The Link Between Soil and Health23 May 2012
It’s different to know about a thing than to know that thing. Knowing about something entails having ideas, opinions and beliefs about that thing. It’s what we read about and hear from others or perhaps the conclusion we arrive at after analyzing and synthesizing these ideas. But knowing a thing is different. When a child places her finger into a flame, she intimately learns that fire burns, not because mommy or daddy told her so or because she thought about it, but because of her direct experience. Most people mistake their mental constructions for the object of contemplation. Few take on the task of going beyond intellectual understanding to direct experience. Steve Solomon is of the later kind. A rare breed of natural story-teller, Steve draws the dots and lets you connect them, and his rich voice rings through you like a deep Tibetan bowl. While his expansive knowledge about myth, spirituality, history, gardening, chemistry, economics and politics is impressive, it’s his quick wit, sense of humor, integrity and honesty, grown from direct personal experience which inspires and breathes life into what most would consider a stale topic: soil.
So what are you doing in Tasmania?
I‘m hanging out, man! I’m 66 and a half years old, kinda retiring and taking it easy. I’m writing books, running the Soil and Health Library website and a market-garden . It’s all based on fun rather than any necessity to make money. It’s a very fortunate circumstance. Have you read any books by Nikos Kazantzakis? He wrote on spiritual matters, God calling on people to do things, and the characters told God to piss off and leave them alone. “Don’t bother me with that shit, man! I just want to enjoy myself . Why put me at risk?” To a degree the Soil and Health Library is a required duty of mine; I don’t have much choice about it, I feel like my whole life was setting me up to do this, you see? I’d been in the seed business for 7 years, intending a 1/3 of the year occupation making me $1,000 a month but before long I had 13 people working for me, dealing with international seed bandits and pirates, trying to get decent seed for people, having all the problems of credit, and employees and blah, blah, blah. I didn’t want it, you see? One day I realized if I sold it maybe we could live on the proceeds just above the poverty level for the rest of our lives. But it didn’t work like that. I found a buyer who didn’t have enough money. But I liked him and we made a strange deal. Two or three years later I was standing in the middle of the field asking the Universe, “how come I’m getting 3 times more money than I expected?” The Universe said, “There’s a reason, but you won’t know for another 6 or 7 years. Save your money, stay out of trouble and keep your health because there’s something that will require you to finance it yourself.” So I did, without realizing that my wife Isabelle had to die so I could do this thing.
When hearing the tinge of sorrow in his words, the most appropriate response was silence. And then:
How does the Universe talk to you?
You have to listen, you see? Everybody talks to God, it’s easy you know? The hard part is listening to the answer. It comes in thoughts or a sort of knowingness, I don’t know how to explain it . Like a strong intuition. It’s easy to deceive yourself about that sort of thing. Anyhow, there’s a lot of really weird shit about Steve Solomon. I’m getting stranger as I get older and less concerned about what people think! Now, shall we get down to some business here?
Ok, bring it. How did you get into soil remineralization?
This is a good story. It’s going to be challenging because you probably think organic is the way to grow stuff. When I started gardening in 1974 I thought so too. I learned from lots of mistakes, I read every organic gardening book, and I was completely taken in by J.I. Rodale’s information. You gotta understand how the organic movement came about. J.I. Rodale in 1942 was an industrialist. He took a business trip to London during the blitz and found himself one night hearing a lecture by Sir Albert Howard and immediately had a purpose in his life far greater than making money. He returned to Pennsylvania, bought himself a farm and started Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, basically introducing the idea to the United States. Organic Gardening became the thing.
The nature of Organic then had mostly to do with what materials went into the soil. There was a good list and a bad list of things to use. The unstated belief was that if you ate organic food, you’d be perfectly healthy and never grow old and die, like in the movie Sleeper by Woody Allen. He wakes up in a hospital and the doctor explains that he’s been frozen for 150 years, recently thawed and his friends are now dead. Woody says, “but I had a health-food store and we all ate brown rice, so they can’t be dead!” Anyhow, that was kind of the belief and mystique of organic in those days. The fact of it is that a list of substances is not the best way to determine how to grow crops. But in my early gardening days I believed it, I didn’t know any different. Like everybody else in the 70s, I thought that if you just put enough organic matter into any old clay pit or gravel heap you could turn it into a Garden of Eatin’
Yes that’s a common notion. What’s the truth?
