Symphony of the Soil – Deborah Koons Garcia, Thomas J. Akin, Serita D. Frey, PhD, Jim Ward

Soil is truly a miraculous substance. It is connected to all life on our planet
and is teaming with life all on its own. Scientists have said one million creatures
exist in a tablespoon of topsoil. And that there are more living organisms
beneath the surface of the soil than above. It’s pretty amazing. To help us dig into and appreciate the
mysteries of soil. We are honored to host conservation
agronomist Tom Akin, microbial ecologist Dr. Serita Frey and
farmer Jim Ward. For our screening of the film Symphony of
the Soil, which we are so pleased to be able to offer to you to see
tonight. It’s such a magnificent movie. And we have a very special surprise guest,
the film’s director, Deborah Koons Garcia, is here with us. And so that’s a really nice surprise for
all of us. [APPLAUSE]
And the way the evening will play out is first we will hear a short
introduction from Tom Aiken, then we will watch the film, and after the
film, our special guests will all come up and
they’ll have a conversation. And that will happen before we take
questions, but we will take some questions. And then we will all be able to retire
down one floor for the soil activities again and all of our
presen, our special guests will be there to continue conversations and
answer more questions. So, without further ado to start us off. Please welcome Tom Aiken. [NOISE]
[APPLAUSE].>>Thank you Lisa and good evening
everyone. Thank you for joining us to learn about
one of our most important natural resources, the living soil. I would also like to thank the films
Director Miss Deborah Koons Garcia who is with us this evening. Deborah thank you for making this
beautiful film it’s wonderful. Before we get started [COUGH] I’d like to
give you some context on the importance of improving our soil’s
health. When I was a graduate student UMASS
Amherst many years ago, I had the good fortune take a soil physics
with Dr. Daniel Hillel. Dr. Hillel, who’s featured in the Symphony of the
Soil, won the World Food Prize in 2012. For his many contributions to soil
science. Dr. Hillel admo, admonished us on that
first day of class. Soil is not dirt. Soil is what you sweep off the floor. He said that soil is full of life. Dr. Hillel was referring to those millions
of species of bacteria, fungi. Protozoa and arthropods that call the soil
their home. They are the carbon based life of the
soil. Though only a tiny fraction of the total
soil mass, these living organisms mediate 90% of the
soil functions. They make nutrients available to support
plant growth, they purify our water, and they moderate the Earth’s atmosphere. Over the last several years, we’ve
witnessed some very intense weather. Wet cold Springs followed by hot, very dry
Summers. Followed by big rain events in the fall, with several inches of rain falling in an
hour. For soils to function well, in adverse
conditions, they need to be resilient. And resilience comes from increasing the
quantity and quality of the carbon in our soils, which
in turn comes from those living organisms. These organisms secrete biological glues
that give the soil structure and resilience and allow the soil to allow heavy rains to
soak in and to recharge the water table. Instead of running off, and carrying sediment and nutrients into
our streams and rivers. In short, healthy soil can be a vast
reservoir for storing more atmospheric carbon and hence buffering
some of the effects of climate change. At the Natural Resources Conservation
Service we promote the importance of soil health to farmers. Born out of the necessity of the dust bowl
back in the 1930s the Soil Conservation Service. Helped farmers heal their ravaged soils by
reestablishing permanent vegetation on land that never should have
been plowed in the first place. Fast forward to today, and soil erosion remains a serious problem in
many parts of the county. By us, by some estimates we’ve lost one
third of our top soil. And over the last 100 years, half of the
nation’s soil organic matter has been burned off due to tillage, that is
plowing, rototilling, and cultivation. Healthy soil is becoming a scarce and
precious commodity. One of the ways that we can improve this
soil health. Is to decrease the amount of tillage on
farms. Tillage breaks down soil structure and destroys those biological glues by
introducing large quantities of oxygen into the root zone which burns off
the carbon in the soil. Rain that hits these carbon depleted soils
won’t infiltrate as easily. And during the dust bowl, excessive
