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Replay of episode 180. The Soil Will Save Us | Author Kirstin Ohlson | Enter the contest by July 31st!
29th July 2017 • GREEN Organic Garden Podcast • Jackie Marie Beyer
00:00:00 00:46:10

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The Soil Will Save Us: How Scientists, Farmers, and Foodies Are Healing the Soil to Save the Planet

I finally booked a lot of guests today on my one day off who talked about soil health. Last year I talked with Patti Armbrister who said you have to get Kristin Ohlson on to talk about her amazing book The Soil Will Save Us!

Tell us a little about yourself.

I come from California, in a very agricultural part of California, one of the strongest memories of my youth is my father and my mother and I driving around, and my parents just oogling and ogling over all the things growing there.

The fruit trees and crops! Stopping and looking at people’s gardens. Sometimes mortifying me by stopping and taking clippings out of peoples gardens!

It was a very garden friendly family.

I can edit this part out, are you a millennial?

No, I’m old. 

I had this last guest that said, the hippie generation, I have this theory that millennials were raised by hippies…

Yeah! I’m a baby boomer

My parents views on gardening really came out. I’m a baby boomer, but  I was their last child born when they figured they weren’t gonna have any more children. Born late in life.

Their ideas were shaped by the depression, around WWI, where gardening meant survival. So they were really serious about their gardens!

Were they organic gardeners? I know in a lot of ways people used to all be that way…. I had a guest one time talking about how when his dad came home all excited, looking at chemical pesticides  and things as this brand new technology and thinking this is gonna make life easier etc!

I don’t really remember if they used chemicals. I’m sure they did they were of the generation that because smitten by the modern view of everything. And chemistry making life better.

I’m sure they did but I don’t recall it but they were always very focused on there composting elaborate series of their compost bins! They were always interested in that part of it.

Tell me about your first gardening experience?

Right. With our parents so honestly to be truthful about it are just miserable ones laboring when I wanted to do other things. In Oroville, CA. We used to get those horrible huge horned worms on the tomato plants, it was sort of my job to poke them off the plants and squash them! I was horrified by that! 

Horse Garden

When I got older and had a horse and my parents prepared my first garden. They got a garden bed ready for me, and said here’s where you can grow carrots fro your horse. So I grew more interested in growing carrots for the horse. 

Later when after college first started probably with marigolds and zinnias. Then I moved onto growing food.

Tell us about your book.

When I started growing my own food I was interested in doing it organically even if I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I became more and more conscious as a consumer of buying organic food. 

I’m a writer. I had written a few pieces about food production but I wasn’t interested in writing about restaurants or recipes. I was interested in how food was grown.

There was this one chef in Portland. His restaurant got started in the by the 80s area farms. He lived in France for a while. He was impressed by how the restaurants in France had a connection to local farms. 

When he moved back to Cleveland it didn’t exist. By the 80s all those connections between al the foods and the people who actually ate there had been broken.

So he developed the pipeline by driving out to farmer’s markets… and to farmsteads along the side of the road.


to a big farmer’s market that started in Cleveland and he was really a pioneer

Issues about Food

He used to call up the members of the state legislature and complain about various bills that would impacting farming. He called up this one legislator and say that’s gonna be terrible for the soil! The legislator was like what do you care? you’re a chef

We became friends so he was updating me on things that were happening on thing  that was happening between farmers and food and one day he said.

Carbon farming

that’s what some of these young progressives are talking about building up carbon in the soil instead of depleting it!

I was fascinated by that and it immediately set off this explosion of connections for me. Knowing that global warming is the biggest environmental threat and challenge that we face. Part of that has to do with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. What if all this farming going on all over the world instead of adding carbon dioxide to that load?That  legacy load in the atmosphere farming could start to bring that down?

I started working on the book and  =calling some of the farmers he told me about, and calling some of the scientists who were providing some of the guidance and in sties to these famers. It was the farmers who were making great strides and experimenting

That was how it all got started. Anything when you start off and then sort of dig deeper and understand a little bit it opens up this whole world of questions and possibilities …. and I’m still exploring that world.

In the book you do a lot of traveling do your want to talk about some of the places you went to?

I did do a lot of exploring. It all sort of fell under the category of soil health. 

Once I started to understand there is a different to what I thought of good soil

  • pliable and
  • rich
  • and all that
  • really good soil meant that it had this healthy populations of soil microorganisms
  • that when you look at plants and growing plants
  • trying to do as a gardener your trying to support the relationship of those micro-organisms
  • there’s like billions of micro-organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil and they are all interacting with the plant


those are the ways that plants get the nutrients they need

that’s the way they always got the nutrients they need

If you look at a meadow or a forest any natural area plants are growing like mad, it’s not because somebody threw fertilizer out there. It’s because that relationship they have with the micro-organisms is bringing them the nutrients that they need. Plants and micro-organisms together combat disease.

that breaks down that whole system


  • plants relationship with those micro-organisms leads to soil that has pockets in it so water can stay there.
  • well engineered soil
  • micro-engineering of soil

that’s our best role as gardeners is trying to help that relationship between plants and soil microorganisms

There are all sorts of ways people are doing that around the world. 

