Get to Know the 3 Soils

Summer has arrived. The brightest time of the year at our farm, when plants grow lush and abundant with rain and sun, and the cows, deer, and grassland birds raise their babies in the tall grasses and rambling woodlands. For the farmer, Midsummer is both the start of summer and the beginning of winter. St.John’s day fires are lit to celebrate the life-giving nature of the sun and to keep away the bad luck and evil intentions that sometimes wander our way. It’s a time to celebrate vitality and resilience and also a time to acknowledge our blindspots.

As a human and Earth community we are facing some huge challenges; soil degradation, water shortages, climate change, environmental pollution, species extinction, numerous public health crises. 

Industrial agriculture and the connected food system are at the root of many of these ills. But doesn’t that also mean that a different agriculture could become a major factor striving towards and implementing positive solutions? I believe so - and it all starts with and in the soil.

Since 2015, which the UN declared to be the Year of the Soil, the importance and centrality of soils and their health has been featured in many different ways. While this is very hopeful, what may be hidden is the fact that this has been known for many, many years. The cultivation of soils and the understanding of their preciousness is a core tenet of biodynamic agriculture, which was introduced by Rudolf Steiner in 1924. Sir Albert Howard, an important organic agriculture pioneer said this about soils in the 1940’s: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” 

And these individuals built upon much more ancient wisdom and knowledge. One example is this excerpt out of a Sanskrit text from about 1500BC:

“Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

What happened for us to lose this deep appreciation of the importance of soils? Trying to understand and bridge this serious “disconnect” between ourselves and Nature and her soils requires a renewed recognition and science of soils, but “soils” in an expanded context.

So, let’s pick up this premise and look at soils in a new light and start on the land.

Increasingly, farmers, gardeners and soil scientists are referencing soil “health” instead of soil quality and are mindful of practices that affect their farm and garden’s soil health. When we reflect on the words “soil health” we can also reflect that only "living" beings can exhibit health or ill-health. Today it is no longer considered radical to understand soil as a living organism. Interestingly, Rudolf Steiner said as much already in 1924, “the soil surrounding a growing plant’s roots is a living entity with a vegetative life of its own, a kind of extension of plant growth into the Earth.”

Viewing soil as a living ecosystem reflects a fundamental shift in the way we care for our Earth’s soils. Soil isn’t an inert growing medium that provides the basis to support plants and to which we need to add nutrients and minerals to replenish it. Rather it is alive with billions of bacteria, fungi, microbes, insects, beetles and worms, all creating an elegant symbiotic, self-structuring ecosystem.  I use the term “ecosystem” here to describe a large and diverse community of living organisms, as well as their physical environment, forming and functioning as one unit. Soils as such living ecosystems can then be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during dryer periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving our fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide for a flourishing, diverse soil microbiome. A “microbiome” is a diverse community of microorganisms, in this case in the soil. Since the late 1990’s, advances in technologies allowed for DNA sequencing of microbial communities. This enabled the identification of the genetic material of all the microbes - bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses - that live in a particular soil and make up its microbiome. Healthy soils can also help mitigate climate change through their increased carbon stores; in this way agriculture is less a contributor to climate change but rather a remedy that supports a more balanced carbon-household for our planet.

This type of healthy agriculture thus supports all forms of life. All too often, many of the life-forms in soil have been considered dispensable. Or, more correctly, they have not been considered at all. There can be anywhere from 100 million to 1 billion bacteria in just a teaspoon of soil, a wondrous living and vibrant biome. It’s important to point out here that it’s a healthy and diverse plant life that creates healthy soil microbiomes. Today more and more medical professionals consider soil microbiomes the Ground Zero of many modern disease challenges. This makes a lot of sense as we discover how crucial our own intestinal microbiome is for our health. This points to the importance of diets as “connectors” of the soil and human microbiome. To explore this more fully requires another article.


So how does all this play itself out in practice on a biodynamic farm like Hawthorne Valley? The “farmscape” is a beautiful and diverse tapestry of grain fields, vegetable fields, pastures, hayfields, wetlands and forest. During the growing season one will find our ethically managed dairy herd grazing on permanent pastures and hay fields. During the winter months the herd is fed home grown forage in the bedded pack barn; there we also collect the manure, which is transformed further into compost. This “home-grown” fertilizer builds soil health which in turn supports excellent crop quality. We employ tillage mindfully, only when necessary. Our goal is to never leave soil exposed, as without root systems holding soil in place, soil erosion speeds up. We grow our vegetables and grains in crop rotation with legumes, like alfalfa and clovers to return nitrogen into the soils, as well as other cover crops to enhance biodiversity and soil humus content. Disease and insect control are supported naturally through botanical species diversity and predator/beneficial insect habitats. The biodynamic preparations made from natural materials found on the farm enhance soil, compost, and the very act of photosynthesis as biological inoculants and soil and foliar sprays. Chickens and pigs contribute their gifts to the farm, recycling “waste” and unsaleable produce as well as depositing valuable manure on the land.

Integrating animals and plants within the farm in this way creates a living, self-sustaining whole – a biodynamic farm organism.


