Wendell Berry called it “the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”Ninety-five percent of our food is grown in it, it stores and filters our water and provides a home for the majority of life on the planet, and yet most of us rarely pay much attention to it. We dump poisonous chemicals on it, inject it with synthetic nutrients, slash it with plows, strip it of its natural diversity, and bury our trash in it.
But soil has a story to tell us, and we are all a part of it.
For as long as humans have engaged in agriculture, and even before, we’ve relied on healthy soil and the organisms it supports. And for most of that time, we’ve cultivated good soil. Early societies developed food production systems that actually enhanced soil fertility and food abundance, such as with “terra preta,” or Amazonian dark earth, and the food forests of the Mayans. We planted, harvested, and consumed but also took care to nourish and regenerate.
What changed? At some point, humans started relating to the planet differently, and our emotional and spiritual connection to the earth was severed. Whether the shift happened during the Neolithic Revolution, when humans settled and established agriculture, or the Age of Enlightenment, when nature became viewed as an object to be observed and controlled, the result was a disconnect from nature. We became, in the words of Daniel Quinn in his book Ishmael, “Takers” and not “Leavers.”
Thousands of years of taking have caught up with us—and our soil. Approximately 40 percent of agricultural soils worldwide are degraded or seriously degraded; we lose an estimated 36 billion tons of topsoil every year.
Scientists warn us that we only have about 60 years of productive soil left. What will happen when the Earth has lost all of its soil and can no longer produce food? While this is a dire future, it doesn’t have to be our destiny. It’s time to act. And the solution is under our feet.
The authors of this article work on projects that promote soil and community health for Greenpeace and other organizations. This is the story of how each of us came to see soil as a solution to one of our biggest environmental problems—and as a tool to build more resilient communities.
As the co-owner of a farm and eco-lodge in Peñas Blancas, Costa Rica, I’ve long been interested in ways to optimize agriculture. Years ago, I met Tim LaSalle, then CEO of the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania. From LaSalle, I first learned about the importance of carbon in soil health. Soil carbon comes from the interaction of photosynthesizing plants and the web of life in the soil. He said that if enough of the planet’s arable acreage were converted to what he described as “regenerative” agriculture, we could draw enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change. I saw his data, and the conclusion was undeniable: If we just farmed in a way that optimized photosynthesis and learned to leave carbon in the ground, we could repair damaged water cycles, capture greenhouse gases, and address one of humanity’s biggest challenges.
My world was rocked. I thought I was a pretty well-informed citizen scientist, and I was long in the camp of folks who advocated for non-GMO and organic agriculture, but I hadn’t made the key connection to carbon sequestration.
Several years later, my world was rocked again. At our farm in Costa Rica, we’d been farming under organic or biodynamic certifications. We composted, used teams of oxen and water buffalos pulling old-fashioned plows, employed biodynamic preparations for soil fertility and overall plant health and gave our fields years of rest. So we were shocked when we measured our soil’s carbon content and learned the soils at our farm held less carbon than the rainforest around it.
We integrated principles of regenerative agriculture into our farm, and everything changed.
Then I remembered Dr. LaSalle’s presentation and realized that organic practices don’t necessarily translate into greater soil health. While our oxen and water buffaloes were impressive and “old school,” it turns out they didn’t build soil. Ploughing fields—by any method—exposes decomposing microorganisms and sequestered carbon to oxygen and sunlight. This also meant that when it rained, all those good nutrients in the soil washed away.
I realized we weren’t using permanent ground cover where we were growing our crops, so we weren’t optimizing the natural process of photosynthesis. We were planting crops in monoculture plots with plants of uniform heights. If we wanted to be more aligned with natural systems that optimize solar cycles and carbon capture, we would need to think about how forests, prairies, and rainforests produce food—and that’s not in monoculture rows surrounded by bare earth.
So we integrated principles of regenerative agriculture into our farm, and everything changed.
