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COLUMN: The essentialness of healthy soils

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I’m looking at the soil we’ve built up over the past 30 years. It’s dark. It grows crops well. The food it produces is rich in vitamins and minerals.

The thing is, because we five-fingered types are not grazing animals, the minerals and vitamins we take from the gardens are best replaced with more every year, or the garden is best returned to wildlife, especially grazers, for a decade or so after every few years of gardening.

Grazing animals were essential in producing the rich soil of the prairies. They ate a diet of minerals and micro-nutrients mined by the plants themselves, and returned that to the surface in an organic form that, over centuries, built up into rich black soils.

The first European settlers were amazed at the depth and fertility of that soil. Its bounty seemed limitless.

The Indigenous people who lived on the prairies before the Europeans lived on the land in a completely different way.

They certainly gardened. But their gardening wasn’t of the mining extraction type. They were not in the business of producing commodities for sale in distant places. Their gardens were for local consumption.

The meat they ate was sustained by the grassland that also sustained them and their gardens.

With the advent of European ways of doing things, extraction came to be the model.

The cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, grains, row crops and humans all began to take from the land and not give back. Certainly, some farmers understood giving back and tried to replace much of what they extracted in the form of fertilizers like manure, bone meal, guano and stone dusts, but they had no understanding of or ability to replace myriad micro- and macro-nutrients and small living things they were removing from the soil with every growing season.

Most saw soil as a medium for growing rather than a living thing.

That’s still the way today. Add NPK and stone dust to balance pH, and you can grow crops.

From the time the first plows broke the soil of the prairie lands until today, the loss of soil mass can be measured in feet, not just from erosion but from extraction.

That thousand-pound steer, hundreds of pounds of milk, and bushel of grain sold to the market represented a net loss of a few pounds of soil shipped away, never to return.

Over a century of constant cropping, grazing and extraction will have an impact on the health of the soil. All of this is well-documented.

Now, more than 50 years of adding poisons to the soil is also having an impact.

It is well-documented that the producers and their partners, the agricultural regulators, really want nothing to do with revealing what ill-effects these materials might have, not only on the soil but on your health.

I personally think we can see those effects in the general health of our country.

You get a little older and you’re on pills. They are almost never pills that heal you, and then allow you to live without them, but chemicals you become dependent on for the rest of your life.

The building and preservation of healthy soils, plus a return to eating fresh rather than packaged foods, is essential to our nation’s overall health and strategic viability, not to mention the joy of knowing we are part of nature and the living soil.

Forrest Hartley lives in Hadley, N.Y. Leave a message at


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An essay written in support of ongoing efforts by Shane Newell and members of the Warren County Historical Society to create a center dedicated to Joseph Warren. 

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