Building Soil, Building the Future

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Learn how to grow more vegetables, fruits and other crops than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine.
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If we don't start revolutionizing our agricultural practices to better care for the Earth's soils, we could be in danger of running out of farmable land in less than 50 years.

Learn How to Grow More Vegetables (Ten Speed Press, 2012) by John Jeavons is the go-to guide for at-home food growers and small-scale commercial producers. Yield bountiful crops over multiple growing cycles using minimal resources in a suburban environment. Optimize soil fertility and increase plant productivity while adopting an environmentally sound approach to tending your garden. Learn the dangers associated with conventional agricultural practices, which deplete the soil of organic matter and essential minerals needed to yield quality plant-life. Understand how food-growers can restore the Earth and its soils by practicing GROW BIOTENSIVE techniques in this excerpt taken from the book’s introduction, “Building Soil, Building the Future.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: How to Grow More Vegetables (8th Edition).

There is an exciting challenge ahead of us. How can we revitalize our extraordinary planet, ensuring life and health for the environment, the life-forms of a myriad of ecosystems, humankind, and future generations? The answer is as close to us as the food we consume each day. We can begin to create a better world from right where we are — in home gardens and mini-farms. Millions of people in over 140 countries are already using GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming techniques to work toward this better world.

We “farm” as we eat. If we consume food that has been grown using methods that inadvertently deplete the soil in the growing process, we are responsible for depleting the soil. It is how we are “farming.” If, instead, we raise or request food grown in ways that heal the Earth, then we are healing the Earth and its soils. Our daily food choices make the difference. We can choose to sustain ourselves while increasing the planet’s vitality. In the process, we preserve resources, breathe cleaner air, enjoy good exercise, and eat pure food.

What are the dimensions of the challenge of raising food that sustains the soil? Current agricultural practices reportedly destroy approximately 6 pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. United States croplands are losing topsoil about 18 times faster than the soil formation rate. This loss is not sustainable. In fact, worldwide only about 33 to 49 years’ worth of farmable soil remains.

Why is this happening? Conventional agricultural practices often deplete the soil 18 to 80 times more rapidly than nature builds soil. This phenomenon happens when the humus (cured organic matter) in the soil is used up and not replaced, when cropping patterns are used that tend to deplete the soil’s structure, and when minerals are removed from the soil more rapidly than they are replaced. Even organic farming probably depletes the soil 9 to 67 times faster than nature builds it, by importing organic matter and minerals from other soils, which thereby becomes increasingly depleted. The planetary result is a net reduction in overall soil quality.

In contrast, the techniques used in GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming can build the soil up to 60 times faster than in nature. The overall goal of GROW BIOINTENSIVE techniques,which distinguishes these techniques from Biointensivepractices, is the miniaturization of food production in a closed system. GROW BIOINTENSIVE features the use of the following eight techniques in a closed system that does not use any chemical substances. Ten years ago, Ecology Action coined the term “GROW BIOINTENSIVE” to refer to this style of production.

Biointensive techniques include:

Deep soil preparation, which develops good soil structure. Oncethis structure is established, it may be maintained for several yearswith 2-inch-deep surface cultivation (until compaction once againnecessitates deep soil preparation).

The use of compost (humus) for soil fertility and nutrients

Close plant spacing, as in nature

Synergistic planting of crop combinations so plants that are grown together enhance each other

Carbon-efficient crops by which approximately 60% of the growingarea is planted in dual-purpose seed and grain crops for the production of large amounts of carbonaceous material for compost andsignificant amounts of dietary calories

Calorie-efficient crops by which approximately 30% of the growingarea is planted in special root crops, such as potatoes, leeks,garlic, parsnips, and Jerusalem artichokes, which produce a largeamount of calories for the diet per unit of area

The use of open-pollinated seeds to preserve genetic diversity

A whole, interrelated farming system. When GROW BIOINTENSIVEis used properly–with all of its components and so allwastes are recycled and enough organic matter is grown to ensurethat each farm can produce enough compost to create and maintainsustainable soil fertility–GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming can create soil rapidly and maintain sustainable soil fertility. It is how each of us uses GROW BIOINTENSIVE, or otherfood-raising practices, that makes a living difference!

The combination of these techniques makes it possible togreatly reduce resources compared to conventional agriculturalpractices while greatly increasing soil fertility and productivity.

A 67% to 88% reduction in water consumption per unit of production

A 50+% reduction in the amount of purchased fertilizer in organic fertilizer form required per unit of production

A 94% to 99% reduction in the amount of energy used per unit of production

A 100+% increase in soil fertility, while productivity increases and resource use decreases

 A 200% to 400% increase in caloric production per unit of area

A 100+% increase in income per unit of area

However, GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farming (or any other sustainable farming practice) is not a panacea. If not used properly GROW BIOINTENSIVE practices can deplete the soil more rapidly than other farming practices because of the high yields. But above all, using only a single agricultural approach to grow food would not be vital. It would be another form of “monocropping” in a living world ecosystem that thrives on diversity. Sustainable approaches in the future will probably be a synthesis, a sustainable collage, of:



No-till Fukuoka food raising

Traditional Asian blue-green algal wet rice farming

Natural rainfall “arid” farming

Indigenous farming

These food-growing techniques are only part of a sustainable future. To preserve the plant and animal genetic diversity upon which we all depend, we will need to keep one-half of the world’s farmable land in a wild, natural state. As we begin to use sustainable, land and resource-conserving food-raising approaches, more wilderness areas can remain untouched so more of the endangered plant and animal diversity on this Earth can be preserved. This wealth of genetic diversity is necessary if the planet on which we live is to support abundance.

