Monday, April 19, 2010

Of Dirt and Worms and Birds

Last Friday, Raising Micah came out to visit the farm. They are a local group of families who want to raise their children in community to "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God." Every month, they have a reading to reflect upon, and also take learning or service trips together. This month's reading is called "Of Dirt and Worms" (I highly recommend it!), and so they came out to our farm to learn about the importance of good soil. We had a lot of fun digging for carrots, looking at mycorrhizae, feeling, smelling and - for one earth-loving youngster - rolling in the soil, warming our hands over compost, and talking about all the living things in and around dirt. Before leaving the field, I led the group tip-toeing down the furrow beside our artichoke row to see a discovery that made my day last week:
A sparrow's nest! The kids immediately made the connection between the presence of the birds and healthy soil. When I asked them what the nest is a sign of, they yelled, "Worms!" and "Bugs!"

We talked a little bit about some of the basic differences between organic and conventional agriculture. Because we don't spray chemical pesticides, there are more insects and living things in and around our soil, both beneficial (like ladybugs and microorganisms that break down organic matter in the soil) and not so beneficial (like aphids). When the fields around us are sprayed with pesticides, it affects all the living things there, from the soil to the bugs to the birds. The soil becomes sterile, since the natural processes by which microorganisms make nutrients available to plants are disrupted. This necessitates chemical fertilizers. So, in addition to buying chemical pesticides, a grower must now depend on chemical fertilizers (or tons of compost) to supply the 14 nutrients essential for plant growth. In contrast, healthy soil, given plenty of good rest and care, will develop a natural balance of minerals and nutrients. Though organic plants might not grow as fast as they do with chemical fertilizers, studies have shown that they absorb more nutrients over time and are, in the end, more dense in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that we need for life.

Out here on our island in the middle of a conventional agriculture sea, we see plenty of signs of life. Thanks to naturalist John Borneman's gift of a bird book to the farm, I've learned the names of some feathered fauna in our area , including the following spotted in our field:

-White-crowned and House Sparrows
-Western Scrub-jay
-Red-tailed Hawk
-All kinds of hummingbirds!

I am glad for these birds, for their own sake and because they are signs of good soil.

P.S. Sarah is organizing a farm event to bring in John Borneman and the kids from Casa Pacifica who did a science fair study comparing the numbers of birds on our farm and on conventional fields. We'll let you know when it is so you can mark your calendars to attend!

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