We’re still using organic and biodynamic practices, but since employing regenerative practices, our farm is performing a lot better, or so our fields seem to be telling us. Our fields and pastures are home to a greater diversity of ground cover and grasses, native creatures are coming onto our lands, and our fruit and nut trees are producing with ever greater abundance.
A key part of our journey was admitting that we didn’t know everything, and to humbly learn from how natural systems grow food.
Ironically, my journey to realizing the importance of soil began in a city. As a student at Barnard College in Manhattan, I was disturbed to see mounds of garbage lining the sidewalks as I walked to class in the morning. Having been raised in the lush Pacific Northwest, where we take our recycling seriously, I was more accustomed to being surrounded by nature than piles of trash bags. What was in these bags and where was it going? I had to find out.
My curiosity about those piles of trash in New York City, led me to spend more than a decade of my life following waste around the globe, learning how our culture of material excess and planned obsolescence is trashing the planet. My first stop was New York’s Staten Island, home of the infamous Fresh Kills landfill—at the time, one of the largest dumps in the world. I had never seen anything like it. As far as I could see in every direction, there was rotting food, old furniture, discarded appliances, books, and clothes. I was stunned by the scale of the waste—and by how effectively this side of our consumer culture was hidden from view.
After finishing college, I moved to Washington, D.C., to start working at Greenpeace. I was thrilled to land a job at an organization tackling the problem of waste.
My work with Greenpeace took me around the world to investigate and advocate for solutions to waste. Everywhere I visited, from Staten Island to the Philippines, Guatemala, and Bangladesh, there was one thing common: A lot of municipal waste was organic.
Food and yard scraps are full of nutrients, but what we do with them makes a big difference in how they interact with the earth once they’re discarded. Throw them in a landfill as we do in the U.S., and they convert to methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Leave them rotting in the streets, as happens in countries with irregular waste disposal, and they attract vermin and threaten public health.
Composting takes organic waste from individuals, mixes it together, and transforms it into a practice that benefits a community.
By throwing away our food, we’re missing out on a win-win solution to our trash problem.
When food scraps are used to fertilize crops as compost, they build soil health while reducing a major source of waste. What’s more, it can work on all scales, from backyard herb gardens to whole farms. And with such a significant portion of municipal waste being organic, composting makes a huge dent in the challenge of dealing with waste.
But what I love the most is this: composting can build community social and economic resilience. For example, in Manila’s barangays, or small neighborhoods, in the absence of regular waste collection, the Mother Earth Foundation organizes residents to compost organic material. There, neighborhood youth receive a small stipend for going door-to-door to collect the material, which is composted in street side bins and used in potted gardens. And building this community compost system requires neighbors to get to come together. In areas where garden pots are hard to come by, neighbors lined the path with old tires, filled with compost, and now bursting with flowers and herbs. The barangays that participate in these programs are colorful and lush compared to those that have piles of garbage rather than flower beds on the corners.
Composting isn’t limited to low-tech neighborhood approaches, although I admit those are my favorite. Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have curbside collection of organic material. Every resident gets a little green bucket to keep our food scraps in. San Francisco’s residents and businesses compost 650 tons of food scraps and other compostable material per day.
Regardless of the logistics involved, composting takes organic waste from individuals, mixes it together, and transforms it into a practice that benefits a community—and the planet—as a whole. Figuring out local composting systems requires us to come together to solve problems that affect us all, and we’re going to need a strong sense of community to guide us through our soil and climate crises.
We cannot continue to treat our land, air, and water like ATM machines hooked up to bottomless bank accounts; at some point they’re bound to run dry. Life comes from the soil and ultimately returns to it. The story of soil is the story of all of us and it spans eons. It tells us to adapt to nature, not to squeeze every last drop of value from it. It reminds us that our fate is inextricably bound to the soil’s, and that ultimately, we’re all in this together.
