Saving Our Soil

By Jeremy Walther
Photography by Jenna Noel

Our poor dirt. In just a few hundred years, the once-fertile crust of Central Texas has been eroded, depleted, abused and completely taken for granted. Shortsighted farming and grazing practices have stripped nutrients and soil life without replenishing it, leaving scarred, lifeless earth behind.

Now—due in part to the destruction of soil—mounting global issues are placing more pressure than ever on food production and air, water and energy resources.

Carbon, as CO² in the atmosphere, is quickly changing the planet’s climate, water is a central issue in communities throughout the world and cancer rates and other health issues are skyrocketing—it’s suddenly obvious that artificial systems that have been used to grow food for decades are not sustainable.

Soil, our historic whipping boy, could emerge as an unlikely hero in our story, but first we’ll need to choose an ending:

Option 1 (aka hell on Earth): abandon soils and place an even greater reliance on genetically modified super seeds that can produce food in sterile, low-water conditions. These freaks of nature rely directly on artificial inputs—including chemical nutrients and disease- and pest-prevention treatments—resulting in mineral-deficient foods laced with reactive chemicals.

Option 2: restore the soil as a sustainable and natural food factory. Stop using chemical control and start mimicking the ecological systems that originally created a microbial universe in soils. Allow the soils to live again.

But will our persecuted soils ever forgive us? How can we erase centuries of abuse and neglect?

“Microbes, humus and smart grazing practices…. ” Patrick Van Haren can burn off your ear with the complex physical, chemical and biological ins and outs of how to rebuild Central Texas soils. But he’s got the answer.

“We’ve seen rural landowners build seven inches of soil in one year—all with the use of compost tea and mob grazing,” says Van Haren, owner of Sunergie, an Austin-based consulting company that identifies closed-loop systems to restore depleted soils and rebuild native tallgrass prairies. “Those who allow nature and animals to do the heavy lifting for them,” he says, “are the most successful.”

Mob grazing is a simple but proven method being used to bring back the tallgrass prairie that once dominated Central Texas. Cattle herds are enclosed in small paddocks for 24 hours at a time, then moved to the next paddock. The effect mimics that of a buffalo herd, where thousands of animals packed tightly together would trample, break and eat native grasses that hadn’t been disturbed in years. The uneaten “crumbs” of plant material return to the soil as the main course is consumed, hooves act as chipper/shredders and manure and urine the natural fertilizer.

“Soils need at least three percent organic matter and the proper ratio of calcium and magnesium to support a sustainable community of microbial life,” explains Van Haren. “Once the minimum requirements are met—through soil tests and amending, if needed—a high-quality compost tea made from a fully composted, humus-rich, manure-based compost provides a hugely diverse microbial population to treated areas.”

Humus is the end product of fully composted organic material, and the ultimate plant food. Microbes keep the cycle going and out-compete disease vectors from entering plants by congregating around the sensitive plant pores where cellular exchanges happen. Both humus and microbes are found in concentrated quantities in compost tea, which can be applied using basic equipment for very little cost.

The simple combination of mob grazing and the application of high-quality compost tea several times a year dramatically reduces the need for chemical fertilizer, rapidly builds soils, reduces overall costs and increases production. Ranchers produce high-quality, healthy meat, increase profits and serve as responsible stewards of the land. And, Van Haren says, the practices can save the planet, too.

“With the use of humus and microbes, we can restore natural soil balances which will lead to higher productivity and increased plant processes,” Van Haren says. “The more plants that are living, respiring and dying, the more carbon that is naturally pulled out of the air and transferred into our soils,” at which point, carbon stops serving as the scapegoat of global warming. In soils, carbon acts like the ultimate water sponge. By increasing water-holding capacity, carbon improves the quality of aquifers and reduces surface runoff and its negative effects.

And there’s an opportunity to heal more than just the soil.

“Cancer rates are on the rise, nationwide,” says George Altgelt, owner of Geo Growers, located just west of Oak Hill. “It’s not a stretch to consider poisoned foods as a reasonable cause for this increase.” Altgelt sells custom soil blends for organic gardening and landscaping, along with composts, soil amendments and other landscaping and gardening products, but he can just as easily discuss why calcium is as important in soils as it is in the human body.

“The use of chemical pesticides and herbicides in agriculture produces mineral-poor foods with residues that accumulate in the human body,” Altgelt says. “Those chemical residues are ionic, and the effect on human cells is the same as in radiation exposure. They rob atoms of electrons, creating more free radicals, and in turn, trigger more chemical reactions.” In other words, a little toxic residue on your strawberries or broccoli adds up over time and can do some serious damage.

Altgelt, of course, is a big fan of organics, but explains that much more is needed than just a trash can for chemicals. Beyond the avoidance of chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, organic growing is all about healthy soil. “Organic growing isn’t about swapping one chemical bug treatment for a natural one,” says Altgelt. “There has to be a sustainable living system in the soils for the system to work. Fortunately, we can restore those systems with the use of microbes, and facilitate the biological process with non-chemical inputs.”

“In a backyard, start with a soil test,” Altgelt says, and recommends the Texas Plant & Soil Lab. Altgelt’s also a pro at helping to interpret the tests, which can be a little overwhelming to someone who has never done it before. “We use that soil test to create a plan to increase the organic content of soils, and start making the proper amendments to bring nutrient ratios in a range ideal for soil biology.”

Austin features a cluster of soils that vary from one neighborhood to the next. Creating an amendment plan can be tricky, so consultation with the experts is recommended for first-timers.

Once the hard part is done, a few little things can make a big difference to the health of soils that support turf grasses and other plants in the landscape:

• Mow the grass as high as you can stand it—longer grass shades the soil and protects the microbes.

• Leave clippings in the soil—they’re a renewable source of nitrogen.

• Top-dress your lawn with compost—it’s a quick way to increase organic content in soils, which creates the perfect home for microbes.

• Apply compost teas with high microbe and humus content.

• Stop using chemical fertilizers. Instead, feed soils with products high in sea minerals (seaweed/fish emulsion), along with products that feed microbes (molasses).

• Water only when needed, and be smart. For most of Austin’s soils, this means several short intervals during each watering session—water one section of the lawn for a few minutes, then move on to the next. Repeat until the water has penetrated deep into the soil, but remember you’re mimicking a gentle spring rain, not a fire truck.

This process will gradually increase the organic content and microbial action in soils, which will support healthier plants. According to Van Haren, it’s the only option we have.

“Feed your soils,” he says. “Someday, they’ll be feeding you.”

Editor's note: Meet growers, from large-scale to backyard, putting these essential practices to work in Part Two of Saving Our Soil. Look for it in the winter issue of Edible Austin.

Resource List
courtesy of Patrick Van Haren

Resource Groups
Austin Permaculture Guild:
Soil Restoration Network (Austin):
Abe Collins’s blog:

Acres USA
The Stockman Grass Farmer

Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis with a foreword by Dr. Elaine Ingham

The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms by Amy Stewart

Building Soils for Better Crops (Sustainable Agriculture Network Handbook Series—Book 4) by Fred Magdoff and Harold van Es

The Soul of Soil: A Soil-Building Guide for Master Gardeners and Farmers by Grace Gershuny and Joe Smillie

Holistic Resource Management: A New Framework for Decision Making by Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield

The Field Guide for Actively Aerated Compost Tea (Volumes I and II) by Dr. Elaine Ingham, compiled and edited by Dr. Carole Ann Rollins.