The Dirt on Soil

     The Western Producer just published a special edition “The Dirt on Soil”; highlighting what a precious commodity our soil is, to be treated with the utmost respect.
     I see it clearly in my mind – my father stands on the land; his big calloused hand reaches down for a fistful of soil. He buries his face in it and breathes deeply of the fresh earthy scent.

The soil in the Mpongwe area of Zambia is some of the most fertile in the whole country.

The soil in the Mpongwe area of Zambia is some of the most fertile in the whole country.

     Years later my husband would stand in a field in Mpongwe, Zambia and reach down into some of the most fertile tropical soil there is, and bring a handful to his nose. Around him a group of African farmers stands watching curiously. Pastor Chipenama scoops up some of the red earth and smells it. He shakes his head – he smells nothing. He reaches for Robert’s hands and bends down to smell. Nothing. Just ordinary Mpongwe dirt. Some of the best dirt there is.
     I grew up on grey wooded soil – stuff that in drought years, as too often, turned into a fine white powder. It was marginal land, in northern British Columbia, but if farmed well and improved with clover could produce a good crop when it rained just right.
     Later in Switzerland on Robert’s family farm, I almost cried when i planted my first garden into the heavy unwieldy clay. I was surprised when I harvested the biggest carrots I’d ever seen. It took a careful hand, but was very productive.
     Here in Westlock we must be at the far edge of what was once the Garden of Eden. A thin layer of black top soil over sandy loam produces crops (and weeds) year after year that are the envy of most Prairie farmers. My mother-in-law from Switzerland, kneeling to plant strawberries into the soft black earth that first spring here, was in awe. She took a small jar of Westlock soil back home with her.

Pastor Chipenama tries hard to smell what Robert smells: healthy productive soil.

Pastor Chipenama tries hard to smell what Robert smells: healthy productive soil.

     As farmers we are the stewards of what provides food for the nations. I was impressed to read (in the special soil issue) that the soil quality of Canadian Prairies has improved considerably in the last 30 years. Zero tillage and rotations with pulse crops are two of the main contributing factors, according to an article by William DeKay (Soil quality better than 30 years ago: scientist).
     Editor Barb Glen writes, “one gram of soil can contain 5,000 to 7,000 species of bacteria” (Editorial Notebook: Western Producer special issue on soil).
     That’s why we preach conservation farming (CF) so emphatically to our Zambian farmers. Traditionally the small farmers burn the corn residue after harvest. The heat of burning and the exposure of bare soil for months to the hot tropical sun kill so much life that is important for a healthy productive soil. CF methods don’t use burning, and insist on a soil cover. Consistent use of those methods begins to dramatically improve production. Healthy soil produces better and smells good!

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