plowing caused soil organic matter levels to decrease to
unsustainable levels. When the droughts came, crops failed, and there was nothing to hold the soil
together. It just blew away. One of the ways to prevent this is to keep
the soil covered throughout the year with living plants. Living plant roots pump carbohydrates in
to the soil that feeds the microbial life, that builds healthy soil. [COUGH] Joining us this evening, are Dr. Serita Frey, professor of soil ecology at
UNH. And Mr. Jim Ward a vegetable farmer from
Sharon, Massachusetts. Both of these folks are helping to spread
the good news of the importance of soil health. Dr. Frey’s research includes a study of
nitrogen deposition, and it’s effects along with climate change on
soil microbiology. She also conducts her research at the
Harvard forest in Peterstown, Massachusetts. Jim Ward along with his brother Bob owns
and operates the 150 acre Ward Berry Farm in
Sharon. Jim has farmed for over 30 years and grows
some of the tastiest sweetcorn and potato, tomatoes in, in the state. And the strawberries and peaches are
pretty good too. A number of years ago Jim noticed that his
crop seemed to require more irrigation and more fertilizer. Pest problems were increasing. But most troublesome were the yield
declines. Jim decided to reduce the amount of
tillage he was doing. He began planting cover crops after
harvesting his summer vegetables. And then he would plant pumpkins and sweet corn into cover crop residue from
the previous fall using no-till methods. The organic matter levels. In his soils are now back where they
should be. The soil shaded by the cover crop residue
stays cooler throughout the Summer, requires little, if any, irrigation, and improving the soil’s health is paying
dividends for Jim and his customers. In the Symphony of the Soil, you will hear
stories from Scholars like Serita. And farmers like Jim. They are the stories of people convinced
of the important of healthy soil, and committed to leaving the world better
than they found it. Thanks again for coming, and I hope you
enjoy this wonderful film. [APPLAUSE]. [MUSIC]>>Most of the planet is not living. It’s mineral, it’s never known life, it’s
just this rock. [MUSIC] And yet soil starts forming on it and
creates this very thin layer… [MUSIC] Where life is possible. [MUSIC] Soil’s the interface between biology and geology, it’s sort of the living skin of
the Earth. [MUSIC]>>It’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve,
all the time in the soil. When you take that soil and you put it
under a microscope and you start looking at it. [MUSIC] It’s a place full of life.>>I can go down thousands of years in
this. [MUSIC]>>This hasn’t been shaped by life yet. [MUSIC]>>Many of the elements have been washed
out of the soil because it’s so wet here. [MUSIC]>>We make about 200 to 300 yards of our
own compost. every year. [MUSIC]>>We don’t grow plants, we grow soil and
soil grows plants. [MUSIC]>>This soil just goes down and down and
down and down and down, deep rich and I didn’t start off
like that.>>It cannot have good flavor without that
kind of attention to detail and, and knowledge of the biology. [MUSIC]>>If we have declared a war against the
soil itself, then we are literally committing a species
level suicide. [MUSIC]>>And the only thing that I can see that
really looks promising, is to get back to fundamentals of the
soil.>>The soil returns to what it was like. When it was first broken out. [MUSIC]>>So alive and so vital. [MUSIC]>>Wow what an amazing piece of art and
film. [APPLAUSE]. Mrs. Deborah Koons Garcia, please come up
and take a bow. Wow. [NOISE].>>[INAUDIBLE].>>What a great treat.>>Thank you.
>>So we want to invite Tom and Serita and Jim to come sit with Deborah and have a
little conversation for a little bit. And then we’ll, conclude and go back down,
and kinda play with soil, so. [BLANK_AUDIO]>>So I guess I’m gonna start this off,
Deborah, and I just have to thank you for that beautiful film. Not only was it, you know, visually
beautiful to look at, and to listen to, I might say, to, to, to hear but, You know
you also got this science right. And I know you were talking before hand
about wanting to do that and, I think you did a great job of you know
balancing those difficult things to, to I guess you know do well in a film. I have no idea, [LAUGH] I’m not a film
maker but I assume that that’s difficult. And I also I assume as a filmmaker you
could. Make any film you wanted, you know, within
reason. And you chose a topic that I think most
filmmakers would run from, if they even thought about it at
all. So thank you.
