  They too live off the soil.  Actually, they make the soil by aiding in the break down of the organic (plant) matter that falls into their surroundings.  All of these small parts make the soil rich and fertile.  The quantity issue is a little harder to address on the island because most top soil is less than a foot deep.  Over the years, much has likely drifted off the banks and down to the ocean floor.  Without trying to dig that up, a way to increase soil depth is to add more organic matter.  Sweet Earth adds a mixture of compost and manure to increase both quantity and quality.

Looking back, one of my first dinner conversations with Mandy was the lack of a compost bin in the Dining Hall at the Friday Harbor Labs.  Often after a meal, food scraps were left on our plates.  Regardless of why they were left, they all ended up in a trash can next to the rack for dishes and trays.  Compostable cups available for drinks through out the day are also put into the trash.  Those can cost about 10 cents more than similar cups (see compostable cups versus regular cups).  Think back to when you were a kid, your parents may have said you needed to finish all of your food because there were starving children in some other part of the world.  It is not realistic to ship the food to them, but it doesn’t have to go into the trash.  Try composting!  Afterall…It is a great way to turn those left overs into something useful.  Plus, you can see if those Sun Chip bags really do compost or how long it takes until a compostable cup becomes unrecognizable.  Even if you don’t garden, you can find a local gardener or farmer who would appreciate your compost pile.  Sweet Earth said they could definitely use more compost, so if you are local you could donate there.  If not, ask around.  You will likely find a place in need.  Some cities even have large scale compostable options (   Here are a few sites to get you started.

Once you get your first batch of usable rich soil, you may want to start gardening just so you can use it.

Happy composting and growing,


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