Generally, the challenges of world hunger, soil depletion, and diminishing resources seem so overwhelming that we tend to look for big solutions, such as shipping massive amounts of grain, breeding high-yield miracle crops, or establishing infrastructures–bank loans, machinery and fertilizer purchases, markets, and roads.

These solutions create long-term dependency. What is so exciting about a personal approach is that it seeks to answer the question, “How do we enable ourselves to take care of our own needs?” Personal solutions will have as many varied applications as there are people, soils, climates, and cultures. Our research of one of these sustainable proposals, GROW BIOINTENSIVE, is a way for people to begin to develop these solutions.

Our work grew out of personal concern about worldwide starvation and malnutrition, augmented by a sober assessment of the unsustainability of the most dominant current methods of producing our food. We came to believe that if we could determine the smallest amount of land and resources needed for one person to supply all of his or her own needs in a sustainable way, we might arrive at a personal solution. What if a person could, in a tiny area, easily raise all the crops that would supply all food, clothes, building materials, compost materials, seeds, and income for an entire year? We asked whether others knew the smallest area required. No one did. So we began our 40-year (and counting)quest.

The way humankind is currently living and increasing in population,we will not be able to provide for our own food needs soon ifwe do not grow living soil at a time of peak farmable soil. The chartsin Appendix 2 illustrate how that in as little as two years, theremay only be an average off 9,000 square feet of farmable land perperson for a large number of people. We also need to leave half ofthat land in its natural, wild state to preserve plant and animalgenetic diversity in thriving mini-ecosystems. This in turn willenable Nature’s natural cycles to provide a wonderful life for us all.

Therefore, much of that theoretically accessible land becomeslimited to about 4,500 square feet, and this availability may belimited further as water becomes less available to water crops. TheUN-FAO has reported that, in as little as 13 years, in 2025, increasingly limited water availability means that as many as two-thirds ofthe world population, about 5 billion people, may not have enoughwater to grow sufficient food. With GROW BIOINTENSIVE SustainableMini-Farming, it may be possible to grow all the food for one’s nutrition, as well as “food” for the soil, on as little as 4,000 squarefeet, without a great amount of difficulty–and with 67% to 88% lesswater per pound of food produced. This is important, as 70% to 80%of the water used by people is used for farming. If we all have thewill, we can transform a water scarcity into water abundance.

The energy crisis is not in a barrel of oil, it is primarily in ourselves!

We also believe that GROW BIOINTENSIVE can produce more net income per acre than conventional farming practices. In striving for quality gardening, a person may thus be able to provide a diet and income with a living soil more than sufficient for his or her needs. The effort will produce a human renaissance and a cornucopia of food for all.

The whole world is becoming urbanized. Currently, 91% of the people in India live in cities. Soon, 90% of the people in China will be urban. Japan, Mexico, and Kenya are importing approximately 60% of their calories. People are moving to cities for a better life and more “food security,” yet increasingly the world surplus food supply is dwindling. What if we were unable to import food at a reasonable price, or not at all? Most of the world’s people have lost the skill of farming literacy. The Chinese used to call their farmers Living Libraries, because they knew that the farmers knew more than they learned in school, from their parents or from millennia of experience and tradition. They felt it in their hands, hearts and hands.

We need to relearn this! The Hananoo culture in the Philippines grew into place in the Stone Age. They still thrive. Its members are illiterate. Eighty percent of their meal conversations are about food-raising, and their children play farmer. This culture has a 200-crop, 5-year rotation growing system with 40 varieties of rice grown each year–so that whether the climate is hot, cold, wet or dry, they will have a good harvest of calories! The Mayan culture in Guatemala survived when other civilizations around them faded. They did this, in part, through neighborhood biologically intensive food-raising. No one knows why this very skilled and intelligent culture eventually disappeared. There are many possibilities, including disease, but one is that the food-raising practices may not have been used with full sustainability. Many cultures have faded due to unsustainable soil practices. North Africa used to be the granary for Rome–until it was over-farmed. Now it is in great part a desert. The Sahara desert used to be a forest, until it was clear cut too frequently. At the rate the world has been becoming desertified since 1977, the planet may be completely desertified in just 70 years. There may even be as little as 33 to 49 years of farmable soil remaining in the world.

We all have an opportunity now to become farming literate! The world has spent the last 30 years becoming computer literate. Why not spend the next 30 years becoming farming literate? If we can get to the moon and back with all of our intelligence, skill and wisdom, we can grow soil–and this living sponge cake can grow healthy food for us plus good compost materials to enrich our soils. Newsweek magazine once called the soil produced by biologically intensive food-raising the sacher torte, or rich high quality pastry, of gardening.

We may think this is impossible, yet an Early Stone Age culture in northern Iran 10,000 years ago grew its calorie needs in just 20 hours a year–20 minutes a day for 60 days–according to anthropologists. Let’s give ourselves a fivefold handicap and work on rediscovering how to grow all our food in just 100 hours a year per person!

How can we live better on fewer resources? It is possible! Why not begin now and avoid the rush?

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Grow More Vegetables (8th Edition) by John Jeavons, published by Ten Speed Press, 2012.