>>You’re welcome.>>I have a lot of questions that I’d like
to ask you about the film and otherwise. But I thought maybe I’d start with an
anecdote that I read about you and I don’t know if it’s true or not. You can tell us. But I thought it might have been formed. Why it is that you came to do a, a film
about soil. So I read in an article. I think it may have been an interview. I’m not sure. But anyway, I read, read in an article
that, in high school you turned your bedroom into a laboratory and grew
vegetables, I guess of different types. And subjected them to radiation and
chemicals and. And watched what happened and I think you
actually won a, a prize at a science fair. So I found that a really interesting
anecdote and I guess you’re shaking your head so it
must be true. And I’m just curious how that informed you
know your decision ultimately you know to make this film.>>Yeah, I did I did this six this science
project called polyploidian plants. And I, I like the name. You know, I like the name, so I’m doing
that, and I, I did. I mutated seeds by by putting them, put,
putting a chemical called colchicine in them, and also other plants and a cactus
with radiation, which I, I actually did it in my dentist’s office
with his X-ray machine. And what it does is it multiplies the
chromosomes. It polyploids them. And I grew them out and, and the, the
plant, the normal plants looked normal and the polyploided ones were thicker and
bigger and deformed-looking. And I was, and I, you know, did a chart
with all this. This was 1965. I was 15.
So I, I did you know, I put all the genetics of it up you know,
drew all the chromosomes and stuff for the project at the science fair. And the scientists you know, really liked
it. Because genetics you know, was sort of a
new thing all those years ago. So but I, I was fascinated by. By what I could do in my bedroom you know,
with this stuff. And also the ones that were normal I
looked at these plants and I thought I would eat these plants and I looked at the [UNKNOWN] ones, I would
not eat these plants. And so it just made me really interested
in genetics and plants and almost from a point of view of understanding why
things happen the way they do, and I made a film called The Future of Food
that was about genetic engineering and patenting, and all that stuff. So, and I became sort of an organic
fanatic in college, you know, back in the late 60’s so, it, film making,
that’s when I started making films, film making and, and agriculture and, and
food and nature and, you know, health. You know food and health and food and social justice has just been a really
strong interest to me. So I feel fortunate that I can make the
kind of films that I, that I’ve been making the last several
years in these short films called Sonatas of the Soil, because it’s
just something I think people need. People want to understand, you know, the
science in the film, I think, you know, we’re kind of in this era where people
dumb it down and think, people don’t, they can’t handle
science. But people love science, people want to
understand it and they, they crave this understanding. But humans, we, by, our nature is to want
to look at the world and understand it so we can decide what we’re
going to do, how we’re going to live. You know, how we’re going to live, you
know, we, we, we are, our instincts are we eat this or we don’t
that and that’s why we survive. So I, I feel really fortunate and I, I mean I really like soil scientists and
farmers and I, I just think it’s a, it’s a great positive way for me to do
work that helps people understand and also to be able to make decisions and,
and, and take action that will help, you know without having to put people on a
giant bummer. Because the world is an amazing place. Even photosynthesis is amazing, it’s a
miracle. We have to be reminded of that every once
in awhile. So thank you. And for your work too, cuz without you
guys I will be nothing.>>[LAUGH].>>[LAUGH] And it’s also I mean how you
you know, also I think, the way that you the farmers
you help, the people who eat your food understand how things work, and you
teach your students how things work. It’s, it’s similar to what I do and I’m
you know sort of curious how you all deal with those questions and don’t you find
people are hungry for this information.>>I do, I but I find myself maybe more
hungry for the information about the, the soils complexity is still a marvel to
me and, the microbiology of it that I could learn
from Serita is, something that, I’m, I’m still claiming
great ignorance, but, I understand that to feed my soil
with, organic matter, Is a fundamental that I, I’ve from
experience witnessed the, the incredible things that can do by
>>Yeah, you’re seeing it work firsthand on your farm. You’re seeing the you know, the positive
results of getting that compost back into the soil and you know the reduced inputs
that are you know the result and less irrigation and better quality food and
>>We were actually talking beforehand, Jim that you know, you made the point that
whether you farm organically or conventionally, and you do both on your
