The Significance of Soil

A different take on the dirt beneath our feet.

By Teresa Vanek

From an everyday perspective, what could be more humble than dirt? We sweep it aside, make sure to wash it off our hands and cars and complain when it sticks to our fruits and vegetables, creating little bites of grit in the salad. But all that dirt is in fact soil, a complex amalgam of minerals, microscopic life, and materials in decay that quietly and without complaint supports my livelihood.

About 60 years ago my dad fled communist Czechoslovakia, surviving a couple of harrowing days on the run until making it to the German border. Before stepping across to safety he pulled out a handkerchief, stooped down, and gathered a handful of soil. I imagine the sun filtering through the trees as he collected a bit of his native land, not knowing when he might return.

He was a city kid of 18, but a bit of earth was a meaningful connection to the home he was leaving. He eventually made his way to the Finger Lakes, raising his family in a region of gentle beauty not so different from his Bohemia. I often think about that moment and that precious mound of dirt he carried as I now dig daily in my own way, building a farm and a family that depends on the ground we live on.

When we were first assessing the land we now farm we looked at soil maps to see its growing potential. Fortunately, agricultural land in the United States is extensively well mapped and categorized and the names carry a kind of pedigree of the dirt. Our farm is made up of Conesus gravelly silt loam, a kind that is better drained than many of the clay-rich types nearby but the Howard, Honeoye, and Lansing types are the ones that inspire real envy among growers. They are so dark and nearly stone-free that Brent and I call them brownie-mix.

I like the look and feel of loam that’s had the benefit of mulch and green manure: fluffy, lively stuff. Though our farm isn’t blessed with such crème de la crème dirt, we considered it auspicious that there is still active farmland neighboring our property on every side. Land less promising for agriculture purposes would have been surrendered to housing development long ago.

As close as I feel to the earth, with cracking skin and nails from too much bare-handed planting and tending—really understanding the soil remains an aspiration and we continue to learn the strengths and weaknesses of our land. It warms quickly in the spring and is dry enough to plow a couple of days after a heavy rain, though during an arid season it’s among the most parched around. We sow the fallow portions of our farm with oats and peas, vetch and rye, and then plow this growth under to build the fertility and water-holding capacity of our soil. But it has the metabolism of a teenage boy—quickly burning through everything we feed it to keep it healthy.

It’s a dirty secret of agriculture that the work we farmers do disrupts the life and health of the soil. The undisturbed earth in the woodlot is much healthier and livelier than that in the garden. Preparing the field and keeping the weeds at bay usually involves upending the soil and crumbling its naturally clumpy structure. Much of the challenge to any farmer is undoing the damage created by the process of growing food. Cover crops, thick mulch, and periods of fallow are a form of apology to the soil, a way of giving back for the harvest it provides.

So perhaps the residue you carefully wash from your own garden produce or farmers’ market vegetables could be considered a souvenir of the history of a geological place and agricultural practice that brought it to you. In this new light, maybe you’ll wince a little less when the leeks take multiple washings to part with the grit sealed within their stalks because none of these foodstuffs would be available without that brown dirt now going down the drain.

Teresa Vanek is a native Ithacan who along with her husband, Brent Welch, owns Red Tail Farm in Jacksonville.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of the magazine.

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