Schoolchildren gather around a seemingly neglected garden bed at Urban Adamah, a Jewish farm and educational center in Berkeley, California. Educator Ariela Ronay-Jinich shows the students that while the plot appears abandoned, it’s actually the farm’s most fertile patch of soil. The children dig their hands an inch beneath the surface and uncover a thriving community of worms and insects, including a foot-long earthworm.
Ronay-Jinich explains that the plot has been set aside for shmita, a Jewish farming practice dating back to Biblical times, that lets the soil rest for one year after every six years of farming (the next shmita year is September 2021–22). Intended to express gratitude for abundance and share one’s fruits of labor with the less fortunate (in accordance with laws that require farmers to forgive debts and leave field corners for the needy to glean), the practice derives from rules laid out in Exodus (23:10): “And six years thou shalt sow thy land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year thou shalt let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of thy people may eat; and what they leave, the beast of the field shall eat.”
Many farms leave portions of the land fallow for a season. But, says Lucy Zwigard, a farmer at Urban Adamah who has also practiced agroecology in France, “what sets shmita apart from typical crop rotations is that it invites us to reimagine our fundamental relationship with the land. Winter cover cropping and no-till farming, for instance, are still production-based and ‘business-as-usual.’ Shmita is a full-stop, reset, rethink of cultivation.”
While shmita is not widely practiced on commercial farms, even in Israel, its age-old ideals have gained traction in the United States over the past decade as the field of spiritual ecology—an understanding of environmental degradation as rooted in spiritual malaises such as greed and apathy—has taken off.
“Jewish community farms,” including Philadelphia’s Jewish Farm School, Illinois’ Pushing the Envelope Farm, and San Diego’s Coastal Roots Farm all employ the shmita practice as they follow Talmudic agricultural law. These organizations are part of a modern movement with a reawakened interest in what they call “earth-based Judaism,” which approaches climate change and environmental sustainability through a lens of ancient wisdom.
Even secular farms, such as the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, incidentally employ shmita-style philosophies in their work; its farm incorporates the idea of rest and follows a seven-year rotation plan in its vegetable fields, based on the seven major plant families.
In light of new research on carbon sequestration, allowing soil to go fallow poses an age-old, no-maintenance way to regenerate soil at any scale. Industrial agriculture and desertification have together depleted global grasslands and prairies to the extent that, according to Rattan Lal, director of Ohio State University’s Carbon Management and Sequestration Center, the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of the carbon in the soil as it has entered the air as atmospheric carbon dioxide.
In addition to reducing carbon outputs like burnt fossil fuels, humans can draw carbon back into the ground by restoring organic soil matter as a “natural sink.” Through photosynthesis, plants intake carbon from the air and feed it to deep soil organisms, and the healthier the soil, the greater its holding capacity for carbon. Shmita could complement other land conservation and carbon sequestration techniques—includingagroforestry, holistic planned grazing, and regenerative low- and no-till agriculture—by that simply letting land rest can alone increase soil fertility and thus sequester carbon.
Shmita dates back thousands of years, to a time when growing food was more central to human life than it is today. Farmers prepared for several years prior to store food and plant enough perennials to eat during shmita. During that year, they only harvested as much as they needed to eat at any time, and otherwise rested from agricultural labor. (Farmers were the first professionals to take a “sabbatical year,” which later extended to clergy and scholars.) However, the financial and operational logistics make whole-farm shmita much less feasible on today’s farms.
Few farms practice shmita in Israel today, and when they do, ultra-Orthodox Jews eat domestically grown perennials but import annual produce from non-Jewish farmers abroad. (Observant Jews believe that shmita law only applies in Israel, so while they eat any food grown internationally by non-Jews, they cannot eat Israeli-grown annuals.)
Even though the laws of shmita don’t officially apply in America, many farms—ranging from for-profit farms to urban synagogues’ educational gardens and rural retreat centers—harness its wisdom in creative ways, says Shani Mink, a co-founder of the Jewish Farmer Network and a member of the National Young Farmers Coalition.