farm, as I understand it. So, whether or not you do, you know,
whatever you do as a farmer, the important thing, and I think this was
so, is what came out so strongly in the film, is that you need, there needs to
be a stronger focus on soil health. And how to, improve that and even in a
conventional system and I hope you’ll talk a little bit about your
practices. Because it seems that you’re applying some
of the, organic practices, in terms of organic amendments and so on,
to your conventional system and that’s allowing you to reduce some of the
chemical inputs or the synthetic inputs, so I don’t know if you can speak more
specifically to that but.>>Sure, I mean, yes, I think that some of
the problems that have come from agriculture over the
last 50 years or longer. May, may have been really, may not be so tied to the chemicals or the fertilizers
that have been chosen to be used, but more for, from their misuse, and and it,
and a little bit of ignorance and a lot of
apathy about whether you’re soils. Your fields were being, your soils were
being replenished, and so we’re seeing that by building our
organic matter, even or if we’re responsible users of our inputs. Then, I think I can build a healthy soil,
even on the conventional. So we have 20 acres of certified organic
ground, and we have about 140 acres that’s conventionally grown using IPM
techniques and integrated pest management. And we, I’m seeing our soils improve on
both sides, or in both ways. In some cases, our organic side is
challenged more because we have to do much more, many more passes with our
cultivators, and we can deplete our soil’s organic matter, in
the organic field sometimes more quickly. And it’s a little more difficult to use
our no tilt techniques in the, in the straight organic side. So there are some there is a little bit of yeah, there needs to be knowledge in, of
the leaf. The soil stewardship that, that the organic movement has really
fostered is what I love about it and the part that I’m trying to bring to our
conventional side of the farm. So I think that that was a beautiful thing
that that, that, that, that the movie depicted, so that was
really nice.>>Plus, you live on that farm, and you
drink the water underneath that farm, and a lot of the I think a lot of the
agricultural land that Deborah showed in the movie where some of the practices
may not have been sustainable. A lot of that farm land is now corporate
land. It’s not actually the farmers aren’t
living there. So maybe the, the stewardship piece is
I mean there is, there’s another challenge that we face at,
especially here in in, kind of suburban Eastern Massachusetts, we
well first of all the land is very high value so to take
land out of production to raise. You know to do multiple year soil building
with cover crops only is an expensive proposition taking your,
taking that acreage out of, off of your, you know, productive line. But we know that it will, that by growing
cover crops, we can, we will improve our soil, organic matter,
and it will pay us down the road, but we do have that challenge where we’ve got
high values and you’re not, able to, it’s hard, difficult to take out 50% of your farm’s
acreage every year to rebuild it. So, to sustain your soil’s nutrients,
nutrition by just growing cover crops and not having any outside amendments coming
in it means that you’re going to need to take your land out
of production a lot more often. So, that’s a challenge that, sometimes
when you see the Midwestern photos, or, shots, you don’t, appreciate that
there’s this, you know, shortage of land that you gotta also have
to deal with so we have, we bring, we have, we do heavy
composting and lots of composting and you would be shocked at the number of
yards of compost we apply. But we, we just bought a new tool to
manage our compost better and we spread lots of compost but we really
only cover about 15 or 20 acres with a nice thick layer of
compost every year. We get lots of our other organic matter
from cover crops.>>I, I’m really interested in this
relationship between, the scientists and the farmers, you know, because soil
science is cutting edge science now. And I’m really interested in how you all,
how you two work with how your research and how your work are going out
into the community or with your students. How, how you’re moving towards this kind
of, I mean one of the things I’ve noticed
about farmers is they have a really strong and unique relationship with their
soil you know? Maybe more than any other you know, group
of people. I’m just curious how you all have seen
that change through the years and if there’s more interest now and the science is getting more intense
because we have, we have more tools. I’m just, I’m very curious about how you,
you feel that you’re, you know, the re-, like the academic research and how it, you use that in the community to help and
how has that changed.>>Don’t you want to, you want me to take
that first? You wanna start?>>Honestly, you go first now. [LAUGH] I’ll chime in.>>Well I think there’s always a challenge
