SOIL and DIRT

The earth is mineral, most of it in molten form, with a very thin, solid crust cool enough to support life. Thin, in relation to the total mass of the planet. Through this thin crust, volcanoes still spew molten rock. Life forms exist only in/on or near the earth’s crust, termed soil or dirt, much of which is covered by water.

Under fresh standing water, the term for the bottom is mud. Mud is dirt, that has settled in water as organic materials, and has become organic matter through anaerobic decomposition of that material. A valid composting process.

In saltwater, the term for the bottom of the ocean is generally 'bottom' where sandy, but when clay, the term used is still 'mud' because of the 'sticky' consistency and from decomposition of grasses and other organic material.

Soil is classified by type of mineral content. Read about soil classification by clicking this Soil Classification link.
Organic matter is not part of the definition of ‘Soil’. Soil is not water, nor air, and needs neither to be classified as soil. Soil and dirt are not the same things. Scorching desert SAND - that will not support plant life - is classified as soil. Wind-eroded rock SILT (dust) - that will not support plant life - is soil. Tightly-packed microscopic particles of CLAY - that will not support plant life - is soil. NO plant life will grow in pure soil, without air or water, or both.

So when considering the solid substances to sustain plant life, termed "the ground", what we really describe is not just soil, but is also “DIRT”.

Dirt can have organic matter (OM) in it, and can be devoid of soil-type mineral - such as in compost or manufactured potting media. Soil can be without any perceptible smell (to humans), but Healthy Dirt can have an enticing, wholesome aroma - the smell of fresh, plant-sustaining sweet earth, like a forest floor (which is also not soil). Mostly an odor derived from the process of actinomycetes (actinobacteria).

Dirt has profoundly shaped the course of human civilized history. At the dawn of the 'agricultural age', an estimated 98% of people worked the land, supporting a ruling class that controlled the distribution of food and resources.

In the U.S. today, that percentage has dropped to less than 1% of the population working the land, and it is a shame that now, so few people under 40 years old, recognize the fundamental importance of how we treat our dirt - for securing the future of our national civilization.

From antiquity, many civilizations mined soil for certain minerals, and as agricultural practices accelerated, soil began eroding well beyond the pace of soil production by the natural elements of wind and water. Some civilizations learned how to respect their land, to maintain an adequate supply of fertile dirt. Others did not, and disappeared.

Despite the respect of some, loss of dirt fertility has contributed to the demise of number of historically-important societies all over this globe.

Erosion has become particularly worse in recent times, as is clear from satellite photos, along with documented huge algae blooms at the mouths of rivers that empty into the sea, and dead spots in which no marine life can survive, along with incredibly huge pollution documented in a myriad of scientific studies undertaken by universities world-wide.

The world's population continues to rise, and the amount of productive farmland continues to shrink. The supply of cheap fossil fuels that once made synthetic fertilizers available to underdeveloped nations is gone.

Now such chemical fertilizers are expensive to make, and we are now becoming more fully aware of the devastating ecological damage that abundant misuse of those synthetic fertilizers has had - to the detriment of dirt fertility - that has resulted in soil, dirt, air and water pollution on a massive scale.

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Dirt fertility degradation and accelerated erosion may eventually determine and define the fate of modern human civilizations, by repeating mistakes that brought about the demise of past societies - mistakes that we have not yet learned from.

We are destroying fertile dirt faster than it can be repaired by nature, and humans do not now have present means to accomplish such world-wide repair artificially or by natural means.

Along with the elements of air, water and fire, fertile dirt (not just mineral soil) is one of the roots of human existence. Make no mistake about that.

There is no valid usefulness to compare the amount of soil at the crust of the earth, with the very thin layer of actual dirt that exists in only some areas on this planet.
There is a great abundance of soil on our planet. But an increasing shortage of dirt with a sufficient content of organic matter to support abundant plant life to sustain harvests for human food.

Yet we treat dirt as if it were a cheap commodity. We spit on it and wipe it off the soles of our shoes without thinking twice about it. One of our favorite expressions used to be: "cheap as dirt". But not anymore. Fertile dirt today, is more important than oil and natural gas.

Yet we continue to strip the 'skin' off our planet, and let it flow into ocean depths or disperse into the atmosphere. The evidence is all around us. We are destroying oxygen-producing forests at an alarming rate, just to locate more fertile soil to turn into wasted dirt.

Only a very few societies have learned to produce fertile dirt fast enough to sustain the needs of their agricultural practices, but on a geological time scale, globally - we in North America are running out of 'good dirt' - our most underappreciated, least valued, and yet one of our most essential natural resources.

Nowadays we name the culprit as "global warming" or "climate change" or rampant disease, or some other 'look-the-other-way' factor. And I’m not saying that many other factors don't have a part to play in the present state of global agriculturally-caused pollution issues. Many factors have contributed to such a decline.

Medicine can find cures, and we can design ways to survive climate change. But we cannot grow food for an ever-expanding human population in ‘bad dirt'. Because the microbes that support plant life cannot survive in such an environment to the degree necessary to produce plant nutrition to burgeoning human populations.

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In the end, this author believes that the fertility of DIRT will determine whether or not modern human societies will survive.
Because as we kill our dirt - we kill the ability for future generations to sustain themselves. Can humans raise enough meat to eat, without growing plants to feed them, and us? I don't think so.

