Prince Edward Island - Working the rich lands of PEI this summer showed me we're going to have to plow under most of our farming habits - quite beyond going organic.
I'm talking about the way our food system deals with soil. Sure, the question of earth (as distinct from Earth) lacks the human drama, appeal, urgency and newsworthiness of climate change, air and water quality, endangered species and human mishaps.
But the staggering implications of soil mismanagement are starting to gain worldwide scientific attention.
About 100,000 square kilometres of former farmland are recognized as infertile and lost to production each year, while 40 per cent of the world's soils have been pronounced seriously degraded.
This constitutes a "silent global crisis," according to Andrés Arnalds of the Soil Conservation Service of Iceland, which helped host an international conference of soil, climate change and population experts in Selfoss, Iceland, between August 31 and September 4.
The crises are worst in Asia, Africa and South America, but even my brief experience with a soil-conscious farmer in PEI showed me that dealing with soil is going to require a brand new deal for agriculture and a different way of configuring farm finances.
Gary Clausheide of Sweet Clover Farm, where I volunteered this summer, digs his shovel into the grass and lays bare some of Prince Edward Island's famous sandy loam, as red as his beard. He kneels down, crumbles a piece of soil between his fingers and lets a bug and worm crawl into his palm. "There's a whole universe there," he says, a world beneath the surface that defies simplistic science, economics, government policy and environmentalism.
"It's an orchestration," he says of the splendour underneath the grass. Roots break up the hardpan below and bring minerals up to the topsoil, which is a bit of geology. Old leaves and stems lie in the ground, which is a bit of chemistry. Worms and about 600,000 bacteria per teaspoonful of soil mix it up, which is biology. The mix is taken up by plants, which is botany.
It's an air issue, since the soil is where most of the world's carbon is stored, lessening global warming, or if it escapes, contribuing to global warming.
It's a water issue, since rainfall passes through soil to get to water tables, rivers and lakes. It's a land issue, since this is where the fertility allowing plant life comes from. It's also an issue for food and human health, since this is where complex nutrients come from.
Government agriculture agents don't get the real dirt, Clausheide says. They do soil tests to see what chemicals are missing and recommend the right inputs to buy. "For them, soil is a medium that holds plants up, and we feed plants intravenously with chemicals."
Clausheide recognizes that the original sin of agriculture and civilization is plowing, which "breaks" the soil, as the expression aptly puts it. This tears through the structure and stickiness of soil, unearths the soil communities that once inhabited different strata, then leaves the field uncovered and exposed to erosion by wind and rain and oxidation by the atmosphere.
But Clausheide also recognizes that organic farming and farming for vegetarians can aggravate the plowing problem. Since organic farmers can't control weeds by spraying chemicals, they either weed by hand - stoop labour that is backbreaking and expensive - or plow between rows to dig up weeds.
Farmers who don't raise animals miss out on the natural fertilizer of their manures and the benefits of resting land as pastures of perennial grasses where livestock graze.
There's no doubt that Gary Clausheide goes the whole 9 yards for his soil. He has a chicken tractor of 50 meat birds in a portable cage he moves three times a day so they can help prepare for veggie planting next year. The idea is that the chickens will clear the field for veggies by eating all the slugs and earwigs while fertilizing the soil with the highly regarded soil currency of chicken shit.
He cuts weeds close to veggies with a Coleman hoe that permits surgical strikes, thereby avoiding tearing or trampling the earth. Such simple tools save the back but not much time.
This explains why Clausheide, regarded by some as the best farmer on the island, barely scrapes a living from his land. Investing in the future of the soil is no way to invest in the present. By contrast, other PEI farmers use heavy equipment and heavy doses of artificial fertilizers and chemicals.
Such tillers of the soil are eligible for government support and subsidies. In 2001, they received $50 million to cover losses when the U.S. closed its borders to PEI potatoes.
But Clausheide gets nothing to cover his losses for his preservation efforts. If we want more farmers like him in an era when soil itself is at risk, we will need to find a mechanism to permit governments to pay farmers for their environmental service.
Much as a government-regulated living wage for urbanites should cover the cost of production and reproduction of employees - that is, include the cost of raising the families of the future - so a living wage for farmers must include the costs of reproducing the fertility on which the families of the future will dine.