of bridging that divide. You know, certainly we, we attempt to do
that through you know, I think that our cooperative extension
services, often the bridge between the, the the scientist in the lab or in the
field so to speak, and the, and the practitioner or
the farmer. But it’s also the case that I, that I, you
know, I personally, you know, try to get out when I can and as do my, my
students, to talk with farmers we, you know, can
give presentations or there are you know professional meetings
that I, that I sometimes go to. But I have to say I, you know, I mentioned
before the, before the film, we were just talking that, that I grew up
on a dairy farm and, and so, I have had a long, long experience
talking with a farmer, which is my dad, and he’s given me a lot of perspective I
would say in, in how to communicate the science to, someone who actually has
his, his hands in the soil. And he actually just called me recently
and asked if I would do some soil tests on a
couple of his soil samples and he sent those to me and I have the results
actually on my computer. I need to send those to him this weekend
so>>You know here in Massachusetts we’re kind of blessed with a really good
university extension program that for vegetables farmers that’s been
very helpful and we’ve got, I work for the USDA and we have a great collaboration
with UMass. And Jim has been kind of like our poster
child for soil health. He, has worked with, with UMass for a
really long time and he is, he’s committed to leaving his land better
than what he found it and he, he saw, he saw some of those problems happening in
his fields and he, you know, he knew that, that, you know, the resources were out
there to help him fix it. And between UMass and some one the
assistants that we were to provide, and his willingness to try new things. I think it’s been, it’s been a really good
partnership. It’s been really rewarding for us to work
with people like Jim and a.>>Yeah, I can’t say enough about what
I’ve learned from just the, having UMass extension coming out to the
farm pretty often. They, they started asking right after I
came out of school if I would be willing to trial, run a trial or something
and I, you know, picked up on it right away
that it was always a positive, a benefit to have someone around, I
learned something you know every single day that any of these professors
came out to run an experiment. And so it was, we’ve encouraged it for a
lot of years. I think that the science that is necessary
to be a good farmer and especially I guess if you’re gonna be a
conventional farmer, there may have, there was maybe a disconnect for a bunch
of years. Yeah, farmers have always been hard
working and I like to think always mostly very smart. But needing to know the science behind the
way your soil behaves may not have been as
important when you were, when your amendment was, your cow manure
or your, your animal manures, and your, you were, building your, you were
replenishing your soils. Nutrients and organic matter maybe without
knowing it, or without knowing the, you know, you didn’t know all the science
behind it, and then the advent of chem, chemicals and
fertilizers. The lack of the full understanding, now
you put, now you’ve put tools in their hands that
can. Cause problems if misused. And so needing to, to build the farmer’s
knowledge base of their soils. It seeming to me to be a real fundamental
right now and we’ll, we’ll hope that more farmers will embrace every time,
every chance they get to talk to us so.>>One of the, interesting things and film, is when Warren Webber who actually
his farm is kinda near, well it’s in the same county where I live
in California, outside of San Francisco. That he said, you know, as he says in the film when he first
started to farm, wanted to farm. He went to Cornell, and he studied
agriculture, and he said that the soil class was the
hardest class he took. He said that was by far the hardest class
he ever, he ever took. But, but when he asked for in, in, you
know, information from the, the, the research people out there, they said,
they, he says it in the film. They said, no one can ever grow organic
crops commercially in California. You can’t do it. But he did it anyway. Now in California of course, there’s
hundreds of organic farms and you know, it’s amazing place, best food in the
world. So I think, this fascinates me, this idea
that the farmers kind of went off and I just shot this film a couple of weeks
ago. Of 23 of some of the, the pioneering
organic farmers in Esalen coming together who’ve been organically farming
for 40 years you know, more. And just, this idea that the farmers kind
of went off and did, did their thing and then. You know, the scientists sort of caught
up, and now there seems like there’s more of a,
relationship between them. I mean the NRCS, the Natural Resources
Conservation Service, that’s part of our government, and that
was created during the dust bowl, and the picture of the dust bowl, when there
was the big still photograph of the big cloud, that was the dust blowing
from midwest. It actually blew over Washington D.C.. And that Congress looked up, saw the dust
