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Friday, February 5, 2016

Full circle in a lifetime

My generation has lived through a sea change in how we conceptualize soil and fertilizer. We’ve come a long way from uncritical acceptance of chemical products after World War II.

       Today every school child hears about how the soil cycle works.  In undisturbed fields and forests, nature returns nutrients and organic material to the soil through a continuing process. Plants use sunlight, water and soil components to grow. Dead leaves and branches fall to the ground, decompose, and feed soil organisms that in turn provide nutrients for the next generation of plants. 

Leaves decompose into soil

    To understand how soil can be improved, New England school children learn that the Wampanoags added a fish to the hole when planting their hills of squash, beans and corn. As the fish decomposed, it fertilized the plants.

    So why didn’t I hear about building soil when I was growing up? It was because of something that happened between New England’s bucolic past and my birth in the Baby Boom.

    In the early twentieth century, German chemists invented an industrial process for fixing nitrogen from air, ushering in a radical change in the way farmers and gardeners thought about soil fertility. For a while it seemed as if synthetic fertilizer would replace traditional soil amendments such as manure and composted plant material. 
    During the twentieth century, the combination of manufactured high-nitrogen fertilizer, new high-yield grain varieties, and potent pesticides like DDT enabled the developed world to increase food production. Starting in the 1960s, a Green Revolution followed for areas of the Third World where famine was a chronic killer.

      I didn’t know it when I first encountered chemical fertilizer at age four, but I was living in a unique era in gardening history. Because I grew up with them, I thought those bags of 5-10-10 had always been around. Before the slogan became a joke for druggies, I remember a DuPont poster in my tenth grade chemistry classroom touting “Better Things for Better Living . . . Through Chemistry.” 
    But there was a dark side to farming with the new chemicals. Starting in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring awakened Americans to the dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides, exposing how DDT spread its lethal effects up the food chain. Meanwhile, soil scientists were noticing that intensive crop production with chemical fertilizer did not maintain soil fertility, and soil and water were being poisoned by over-fertilization and overuse of irrigation.

    As Americans questioned conventional ideas in the sixties and seventies, J. I. Rodale’s magazine Organic Gardening started to gain traction. Rodale had founded his magazine in 1942, with Albert Howard, a British pioneer of the organic movement, as associate editor. Organic techniques hadn’t completely died out with the advent of chemical fertilizer, of course, but there had been enough mass forgetting that the ideas Rodale proselytized were initially regarded as somewhere between cranky and dangerous. As the counterculture grew, his message found receptive readers.

    Seventy-four years after OG’s birth, there’s organic food available in every supermarket, and gardeners like me aim to improve soil without chemical fertilizer. Living through such a radical change in point of view makes me wonder what shibboleths the next generation will find to be dangerous and unjustified.

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