The Secret Story of Soil

Farmer Chris Hay wants us to think about “dirt” differently. His main lesson: it’s alive.

To Chris Hay, “dirt” is a dirty word. Dirt is what clings to your shoes. Dirt is what you track all over your house. (The word actually derives from drit, a not-so-courtly term for “manure” in Old Norse.) He prefers the word “soil” to describe this complex living system that envelops the land like a skin. He sees it as a term of respect.

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Chris, the owner of Say Hay Farms in northern California’s Yolo County (northwest of Sacramento), isn’t what most people would think of as a typical farmer. A UC Berkeley graduate with a degree in Philosophy, he’s a brilliantly articulate admirer of soil. Chris wants us to think about “dirt” differently. His main lesson: it’s alive, “a giant living web.” Soil teems with an ecosystem of countless microbes, crucial to growing healthy, delicious produce like Say Hay’s gorgeous orange cauliflower, hearty beets and petite shokichi squash. “Once you kill that ecosystem it takes a lot of work to build it back up,” he says. “It’s not something that you can take lightly.”

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Say Hay certainly doesn’t. The farm, which grows dozens of stunning crops every year, uses a host of integrated techniques to keep its soil in the best possible condition. The first technique is counterintuitive: one of the best ways to farm well is actually by not farming. After harvests, Say Hay lets fields lie fallow, or unharvested. This helps the rich ecosystem underground recuperate after a strenuous growing season that pulls nutrients out, turning them into fruits and vegetables. At any given time, a full third of Say Hay’s land is fallowed for the sake of the crops that will occupy it later.

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As fields lie fallow, Say Hay brings hundreds of chickens out to graze. The chickens peck at weeds and provide a natural source of manure (or drit, if you want to get Old Norse about it). Next, the farm plants “cover crops” like grains and legumes. Chosen and sown in different mixtures and proportions based on the results of soil testing, these crops replenish vital nutrients and balance chemical composition, feeding the land in the same way that it feeds plants and plants feed us. All of these techniques, which supplement each other, stem from a growing belief that farming shouldn’t just avoid depleting the land. Instead, it should leave it even hardier than it was before—a set of practices encapsulated by the term “regenerative agriculture.”

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Around this time of year, Chris is thinking about compost. He gets up before dawn and gets to Say Hay’s office by 5:00am. (“I’m a morning person,” he says.) Attached to the barn, the office looks a lot like any other, with desks, chairs, computers, and shelves packed with books that Chris, to his chagrin, no longer has any time to read. (In addition to running a small farm, he’s a father.) From Say Hay HQ, he oversees the business as his team hits the fields in tractors hauling compost spreaders that fling tens of thousands of pounds of compost across the farm’s 50 acres—another essential contributor to soil health through the natural cycle of decomposition and regeneration.

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What all of this comes back to is treating soil as far grander and more profound, even more human, than “dirt.” “Soil is a living organism,” Chris says. “The more balanced its diet is, the healthier it is. Just like for people.” If for soil, a balanced diet means putting regenerative agricultural principles into practice, for people, it means eating nutritious, seasonal crops—like those grown at Say Hay.

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