from the dust bowl, and actually passed some legislation to help
with conservation. So you know, it’s kind of a, our government doing good things, I think,
is what and, and our universities, I think, being you know,
helping citizens to really. You know, grow better [LAUGH] food, it’s a
good thing.>>And you know, I I guess where I see
that is in the classroom, so I see i, a generation of students that are very
interested in sustainable agricultural practices, and
they come into my classes, you know, with that in mind, and they want to learn
more about. The biology of the soil so that they can
then go out and do a better job of, of managing it so that, you know, that’s
you know, very encouraging. So in just a minute we, we actually want
to open up the we want to open up to, to questions from the audience but I actually, if I could Deborah, have just
one last question for you. I saw you as you were watching the film I
saw you smiling and. It occurred to me that for most for us
we’re seeing this for the first time. And we only see what we see on the screen. But, for you, you see what you saw through
the lens of your camera. And probably, I hear, hear about, filmmakers leaving a lot of
things on the cutting room floor. And I wonder if there’s one, Back story
that didn’t make it into the film that, that
you could share. That you wish could have been in the film. That, that wasn’t.>>Well, the actually I kind of got around
that by making these short films called Sonata’s in the Soil, where I could go
deeply into one topic and. I actually have some of those with me, I
can, when we’re down on the floor, I have some copies of the film that y’all
can buy, and some of these sonatas in the soil. So I was able to get around that, because
of technology today, and people like short films 12 or 15 minutes, but one thing as I
said earlier while we talking that didn’t make it in to the film, is this thing
called [UNKNOWN] exchange. Which I, I mean you all can explain it, I
mean to me as a film maker it just, blew my mind because on the most basic
level, these elements are kinda exchanging electrons you know that’s what
it seemed to me. There’s just this life going on, on the most basic level, and when I
finally kind of realize that one day. You know I’m just in the middle of making
the film and it took you know four or five years and. I went out for, you know, where I walk in
Marin County and I just started seeing everything as alive,
as this movement, you know. And soil looks so inert, but when you
really understand it you realize, it’s, it is an organism, there’s all these
processes and. And you know cycles and all these things
happening and, you know, feeding off each other and, you know, and [UNKNOWN]
exchange on those basic level is all happening and it kind of freaked me out in
a way, it’s like, wow, it’s just alive. And, and so that, that was something I
tried to get across in the film. You know? This idea of, that it. That soil is a, you know, it is an
organism. It’s a process, you know? It’s, it’s a cycle. I mean, it’s all, and, and big cycles, and
little cycles. And just this incredible movement of
something. That, when you stare at it, it seems like
there’s nothing going on. But there’s. An incredible, layers, and, and things
going on. So, that, that’s something I hope to get
across in the film, but some of the more technical stuff, you
know, we had, [INAUDIBLE] like, that’s too much, [LAUGH]
you can’t have it in the film.>>Well, that’s the two week of my Intro
to Soils class that is the most difficult to, to get across and I’ve spent ten years
trying to, figure out how to do that well. So, you know, maybe eventually I’ll… Figure out that as well. Should it up open to the
>>Sure.>>To the audience.>>We don’t have a huge amount of time
because we wanna give you all a chance to do some of the activities, but
we’ll take a few questions.>>I, I noticed a lot of the film was
focused on cover crops and in general what can make. What plant physiological characteristics
can make for a good cover crop? Does it de, depend on what species you’re
looking to grow? awesome.>>A cover crop is, is something that you
plant at the end of the season, so, for example, on Jim’s farm, he will plant, his
sweet corn and then he’ll plant. Winter rye, which is a, a cereal grain,
and that will survive the winter. You usually plant in the first of October?>>Well, we start planting as soon as the
first corn comes out but, so the best rye stands we’ll get if we
plant early September. And we’ll plant right through September
and into October, and even plant as early- Rye is the fallback, classic cover crop
for New England because it will germinate and
produce, you can get a stand even as late as the end of October which is very
late planting date for anything else.>>So, it’s in general it’s just a crop
that keeps the soil covered going through the
winter so that it’s. Preventing any erosion that would happen
during the sum, during the winter. So, if it’s a living cover crop it’s even
better because then it’s putting those carbohydrates into the soil, and feeding that microbiology and holding