The truth is that in 1978 yours truly bought a 5 acre homestead in Oregon. All the topsoil had washed off the hillside from growing grains and heavy winter rains,
leaving only the silty-clay subsoil. It looked pretty in the spring and all of us fools came up from the city and bought acres of useless, worn out farmland. I put in a garden and
a couple of years later, a trials ground for the seed business I started. I took a half acre field and got that clay to behave somewhat like soil capable of growing veggies half as well as they’d grow on a proper piece of ground. The seed business didn’t work so well in the beginning and I had little choice but to eat what grew from the trials ground.
At the time I developed a relationship with a lady named Isabelle Moser. She was a Natural Hygienist not of any dogmatic belief, she was always an eclectic and took from everybody. No matter what your beliefs, Isabelle recommended something you disagreed with . She was very much into raw foods and eating lots of vegetables and I had a huge field of vegetables and almost no money. So Isabelle and I moved in together in 1982.
For the first 2 years of my seed company, I ate about 80 percent of my calories from the trials ground, so in a way I was a lot like a cow getting all her nutrition from the same pasture, you know what I mean? My body’s health reflected the nutritional quality of the food I grew. And I started loosing my teeth and vigor. There I was eating all organically grown raw fruits and vegetables, working hard, living in the country and having a good life. It didn’t make any sense! We thought it was due to the stresses of the business which was growing beyond anything I ever wanted. It finally got big enough and we took a 5 1/2 month sabbatical in Fiji, where we shopped everyday in the central produce market. During that time our health got better, my teeth tightened up, Isabelle’s fingernails hardened,we had good energy and felt relaxed and com- fortable again. We thought it was the lifestyle and lack of stress. We swam everyday and squeaked the mattress a lot.
I decided to take a look at where most of the vegetables being sold at the market came from. We hired a car and drove out to the government research station in the
Sigatoka Valley and it was amazing. It was the first time in my life I lusted for a piece of land! There are two seasons in Fiji: a hot rainy season with an occasional hurricane and a mild temperate season when vegetable crops grow. When the hot weather starts, most crops get killed by fungal diseases or other things, as they’re not suited to grow in those conditions. The grasses and weeds take over, grow waist high and thickly cover the ground. The rains stop four or five months later and they till in the rank weed growth. That’s all the organic matter that soil gets – they use no fertilizer. Every two or three years there’s a hurricane and the river floods, depositing a thick layer of silt coming from something called ultra-basic igneous rock, which is chock-full of plant nutrients, on the land. That’s their fertilizer.
Within six months of returning to Oregon and eating the trial grounds our health was falling apart again. There was something I didn’t understand, you see? I lost teeth!
I also heard of others who ate from a single organic garden and had massive deterioration in their health. I started to research, especially somebody named William Albrecht. I discovered that the nutritional quality of food coming from a piece of ground is a function of the amount and ratios of mineralization in the soil. Even when the various minerals levels are healthy, if you put the ratios too far out of balance you end up with food that’s not very nutritionally valuable. I also found a book called Factors in Soil Formation by Hans Jenny who said that the amount of organic matter content that develops on a field is mostly determined by the soil temperature and rainfall, and it has very little to do with the mineral content of the soil. When you have a lot of moisture, you have a lot of plant vegetation produced. If the temperatures are warm, it decomposes rapidly, especially in moist soil. Those are the factors at work. In a hot dry place like southern California, you tend to get soil that’s only 1% or so organic matter, while in a humid, cool place like Minnesota, you often run into soils with 5 or 6 percent organic matter. If you look at anything a little cooler and wetter than northern Minnesota, you’ll find a peat bog. The organic matter level in soil is important, but it’s not of the supreme importance that the Organic Gardening and Farming movement makes it.
My theory is that what really matters is how much plant life rots every year on the soil, in turn providing phytomins which are the vitamin-like substances that ensure fully healthy plants. For a plant to get its phytomins and for the thriving soil with lots of ecology happening in it, you don’t need more than between 1 to 5 percent organic matter. The amount you want to develop in a garden mostly depends on your climate—unless you’ve got a soil that has a texture not suitable for growing vegetables. If you have a clay soil that won’t grow vegetables, you can try to make it into something like loam soil by upping organic matter content, but this is a mistake! As you build soil organic matter to high levels it’s almost inevitable that you bring in very large quantities of potassium.
