Digging Out: It Starts With Soil
Last Year on Earth Day, we introduced our newest oat farmer, Scott Weidemeijer of Grassway Organic Farms and his family, to inspire hope in the role regenerative agriculture can play in helping keep this Earth of ours healthy for future generations. Now more than ever, I am looking for signs of hope, so I checked in with Scott again to see how he and his family were doing. I had recently read that dairy farms were hurting with school and restaurant closures, and I knew Grassway depends on the organic dairy market. While watching the At Home With Farm Aid concert, I got an optimistic response from Scott- they are doing just fine, and coincidently, he had just gotten our oats planted right before the Easter snow storm, which is supposed to correlate to a good crop.
Back in July (which seems like 5 years ago), the boys and I giddily climbed into Scott’s combine during the harvest for a loop around his oat field. This might not sound like a lot, but 96 acres @ 3 mph gave us a lot of time to get to know each other. This particular oat field in Northeast Iowa was, not surprisingly, surrounded by corn fields, and had been either corn or soybeans for at least the last 50 years. Scott was in the process of transitioning this field over to organic like the rest of his farm, and these oats and the subsequent cover crop were key to the process.
After harvest, we were happy to hear that Scott's oats made food grade (not an easy task on the first go around), and he exceeded his yield expectations. Mission accomplished, right? This was actually just the start of his 3-year crop rotation and transition to organic. Scott had underseeded his oats with a cover crop that remains after the oats are harvested (the green vegetation on the ground in the photo above) which keeps the soil healthy and stable through the winter. These living cover crops sequester carbon and many other nutrients into the soil, keeping his soil life active through the winter and jump starting the biology in the Spring as fresh soil compost.
Fast forward to last week and the era of social distancing. While we would have preferred to join him while he planted what he calls “breakfast goodness”, Scott texted me the photo below which gave me the hope I was seeking. The photo shows the difference in soils between a traditional corn field and our oat and cover crop field after just one year. In the words of Scott, "if you could imagine holding a rich piece of dark chocolate cake crumbs in your hand (the same things that make great cake make great soil...moist, light and fluffy), that is what the bottom soil feels like. That is not dirt but living soil."
As we look for ways to move forward when faced with something as large and daunting as a pandemic or broken food system, it is helpful to focus on one thing at a time, and it starts with soil. Living soil is the basis for the healthy and sustainable food system we so desperately need more of. This living soil depends on a farmer who operates a regenerative, diverse cropping system with carefully managed livestock grazing. The farmer depends on a market and fair pricing that supports these diverse crops, which is where Seven Sundays and other food companies can play a role. And Seven Sundays depends on buyers and consumers who care (like all of you who have read this far) where we source our ingredients and who are willing to vote with their dollars on small ethically-run businesses.
Scott is planting another roughly 100 acres of oats for us this year. At Seven Sundays, we are adding three more oat farmers in the Corn Belt: two in Minnesota and another in Northeast Iowa for a total of 250 acres of oats, all of which are transitioning fields to organic in a similar fashion. We have also added an additional buckwheat farmer and an organic flax grower from Minnesota. Once we can safely visit, we plan to visit them all with an eager handshake, lots of questions and a polite request for a combine ride.
Let’s not hope for a return to normal. We can hope the virus goes away and people go back to work as soon as possible, but remember "normal" was not working for farmers or human health. Instead, let’s hope for better, and as we dig ourselves out from this pandemic, lets work together to rebuild a diverse, healthy, regenerative food and agriculture system that works for everyone.
Stay safe and keep digging,