“At the Isabella Freedman Center in Connecticut, they designate a plot of their land during shmita year as one without fences, meaning that anyone is welcome to come and harvest,” Mink said. “Maryland’s Pearlstone Center scaled back their farming, took a break from their fellowship program, and spent the full year observing the land and composing a master ecological plan that would both grow the community and nurture the biodiversity of the 180-acre property.”
“We donate 70 percent of our produce, and we sell 30 percent of it as pay-what-you-can.”
Philadelphia’s Jewish Farm School only has one fallow bed, but co-founder Nati Passow says, “we manifest shmita’s values in various other ways.” Their garden started as a vacant lot and they eventually took down the fences, bought the lot, and made it a public space for children as well as for community programs. They also started donating produce to Food Not Bombs, a food justice organization with a location across the street.
“By literally taking down fences, we created inclusive public space,” Passow says. “We have been planting more fruit trees, berries, and perennials, and during the last shmita year, we restricted ourselves from storing surplus harvest—because that creates an accumulation of wealth—so that we could only take what we needed at the moment.” Passow also notes that a couple of years ago, the Jewish Farm School held a forum about shmita and, to his surprise, Christians in particular from around the country were interested in learning about and implementing the practice in their congregations and gardens.
San Diego’s Coastal Roots Farm exemplifies another revised shmita observance. “For what we call ‘above-ground growing,’ we plant seedlings and organic matter into GardenSoxx, place them on top of a small shmita bed, and give them drip irrigation so that the ground below can rest,” says Sharone Oren, the farm’s education manager.
“Our farm relies on continual grants—we donate 70 percent of our produce, and we sell 30 percent of it as pay-what-you-can, so we cannot pause operations for one whole year,” Oren explains. “Instead, we use the shmita plot—half of which [is planted with] perennials—as an educational tool, which we arranged as a meditation labyrinth for visitors to wander through and ponder its principles.”
Listening, engaging, and resting with the land
In addition to a history and textual interpretations of shmita, Hazon’s Sourcebook provides an appendix of practical agriculture techniques that combine Jewish law with permaculture design principles. Though permaculture is a relatively new approach—first developed by David Holmgren and Bill Mollison in the late 1970s—many Jewish farmers find its methods compatible with shmita’s principles.
One section, for example, argues that a “perennial-based food system”—which includes trees, shrubs, mushrooms, and wild (uncultivated) crops—leads to a healthier and more resilient food ecology. Perennial plants “invest more into their own plant body (since they are long-lived), while annuals invest more in producing seed (since they live only through their seed production),” according to the book. They therefore have longer roots that tolerate drought and access more nutrients in the soil, stronger bodies that resist diseases and pests, and single planting that reduces soil disruption.Yigal Deutscher, a farmer, permaculture designer, and author of Envisioning Sabbatical Culture: A Shmita Manifesto, says that shmita is more than just producing food and undoing the shortcuts that industrial agriculture has taken to make unsustainable profits, he says. “It is a whole systematic approach of regenerative agriculture. You cannot just buy a permaculture book and be all set. Every land has its own agreements with the people who tend it, and each has a different mythology and ecological relationship that has taken generations upon generations to learn.”
No matter if a farmer is Jewish or secular, uses crop rotations or no-till methods, harvests wild annuals or only perennials, Deutscher says, they apply shmita if they listen to and engage in a deep ecological relationship with the particular land and its needs.
Perhaps shmita could be the next sustainable agriculture wave, or as environmental psychologist and activist Dr. Mirele B. Goldsmith foresees, “In a world inspired by shmita, there will be no early deaths from filthy air, no oil spills, no devastated mountains and collapsing coal mines, no toxic wastewater from fracking, no contaminated nuclear plants, no oil-fueled wars, and no climate change.” Despite various interpretations, one conviction is ubiquitous: periodic rest is essential for one’s field and, by extension, the planet’s health.
This article was originally published by Civil Eats. It has been republished here with permission.