When plants intake nutrients and go through their growth cycles, especially the kind that end up making compost, which are usually grasses – most of our compost is made from grass fed to animals – they concentrate the most valuable minerals, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and trace minerals, around the seed, to give it a good start. The straw remaining after seed-making completes is mostly potassium and carbon. But if you cut the grass before any seed formation starts, it’ll have a high nutrient content and it’s actually quite rich stuff. Even young green grass is as potent as alfalfa. As seed formation happens, the chemical nature of the grass shifts, getting more potassium and less of anything else. Most hay and stuff fed to animals is heavy in potassium and build higher potassium levels in the soil.
This is where it gets interesting: plants change their content due to a process called luxury consumption of potassium. The higher potassium levels in the soil cause the plant to substitute potassium for calcium and magnesium in certain places, changing the nutritional structure of the food. You can take seeds from the same plant, put them in two soils, one higher in potassium than the other, and the soil with higher potassium will produce about 25% more bulk yield, fiber, and carbohydrates. The mineral content of the food will contain very high levels of potassium, which we don’t need much of, and much less calcium and magnesium, which we need more of. If you switch this around, drop the potassium to more moderate levels while simultaneously boosting the calcium and magnesium levels of the soil, you produce 25% more protein and 25% less bulk yield. With protein comes the more beneficial enzymes and vitamins, whereas manufacturing carbohydrates is nutritionally cheap, it’s just starch and water. That’s why today, agronomists making farm recommendations suggest potassium fertilizers: they’re thinking profit. More bulk equals more profit. The organic growers also want bulk yield since they make even more profit. Everyone is thinking about profit, not about nutritional content.
That’s what happened to me in my trials ground. I exclusively ate food that was very low in calcium and magnesium and very high in potassium and had lots more carbohydrates than I needed relative to the more valuable nutrition that could have been in it. As a consequence my body started to demineralize. My body was taking calcium and phosphorus from my jawbone - my teeth were getting loose. I came to realize this and thought, well, how can I manage soil so that this doesn’t happen? And I worked on a different gardening system. Basically you put in as little organic matter as possible. You must have some though. Albrecht also asserted, and I suggest he is probably correct, that there is no way in a laboratory to determine the nutritional quality of a food because we don’t even know what we want!
We don’t know what the nutritional targets are?
Exactly! We don’t have a clue! He said the only way to determine the nutritional results of your method is to perform a biological assay. You get a bunch of bunnies or mice or rats or something like that and divide them into two groups, one is a control and the other group you feed the food you’re testing. You have to do this for four generations, and the test animals will either be bigger or smaller or the same. They’ll live longer or shorter, have more babies or less babies, more disease or less disease. I can show you historical results of tests like these that were done by some of the founders of the Organic Farming and Gardening movement or by Albrecht himself and you can see massive differences in the appearances of the animals in just a couple of generations.
Based on those kinds of tests, Albrecht at the very end of his life published some suggestions. Based on this information I compiled something called Complete Organic Fertilizer (COF), and the formula makes an assumption: in your soil there is no nutrition at all. We’re going to put it in as proper a ratio as Albrecht would like to see it. The results of this approach are extremely good for most soils and climates and it’s actually one of the most inexpensive and most effective ways to grow a garden. COF is rock powder, seed meal, kelp meal and often some kind of concentrated phosphate like guano or bone meal. The seed meal is any kind of oil seed waste from things like cotton, canola, soybean, or linseed. It’s best for vegetable crops if the amount of phosphorus is roughly equal to the amount of nitrogen. Most seed meals run at about 6 percent nitrogen, 3 to 4 percent phosphorus, and 1 to 2 percent potassium, fairly close to the ratios you’d want in your garden soil but not ideal. We boost the phosphorus content a bit and add calcium and magnesium in the right ratio: 6 to 1. This is very important. Anything between 4 to 1 and 8 to 1 seems to work well. We don’t exactly know what the right ratio is and it might vary by crop. I add some kelp meal, which contains hormone-like substances invigorating plant growth, and trace minerals.
It takes five of today’s apples to get the equivalent amount of nutrition as one apple from 1965. Where do you see the nutritional situation 50 years from now?