Holistic Grazing


Holistic Management

One of the trips I took to come up with the material for the book, I went to Zimbabwe where

Alan Savory

he’s a biologist and former land manager. He studied how lands become degraded when humans change the behavior of animals on the land. He was looking at that in Africa.

If you look at an example here in the US. Look at the herds of buffalo. Buffalo used to travel over the lands and the soil of those lands are highly coveted.

The reason they are such great soils is because of this bigger interaction of plants between plants and microorganisms and animal impact on the land and the way animals move over the land before humans interfered with that was that they traveled over the land

  • bunched together to protect themselves from predators
  • traveled at a steady pace
  • constantly keeping away from predators
  • didn’t want to eat their own dung and urine and their hoofed popped up land so rain could break down in
  • hooves also trampled down vegetation so the soil microorganisms could get at it…
  • bit down the grasses to absorb. They bit it down but not to the soil line, they would bite it partially and moved down.

So it was a really healthy impact on the land.

Alan Savory came up with this idea of holistic grazing. Grazing that mimics the natural pattern of animals moving on the land. 

That’s one way people are building soil health around the world.

The place where it all came together for me was of all places in North Dakota!

Sort of the super star farmer in my book is a guy named Gabe Brown.

He had bought a farm and he had these 4 years of terrible terrible weather conditions!

One year

  • crop was wiped out by hail
  • frost
  • drought

In 4 years he had no crop to take to market and he was in danger of losing the farm. He started to change the way he did things. One of the reasons was he couldn’t afford all those chemicals.

  • fertilizers
  • fungicides
  • pesticides
  • fly chemicals to keep the flies away from the animals 
  • he couldn’t afford the diesel for his machines

he really cut back on all that stuff. He became a no-till farmer

that was the first big change on his land

Living Ecosystem

If we don’t think of the soil as a living ecosystem we don’t realize how devastating tillage is but if you imagine that the soil is a living ecosystem with billions of billions of micro-organisms making their homes there. Engineering the soil to make protected areas for themselves and to control and protect the flow of water and gases in the soil.

If you look at the soil that way it’s a community that is kind of like a coral reef you can sort of understand that when a big plow comes through and churns the soil up a couple of feet it’s like Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans every time there’s tillage.

He started to understand that it was not healthy, he didn’t understand why it wasn’t a good idea completely but he realized tillage made his soil dried out and unhealthy, he just realized that tillage made his soil dried out and so he became a no till farmer.

Also, he had his 4 terrible years so to not lose his farm financially. What he would do is instead of using machinery to get rid of that ruined crop he would send his cattle out in the field.

They would chew down and stomp down that ruined corp that was there. He started noticing his land, his soil was becoming more resilient. He was having fewer problems with it, and when there was dry periods his crops were holding up  and his neighbors were falling over.

This is the stuff that I love!

Just as there are these incredible reaffirming relationships between plants and soil began a fertile partnerships with a couple of scientists:

Kris Nichols who is now the science director of the Rodale Institute but at that time she was a soil scientist with the  USDA where he was farming. And Jay Furere who was with the conservationist who is with the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

He was working with them to understand what was going on with his soil.

Now that he had seen that he didn’t necessarily need these chemicals and tillage and didn’t need all these things he had been taught in Ag school.

He started working with them by understanding these partnerships of working with nature and pushing them farther and farther.

Cover Crop Cocktails

One of the things they started going in that area, they had heard a scientist in South America heard him talking about cover crops. He was talking about an idea of cover crop cocktails. Cover crops are things farmers have used for millennia to protect soil during fallow periods.

When you’re out driving around, I see it so much here in Oregon. When you’re going through the Willamette Valley and there are farms on either side and there are bare fields on either side. 

In Willamette, their fields last crop in the fall and they wont work  that crops again till April and so it’s been months and months that soil is naked and exposed in the air. The carbon is volutalizing and drifting away and the soil being subjected to wind/rain erosion all those forces that are just so bad for it. Nature never intended for soil to be naked. So cover crops is an idea that is coming back, because more and more scientists and farmers are understanding,

  • What a plant does for nutrients and water control
  • How a plant services that community in the soil

that the plant relies on for

  • water control
  • nutrients
  • plants are continually pumping out a carbon based fuel
  • plants through photosynthesis are making a carbon based fuels

Plants thorough photosynthesis

  • sugars