the soil in place. And then the following Spring it’s either
killed. By plowing or [UNKNOWN] and then plant
into it.>>We’ve, we, we’ve begun growing a bunch
of other cover crops as well, though. There’s, for different niches and like you
said for, depending on the crop that will follow we’ve got, we are doing a trial
right now where we grew a mustard, caliente mustard, which is… Supposed to be a very inhospitable host
for root knot nematode that we have as a pest
on our strawberries, so we grow this mustard crop before the
strawberries are planted and, and it’s important that it’s grown very tall
right to the point of viable seed and then where
the flowers are all bright yellow. And then you, you. You chop that up and immediately
incorporate it into the soil and now it’s sort of act as a bio-fumigant, as
they call it. So instead of fumigation, they would use
you know, methyl bromide or some chemical in California to, to sort of
sterilize their soil. We’re eliminating, hopefully, can
eliminate this one pest. And and actually build organic matter, and improve our soils quality by growing a
cover crop instead. So, that’s an example of a, of a little
bit of a niche cover crop and then we grow something called Sudan
sorghum grass, which is a beautiful one for the summer
time. It puts on bio-mass really quickly. And so there’s a lot of different, and then we also, do a bit with legumes to
produce nitrogen as well.>>Next questions here?>>Hi, a quick comment and question. The comment is that, Debra, you mentioned
this big cloud of dust came over, Washington, they voted for the, the soil
conservation. I wish that all of Congress were made to
see your film as they were voting on Farm Bill that just
>>Yeah. [APPLAUSE].>>yep, we’re, we’re trying to
get, we’re trying to get screenings in
Washington, but it’s kind of funny. Because, people get really enthusiastic
about it and we will, but you know, and then it’s well, we don’t want to look like
we’re too pro-organic. I mean well you’re very pro the other
side, why can’t you be pro-organic? So it’s a little, it’s kind of funny. I tried to make it completely
non-political and non-controversial, but even so I mean it, it’s such, it’s so
irrefutable that you know, organic and healthy is the way. That some people are scared of, but there
is a soil caucus in Congress. You know, there is a soil caucus and the
Farm Bill, actually the one they are passing now, actually does apparently have some pretty
good supports for organic. They got those in there.>>Oh good.
That’s good to hear. And my question is for Serita. In the movie, there were a lot of positive
statements about earthworms. And I understand how great they are for
gardens and stuff. But I, I’ve heard, recently, that
earthworms can be a problem for soil when they get into forests. Because, I understand, that in Massachusetts, that the ice age
wiped out whatever earthworms we have. There are no native earthworms to
Massachusetts. And when earthworms get into forest, they
disturb the, duff layer, whatever. Could you elaborate on that?>>Yeah, thanks for that, that question. That’s actually one thing that I talk a
fair amount about with my students in class because they come into my class with
this idea that earthworms are always beneficial, and
certainly from a. An agricultural or gardening perspective
that is often the case. They aerate the soil, they they have their
casts which are very nutritious and add, you know, or a form of fertilizer for the
soil and so on, but you’re exactly right. So after the last glaciation about 15,000
years ago. That wiped out all of the native
earthworms in North America, northern North America, so with the whole
Northeast and, and northern U.S. And so any earthworm that
you see now in New England is an invasive
species from Asia or Europe. And yes, in, in the wrong place they can
be quite destructive. So in a forest in our New England forest
that have evolved for the past 10 to 15,000 years without
earthworms. When an earthworm population invades the
forest, they do what they’re very good at. That is mixing the soil, aerating it. So they actually can completely, reduce or eliminate the, what we call the forest
floor which is that litter layer, the, the leaf layer that’s you know only
partially decomposed organic material. And that layer is critical for the
germination and establishment of native tree seedlings,
and other native plants and so, what, what the earthworms do in this, this mixing
which in an agricultural setting is. Often very beneficial in a forest setting
can be quite detrimental. And they’re actually now, efforts in
Wisconsin and other parts of the north, northern forest where, there are,
educational campaigns to educate particularly sports, fishermen who leave
bait by the sides of streams and lakes. And those then. Those earthworms, those earthworms are
left behind, then invade the forest, and so there’s now a campaign to try and get fishermen in particular to stop doing
that. But even you know, I live in a forested
area in New Hampshire and. And, you know?