There was an article a few years ago comparing a recent USDA list of the nutritional content of food with one from several decades ago, and the nutritional content dropped about 25-33% across the board, more in some nutrients. Making future predictions is very dicey, but I hope that there will be a global transformation of consciousness which is probably ridiculous, but it’s sort of happening in my life. Maybe the future will not be a logical and rational extension of current trends, but if it is, this is what I expect in 50 years: We’re going to have a different elite on this planet living to be 150-200 years old. Various kinds of life extension technologies including human growth hormones and other ways to manipulate the body’s biochemistry are being developed so to make the body have a younger biochemical profile. Now, imagine somebody who’s 120 years old and looks like they are 50. Their consciousness is going to be different. They’re going to have another 100 years worth of experience behind them. Their investments are going to have all those extra years to compound and multiply. They’re going to have incredible power and knowledge. They’re not going to be any nicer than the gorillas currently running this planet. We’re moving closer to corporate feudalism. There are big corporations in the US that make prepared, packaged food. The same interests make animal food and human food. They’re compiling food that is right for feed lots, for farms and for supermarkets . They understand how to make an animal fat and big in a short period of time in an unhealthy manner that doesn’t allow the animal to breed, reproduce and live long. They also know how to do the opposite: how to make that animal grow more slowly, live a long time, be healthy and successfully reproduce. It’s the same with human beings. They know what they’re doing and they know the results of the type of food they’re putting on the supermarket shelves. They are going to be the only ones able to afford organically grown foods , you understand? Anyway, there’s a vision of the future that you probably don’t like. I don’t like it much either, but I think it’s likely unless we have a planetary change of consciousness.
People believe that if they eat right they’re going to be healthy. But they go into the market and end up buying food that’s virtually devoid of nutrition. A well nourished body would throw off a minor insult of pesticide residues. We have to get beyond the term organic. It’s nutrition that matters. You see, The problem isn’t that there are residues of pesticides in our food, the problem is that there are residues of nutrition in our food!
Should we grow our own food then?
You’ve got to! There’s no way to depend on the industrial food system. It’s not designed to produce nutritious food, it’s designed to generate profits. Even organically-grown food is only marginally better. Using seeds as the basis of your food, especially sprouting them, is a really good idea. The plant is going to concentrate the very best of everything it accumulated into the seed. However the potency of those seeds is going to vary widely. You need high quality seeds. What we’re doing here besides running the Soil and Health library and publishing books is raising vegetables for sale. We’ve got a couple of refrigerators on the corner of the property and an honor box for cash. People come and take their veggies; we earned $18,000 last year, all with hand tools, shovel, rake, hoe and wheel barrel. Some children in this community will no longer eat carrots from the supermarket. They’re finding out what real food tastes like! We’re actually creating a change in consciousness in our community where we can do something. I think that’s probably the only viable answer.
One last thing, Steve: how did the Soil and Health Library come about?
In 1994 Isabelle came to the end of her rope as a caregiver taking in sick people into her home for extended fasting, but she couldn’t reckon how to get away from the ongoing flow of inquiries and requests for help. I suggested that she write a book, at least she could answer inquiries with a book instead of a flat refusal, and her book might inspire someone to take her place. So we went to Costa Rica, rented the ex-homestead of Edmond Szekely in Orosi and spent a few months writing every day. But when it was finished we found no one would publish the book; it failed to fit any categories. Two years later Isabelle died. Her book still unpublished, it occurred to me one night that the internet might allow the book to be well read. And as long as I was at it, why not set her book into a circle of small diamonds surrounded by other public domain titles she loved. It also occurred to me that there were a lot of old important agriculture related books, and thus the Soil and Health Library was born in an evening’s inspiration. Had she remained alive my attention would have remained on the relationship and never would have reached to making a website.
Like soil, knowledge exists in strata: devotional, intellectual and experiential. Devotional knowledge lays at the surface-level of understanding, what we learn from our those we respect or fear. Intellectual knowledge runs beneath; it’s the layer of understanding we arrive at through deliberate thought. The deepest level of understanding or wisdom, can only be arrived at by direct experience. Having dug through these layers over decades, Steve Solomon’s knowledge of soil, health and growing food is rich with such experience.
Vol 29 Issue 4 Page 24