The smell of soil

Farming is a sensory occupation. Some of my favorite (and not-so-favored) parts of agriculture are related to sounds, smells and visual images.

Almost everyone understands that the view of sunrises and sunsets, billowing thunderclouds, northern lights and vast landscapes of the North Dakota prairie are amazing experiences. The bright stars and planets visible in our night skies are not visible in the middle of bustling city lights.

Outdoor work in spring lets me see the faint suggestion of green in trees as the leaves just begin to open and in the fields as seedlings poke tentatively out of the ground. Geese honk and sandhill cranes coo as they fly overhead. Black birds squawk and chatter noisily in the trees. Baby calves bawl and their mothers murmur in response.

A lambing barn has a particular smell of lanolin, sheep breath and straw, a carmel-like, sweet aroma one probably has to grow to love. Cow barns tend to be more unpleasantly smelly. Baby chickens smell like baby chickens. Alfalfa hay, straw, freshly cut grass all smell like perfume if you’re a farmer.

Some of my earliest farming memories involve carrying my dad’s mid-afternoon lunch to the field for him. It was one of those jobs one had to be “big enough” to do. It was an important task and one that required a certain level of responsibility. The black metal lunch box contained enough lunch for two and a Thermos of hot coffee. I remember sitting in the loose summer fallow dirt or among the scratchy fall stubble with my dad. We ate sandwiches and cookies. I remember the smell of the coffee and the grease and diesel fumes of the tractor. Spending those few minutes of rest with my father are some of my most treasured memories.

The sensory memory that is the strongest for me is the smell of the freshly tilled soil. It is not a dry, dusty, dirt smell, but a moist, fragrant and alive smell. When I have cultivated the soil as an adult, I have been taken back to those afternoon lunches. I often open the tractor windows just so I can smell the soil.

Back in the late 60s and early 70s, the writers of the “Jetson’s” predicted we’d all be driving flying cars and housework would be done by our robotic maids. About that time, there were those who said soil wasn’t important for growing things. It was predicted by some that, in the future, dirt would simply hold up plants on our farms. Everything plants needed to grow could be provided artificially, they said. Animals, and even people, could get the nutrition they needed in supplements and manufactured vitamins. Conservation efforts begun after the dust storms of the 1930s seemed no longer relevant and the need to worry about the soil became less emphasized in our farming practices.

Now, science has shown us that soil is far more than dirt. Soil holds a quarter of the earth’s biodiversity as plants and their roots, tiny animals, insects, bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These tiny, sometimes microscopic, forms of life are essential for healthy soil. In balance they keep diseases and pests under control. Some beetles eat huge numbers of weed seeds. Nematodes parasitize harmful insects and rhizobia hold soil particles together and provide nutrients to the plants growing above the soil. Without the living parts of the soil, it becomes just dirt and little will grow.

One of the biggest threats to our life on this planet is the degradation of our soil. It is estimated that nearly 30 million acres of the world’s agricultural land is annually being turned into barren deserts. Careless irrigation, excessive cultivation, over grazing, loss of trees, declining soil organic matter, poor drainage all contribute to soils becoming salty and unproductive. Global warming contributes with expanding areas of drought and rising sea levels.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared 2015 to be the “Year of the Soil.” If there is going to be food for future generations, we need to take their declaration seriously. Healthy soils store and filter water, improving our resilience to floods and droughts. Soils can store carbon and are essential for allowing us to adapt to changing climate. Healthy soils are essential for the future of food, fiber and fuel production.

Flying cars may still be in our future. Modern science has shown us, however, that soil is more than dirt and our future depends on it.