The answer is in the land

Soil Nutrient Cycling

by Emily Palmer

Soil Nutrient Cycling

Beth Tyler

Soil is composed of organic and inorganic material and is a single layer at the surface of the Earth.  

After many decades of industrial agriculture in the 20th century, overworked fields have little left to give, and consequently the food we eat has changed. Federal records show that the nutritional value of fresh fruits and vegetables has been steadily declining. How do we get nutrients back into the food we eat? The Real Food Campaign, a non-profit advocacy group promoting a return to more nourishing food, is working on solutions for farmers and consumers alike.

Dan Kittredge, farmer and director of the Real Food Campaign, says the answer lies in the land itself. “Soil that is denuded and has little or no mineral or vitamin content produces food that might fill our bellies,” he says “but it leaves our bodies craving the bionutrients it needs.”

Dan teaches an annual intensive workshop on bionutrient rich crop production. In 2011, a number of Vineyard residents attended the course, including Caitlin Jones of Mermaid Farm. Participants went to four separate meetings, received instruction on the basics of soil biology, mineralogy and energy dynamics, and learned about how to remineralize the soil of their own farms. Nutrient-dense farming asks a lot of its practitioners because farmers must conduct soil tests regularly in all fields, analyze the results carefully, and apply the minerals and nutrients that are called for.

But the rewards can be great.

“For me, it was a paradigm shift,” Caitlin says. She has found that crops grown in remineralized soil are more resistant to disease and insects, just as a healthy person’s immune system is better able to fend off illness. This advantage is apparent in Caitlin’s fall plantings in particular, where the kale and Asian greens are a lush, even green, with no signs of the beetle or caterpillar damage that she used to see.

Nutrient dense farming provides benefits to the consumer as well. Crops that have been grown in nutrient-dense soil taste better, have a longer shelf life, and offer the human body more nourishment. While 96 percent of our body mass consists of just four elements: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen, there are a number of trace elements that are also needed for important bodily functions. For example, calcium gives us strong bones and teeth. Many scientists believe these elements are most readily absorbed into our bodies by eating nutrient-dense foods, rather than taking a multivitamin.

As it is with many worthwhile endeavors, nutrient-dense farming is in many ways better, but it is not easier. Dan warns that farmers should expect a 3 to 5 year transition period as the soil comes into balance, and getting there requires a consistent and diligent effort. It is a more time intensive method, one that seeks the root cause of problems, but over time it is perhaps a more sustainable solution—in addressing the true health of the plants we eat, we address our own health as well.