At Living Web Farms, Answers to Climate Change, Healthy Food, Live in Soil

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Everything we eat depends on the soil, but its health is threatened. Living Web Farms, in North Carolina, works to restore dynamic, fertile, soil, and raise awareness about the soil microorganisms essential for all life on earth.

Soil, and the life within it, are essential for survival on earth. Living Web Farms, near Asheville, NC, is working to restore natural soil ecology, and teach people about its importance.

Soil, and the life within it, are essential for survival on earth. Living Web Farms, near Asheville, NC, is working to restore natural soil ecology, and teach people about its importance.

To most people, the critters underfoot are never even thought of... We’d like to change that, since every plant, animal, and person breathing in this world depends on those beings we too often ignore.”

On October 11th, 2014, Living Web Farms will host a workshop about soil ecology, helping farmers as well as eaters to understand the importance of soil life to all other life. Using a combination of classroom instruction, lab analysis, and hands-on farm work, participants will learn the roles of soil organisms in the farm system, and how to promote their healthy populations. “To most people, the critters underfoot are never even thought of, let alone studied under a microscope,” says Meredith Leigh, Living Web Farms' education and community outreach coordinator. “We’d like to change that, since every plant, animal, and person breathing in this world depends on those beings we too often ignore.”

Jane Weaver, a local consultant in soil biology, will lead the class at the farm. Looking at a sample of garden soil under a microscope, Weaver can begin to predict the presence of weeds Living Web Farms will encounter in the next growing season. “It’s related to the nitrates present, which is informed by feeding relationships between the different microorganisms living in the garden soil,” Weaver explains. Indeed, according to Dr. Elaine Ingham, who trained Weaver to size up farmers’ dirt, the bacteria, fungi, and other organisms that live in the soil determine the very ability for the farm to grow food, affecting the nutrients available, the depth of the soil, its pH, and even the types of plants that will grow there. (source: soilfoodweb.org)

“To grow food properly, you must first grow good soil, by making sure the soil critters are alive and thriving,” explains Leigh. To this end, Living Web is already on the cutting edge in terms of promoting healthy soil life. The farmers there rarely disturb the ground with tillers, build their own soil food in well-maintained compost piles, use special crops to promote soil health, and never spray chemicals that will harm soil critters. But these types of practices are not the norm in American agriculture. “Most farms rely on chemicals, both man-made and natural, to promote plant growth,” says Leigh. “The problem with constantly tilling or plowing, and spraying chemicals and fertilizers, is that you’re not increasing the ability of the soil to support the farm like it's supposed to. You’re just treating symptoms of a depleted soil, adding food that plants need because your soil isn’t providing them already.”

As one might imagine, this can get rather expensive, and takes a lot of labor. “By boosting soil ecology, we ultimately do less work, because the microorganisms do it for us,” Leigh continues. “If we just kept the plants on an I.V. of added food, water, and nutrients, we’d always have sick plants, plants constantly needing attention and medicine, and that’s not sustainable.”

Maintenance of diverse and healthy soil organisms also has the benefit of securing topsoil, retaining moisture in the soil, and storing carbon. So, in addition to making food possible, soil microorganisms are also emerging as the answer to soil loss via erosion, desertification, and global warming. “Louis Pasteur said ‘In the end, it’s the microbes that will have the last word’, quotes Leigh.” That’s why the study and promotion of soil microorganisms, and education about them is so central to Living Web’s mission. In December, Living Web Farms staff will themselves become trained in microbial analysis, learning to identify and understand the soil life on an ongoing basis. “Then we can keep teaching others,” says Leigh.

To register for the October 11th Soil Ecology workshop, visit http://www.LivingWebFarms.org. Registration is by donation, with $15 suggested for the day. Living Web Farms is a non-profit, organic education and research farm network in Mills River, North Carolina. The organization oversees three farms, four greenhouses, and multi-species livestock. Produce and meat from the farms is donated to food banks across western North Carolina. For information on upcoming workshops, or to watch videos of past workshops, visit LivingWebFarms.org.

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