Many of these practices and the principles behind them that have the creation of true soil health at their core are also showing up today in agricultural methodologies and practices like regenerative agriculture, organic farming, agro-ecology, holistic grazing management, permaculture, carbon farming, silvo-pasture, agroforestry to name a few.


This is definitely good and encouraging news. Nevertheless I would strongly suggest that we need to expand our horizon, awareness and actions even further to include two other “types of soils”. What do I mean? While we all are members of and completely dependent on the natural Earth community, where without soils and plants there would be no life, we are also part of the human community and we are each a distinct being. Satish Kumar, the co-founder of Schumacher College names this fundamental “trinity” of our existence soil, society and soul.

Here are two quotations that, I hope, will help to elaborate further. James Gustave Speth, the former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, now a professor at Vermont Law School, and distinguished senior fellow at Demos adds this perspective:


“I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy…and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation…”


The environmental scientist Erle Ellis wrote the following in a recent NYT opinion piece titled “Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Do That”:


"The greatest challenge of our time is not how to live within the limits of the natural world, or how to overcome such limits. It isn’t about optimizing our planet to better serve humanity or the rest of nature. To engage productively with the world we are creating, we must focus on strategies for working more effectively together across all of our diverse and unequal social worlds…”


What Speth and Ellis are pointing to is what we at the Institute for Mindful Agriculture are calling “inner soils” and “social soils”. And I would be remiss not to mention them here as I believe they are as important for a healthy future as the above described soil health. In fact, one central mission at the Institute for Mindful Agriculture is to cultivate the social soil to grow a just, resilient, and regenerative food ecosystem, resulting in the growth of vibrant food sheds throughout our country.


Let me summarize what I have attempted to discuss about our Earth’s soils and their cultivation.


Earth’s Soils

·       Basis – geological foundation, climate, soil type.

·       Cultivation Tools – plant biodiversity, crop rotation, livestock impact, application of compost, combination and integration of livestock, cover crops and row/cash crops, complete avoidance of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, minimal, careful and conscious tillage, silvo-pasture, planting of perennial crops.

·       Importance – As mentioned above, healthy soils are crucially important for planetary and human health.


And now I will introduce in a similar fashion the other two “soils”:


Social Soils


·       Basis – trust, diverse perspectives and experiences (age, gender, ethnicity, cultural background)

·       Cultivation Tools – quality of listening, quality of questions, small group conversation, dialogue walks, case clinics, playing, laughing. (see for more details on many of these tools)

·       Importance – essential foundation for a fair, equitable and collaborative economy, as well as cross sector dialogues and food value chain developments, setting a sound and healthy basis for any ongoing collaboration.


Inner Soils


·       Basis – “We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence” (Dag Hammarskjold)

·       Cultivation Tools – slowing down, quiet reflection, star gazing, cow therapy, nature immersion, journaling, meditation, honoring the “power of sleep”.

·       Importance – Discovering and cultivating our inner authentic core supports a feeling of belonging, gives a sense of purpose and grounds one’s life, work and relationships.


All “these soils” share certain characteristics. They are easily overlooked and taken for granted. At the same time, they are “places” where each one of us has the opportunity for direct action. Once discovered they benefit from on-going, regular cultivation and can then provide the foundation and context for truly (re)-generative and future-oriented work to emerge in society, ecology and economy.


The quality and health of these living media or “connecting tissues” – soils – determines to a large degree how the future will enter into our lives. On the land, on farms, the fertility, the health of the soil effects how plants are able to become the embodiment of future potential, in their symbiotic relationship with the soil, through their vibrancy as food and also as seed producers for the next generation of plants. On any farm not only is the soil the keeper of the past; it is essentially a pathway on which the future can arrive.


Just as the land, each of us individually also holds a key in regards to the future within us. Our ability to digest, conduct, hold, listen, transform, enable, create could be called “soil like”. Regular care, attention and practice are needed in order to develop these “soul-soil” qualities in such a way to help us be aware and alert in the moments when the future beckons.


Finally, most of us feel clearly that the many global challenges facing us can only to be solved collaboratively. Our ability or inability to work and problem solve together, to find ways to invite future bearing solutions into the world becomes more and more critical. And here also we find something akin to soil, “social-soil”, which while invisible to the eye nevertheless makes up the social fabric, the social climate in any relationship, any group, and any enterprise. The quality of this “connecting fabric” (“team spirit”) influences to a large degree whether or not deliberations, conversations or discussions show results that are truly of the future and not simply different versions of the past, or in the words of Albert Einstein, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”


By learning to see and appreciate the essential qualities and characteristics of “soil health” in this expanded way we might be able to set the stage to aspire to what Orland Bishop (Co-founder and Executive Director of ShadeTree Multicultural Foundation in Los Angeles, California) so beautifully expresses:


“Earth is the school of love. Earth is where we form relationships and learn to connect through service for the sake of the whole. Nowhere else is this possible - but on Earth. In this sense, Earth is the great evolutionary experiment, upon which the whole universe depends. Earth and humanity are one. There is no such thing as a single human being. A human being is always in relation.”


And the “three soils” are living places and spaces where I can help heal, grow and cultivate these relationships.