My husband has a small CSA. And we have a compost area with
earthworms. And I’m always concerned about those
earthworms, then leaving the, you know? Leaving our, sort of, farm area, and
invading the forest. So it’s, it’s a real concern.>>So, I think we have time only for one more question, and it’s gonna be this
this gentleman here. [INAUDIBLE]
>>I win the lottery. Just Deborah, I have a small, modest
request that you consider doing a, Sonata on the really down side of chemical
agriculture, and I was thinking you could maybe call it,
The Silent Spring of the Soil.>>[LAUGH].>>[COUGH] But, my actual question is
whether, any of the speakers could comment on something called terra preta or
bio-char and whether it has a. Place or a role in this entire scenario?>>I actually, actually made a sort film
called The Promise of Bio-Char, it’s not I have to put the most current
research into it. But it’s, it’s, I think it’s really,
really interesting. And, I mean, I think the scientists would
be interesting to hear, see what you hear. But the people I know who have tried it. And are using it are happy with it. And, and you know, the terra preta we
actually interviewed Lehman who was at Cornell who went down there and was one of the original sort of
discoverers of terra preta. But it was delib, you know thinks was
deliberate what they did down there, it didn’t just happen. The natives the natives did it, but I’m
curious what you all think. Because the people that I know that have
used it. As an amendment are really happy with it
and, and I think it’s really promising.>>[INAUDIBLE].>>Yeah, so the terra preta soils were
discovered in the Amazon and these are soils that were amended over a
hundreds to thousands of years by native peoples and
they amended the soils by. While doing what we’ve talked about today
already and what was in the film, they added organic matter, particularly
char, they added a lot of charcoal and, you know, these soils are, are now pockets
of very rich, fertile soils in, in, in the tropics and there’s now a. An interest in replicating that in
agricultural settings, and in particular applying this charcoal, the
what’s called term bio-char in, in agricultural settings to boost
fertility. There’s a lot of research being done in
this area, and I think the. You know, from a scientific perspective I
think there’s still a lot more to be done before we really can say with confidence
that, you know, it’s, it’s the right approach
everywhere. But certainly under some contexts, it can
be very good for enhancing. Soil water holding capacity soil nutrient
holding capacity and so on so it definitely has, has promise as a soil
amendment. You know whether we can replicate terra
preta soils that developed over hundreds of thousands of years in a few
decades is I think is still you know. There’s a lot of work to be done there.>>I think, yeah, one thing is, I know
that they, I have some friends that are actually, really working
on the whole bio-char thing on even a more commercial level, and they even have
little, stoves now where they char things. They don’t make it, it’s not. Totally, it’s sort of half-baked charcoal
and, and, they have, they’re sending stoves to, to Africa where they’re,
they’re charring things and putting into soil to try to help African soil,
which is very old and often not fertile. Trying to help them restore the fertility. Just by, by little, these little, like round little stoves that the people
can use themselves. So it’s kind of a neat grassroots
non-corporate, non-chemical way that, that seems to be
helpful so far. You know, it’s kind of a way to, to get the organic matter back in the soil
quickly, you know, intensively.>>Yeah, I think especially for those,
highly leached soils, the [UNKNOWN], the [UNKNOWN], that have had everything
essentially washed out of them, it probably holds really good promise
there. Here in the Northeast where we, have plenty of [UNKNOWN] exchange
capacity, I think the. The one, the one downside I would say
bio-char has, is that it’s not living. I think you would probably have more
biological benefit by putting raw wood chips, or yeah wood chips or yard waste,
something like that into, into the soil. As a, like, a re- a ready carbon source for those, for those
micro-organisms. But yeah I’ve seen the research from Dr. Lehman also and the water holding capacity
is amazing. And it does have incredible surface area
so it can hold a lot of nutrients. but Serita is right, we need a lot more
research on it. [BLANK_AUDIO] Well, thank you all very much. [APPLAUSE]. [BLANK_AUDIO]

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