And when there's not enough food to eat, social and political conflicts undermine society's very existence.
History records the civilizations who died from results of those conflicts, which disrupts society's very core, and produces refugees with no means of support that 'eat away' at the resources of entire neighboring nations. Many of whom die of hunger – the majority of whom are babies and young children.

The state of fertility of dirt determines what can be grown, and for how long. Stewardship of land is essential. History has a lot to teach us, but cannot, if we, as a civilization, don't pay attention to discerning bad examples from the past.

According to the USDA, another million tons of U.S. farmland has eroded from the Mississippi River basin this last year. How fast? Every second of every minute of every hour of every day, the mighty Mississippi carries another ton of topsoil to the sea. 24 BILLION tons of soil are lost annually around the world - much of it topsoil, and much of that, WAS the top layer of fertile dirt. Several tons for every person alive on this planet, every year. But such loss seems so slow, out of sight, that it can 'go away' almost unnoticed in a person's lifetime.

Even so, it is ecological suicide. Crushing poverty is the result, which is occurring in whole regions of the world today.

But that's not new news. Refugees driven from their homeland by the need to find food or productive land on which to grow it, is an ancient legacy of many societies past, into this age. Must we learn this lesson over and over - at the risk of our entire human population’s survival?

Are we, as a civilization, really in crisis? Why, how can that be? The corner grocery store has plenty of food in any well-developed industrial country. And the majority of people in that country have money to purchase that food in quantity. So where's the crisis? Maybe you don’t see it - often enough – in tabloids and on radio and TV, decrying the poor state of affairs in starving nations. Some things you don't want to see - but even so, the ‘picture’ is in the food you buy and eat from that store in your community. The cost to grow it, process it and transport it is taking a toll in our economy and the economy of the entire world.

In addition, the nutritional value of food is decreasing rapidly. In the first 17 years of a large-scale U.S. government study, the nutritional value of foods world-wide have decreased dramatically.

Many years ago, two technological innovations - manipulation of crop genetics and artificial soil nutrition by using synthetic chemical fertilizers turned four once-rare crops - wheat, rice, corn (maize) and barley - into food for the world in giant single-species stands, that cover more than a half billion hectares.
But results of artificial fertilizer technology is now crumbling before our eyes, under the weight of endenyable evidence from pollution and erosion. The foundation of modern industrial agriculture is in world-wide failure mode.

Some call it "soil exhaustion" when crop land no longer produces adequate (read: profitable) harvests following progressive reduction of yields because the cultivated land no longer supports corporate profits.

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Although a number of social and cultural forces affect agricultural practices in any given part of the world, the fact is: money and greed run this current world. Greed for money caused this agricultural crisis. But cannot, and will not repair it.

The field of genetic crop manipulation is hard at work to find a way to 'cash in' on the crisis, but will be to no avail unless new technology can produce a variety of abundant crop harvests from 'dead dirt'. Dirt that will no longer support a microbe population on which plants depend for organic sustenance.

I don't think we need much new technology. I think we need to advantage existing technology to salvage and recycle more organic materials back into the land. To repair the outrageous trash transport and landfill costs that continuously raise our personal taxes - by taking away organic materials into landfills - diverting materials from our homes that could be - should be - used by residential 'backyard' composters, or use of those organic materials as mulches.

What we should be doing is learning how to grow more vegetable plants at home - more than you can eat - to help feed the needy in your community through some manner of food donations. And helping to train needy people how to raise food at home. Sharing is caring.

Sharing of one's abundance is good. Whether for free or for barter, or profit. I'm certainly not against profit. But cultivating land year after year, and not putting back into it what was taken out, is like running a factory at 'full tilt' without investing any funds back into maintenance or replacement. Bad land management is called 'not putting back' - whether into the workforce, equipment, or the land itself.

Putting carbon into the bank - in the form of organic material. Saving the land bank... If you don't invest, how can you expect a return on investment?

How does one invest?

One by one. Each of us, taking responsibility for our ancestoral mistakes - especially those of our fathers and mothers and ourselves, regarding the improper use of dirt. I can remember way back, putting organic material and organic matter back into the soil, at my father's knee – an avid composter and organic gardener.

You are blessed if you are the offspring of a farmer or rancher or home gardener who trained you to appreciate giving back to the land. Most 'commercialized' humans have not been raised that way - but fortunately, I was.

My heritage makes me a minority in agricultural and waste services/recycling circles. I’ve been witness to both sides of this ‘coin’ through my father’s organic research science career with Dow Chemical Company, and his private composting and organic gardening practices.

This is also the reason that I practice, and write about organic gardening and train people how to compost. Because I learned how to put life back into the dirt, and have trained others in the practice for most of my life.

I think everybody should garden organically, in some form or fashion to the degree they are able - even if it's just donating kitchen scraps and yard waste to a neighbor who composts. And barter for some finished compost to spread on your property, to grow almost any kind of plant better - especially if you can also obtain some microbe-laden compost 'tea', (if that composter knows how, and collects more than he/she needs).

Or learn how to compost, and if you already compost, learn how to obtain compost tea from the pile as well. Stop wasting the water that leaches through the compost pile. Quite easy to do, with very little cost in time or money. Help Mother Nature to 'do her thing'. For the benefit of Mother Nature. And the earth. Thereby benefiting you, and generations of humanity to follow. In this case, Mother Nature is the "Gipper". Do it for the Gipper.

© Robert C. Moore ~ All Rights Reserved

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COMPOST CONTAINMENTS
Click Here to see: Compost Containments
COMPOST PILES
Click Here to see:COMPOST PILES