In Depth

Unsoiling the story of soil

dirt in hands - Tyrant Farms
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Dirt vs soil: what’s the difference? 

Strange as it may be, “dirt” has a bad name, as does its close relative “soil.” To most people, dirt is synonymous with filth — something that should immediately be scrubbed off of our bodies (those clean, sanitary vessels) less we be permanently “soiled” by it.

Given this degree of one-sided loathing, it’s no wonder that there is so little collective concern about the abuse that our agricultural systems heap on our soil each year.

At Tyrant Farms (our small little piece of the earth), we LOVE our soil. We talk about it frequently. We love getting our hands in it and coming up with ideas to help it become healthier each year.

Healthy Soil = Healthy Food = Healthy People

More than anything, we love entrusting it with our seeds. Give healthy soil a single seed and it will turn that seed into a lush plant that produces dozens of pounds of delicious, healthy food in return—not to mention thousands of new seeds. Great food is soil’s way of saying “thank you for being a good steward of me.

The dirt at Tyrant Farms telling us "thank you."

The soil at Tyrant Farms telling us “thank you.”

When you start growing food, you enter into a profound relationship with soil, becoming acutely aware of the fact that if you don’t nurture it, it cannot nurture you. Yes, we’re referring to soil as if it were a living organism. That’s because soil IS quite literally alive.

What’s in soil? 

Did you know that a single teaspoon of healthy, living soil contains over 1 billion lifeforms including fungi, bacteria, nematodes, anthropods, and protozoa? By comparison, “unhealthy” dirt (like the kind resulting from modern chemical monoculture), may only contain 100 million lifeforms. It’s been rendered incapable of supporting plant life without humans inputting synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and water.

Basically, modern agriculture kills our soil, robs it of its nutrition, then hauls in thousands of pounds of replacement fertility from thousands of miles away to replace the nutrients we unnecessarily depleted in the first place.

Our civilization is currently placing more value on increasing financial returns for a few businesses at the tip of this pyramid scheme than we are on maintaining or improving the health of all life on the planet, including human beings. The irony is that practicing earth stewardship would actually have a much higher collective financial ROI that could also continue to benefit future generations.

The lifeforms in soil aren’t there to drink cocktails and share celebrity gossip. They are there to serve specific functions to keep the soil alive: breaking down organic matter, maintaining nutrient density, absorbing and holding water, symbiotically working with plant roots to increase mineral absorption, etc. All of these functions collectively make dirt a medium capable of nurturing all the stuff you see growing above its surface (aka “life”).

The complexity of this system is mind-boggling, and we’re awe-stricken by its beauty each and every time we are fortunate enough to put our hands in the dirt at Tyrant Farms.

A part of or apart from nature? A part from or a part of soil? 

Humans are biological organisms that are a part of these processes. Their health is our health, individually and collectively.

We’re starting to understand that healthy soil doesn’t just feed our plants, it also helps directly feed the billions of beneficial microorganisms that exist in and on our bodies — our “microbiome“. It’s also being hypothesized that our modern physical separation from nature is taking a toll on our mental health as well. The list of known mental, physical, and economic benefits of gardening are staggering. 

So, why should you care about any of this? Because you’re alive. If you’re not alive, you should also care, because you’re in the process of being converted back into soil (nature doesn’t “waste” anything).

Whether we like it or not, we’re all part of this incomprehensibly amazing living ecosystem that allows you (and everyone and everything else) to continue to stay alive from one generation to the next. Despite their lower level cognition, earthworms seem to grasp this seemingly obvious relationship and are constantly working to improve our dirt. Ironically, humans — a “force of nature” with superior cognitive abilities and advanced technical capabilities relative to earthworms — seem to have difficulty grasping this concept.

Old logs aren't waste - they're a great base for a hugelkultur bed, a permaculture method for making incredibly rich, long-lasting soil teeming with life.

Old logs aren’t “waste” – they’re a great base for a hugelkultur bed, a permaculture method for making incredibly rich, long-lasting soil teeming with life.

What will you do with your soil?

We each have three options when it comes to our soil:

  1. Degrade It, leaving it worse off for our children;
  2. Sustain It, leaving it as we found it (which isn’t a bad option if it was handed to us in great working order);
  3. Improve It, creating conditions in which the system is able to improve itself under our stewardship, aka regenerative impact.

Might we suggest pursuing Option #3?

Regardless of which option other people might choose, #3 is the path we’re trying to take with the piece of dirt under our stewardship (Tyrant Farms). We’re not alone. Far from it.

There’s a huge groundswell of other people around the country and world who are doing the same. If you’ll make the choice to start caring about the soil in your yard, garden or farm, we might just be able to put out the fire together.

Now go soil yourself! 


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  • Reply
    Ann | Created To Cook
    May 26, 2016 at 1:44 am

    Wow… I couldn’t agree more with everything you said. I just had to take a moment to let you guys know how much I appreciate what you’re doing and what you stand for. I didn’t discover the positive effects of playing in the dirt until just a few years ago… And now I’m hooked. I’m trying to teach my little boys about the importance of healthy soil and how what’s in the soil eventually ends up in us… So we must be careful what we put in the soil. Thank you for being an encouraging and informative source of information.

    I wish you continued success in the important work you’re doing.

    • Reply
      September 5, 2016 at 11:54 am

      Sorry we missed your comment, Ann! Thanks so much, and glad you’re teaching your boys the benefits of soil, hands-on. 🙂

    • Reply
      Aaron von Frank
      January 8, 2017 at 3:32 pm

      We just realized our comment system was broken so you might not have seen my original reply – posting again, just in case: Thanks so much, and glad you’re teaching your boys the benefits of soil, hands-on. 🙂

  • Reply
    Elisabeth Winkler
    February 10, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    Brilliant blog about soil! I like your clear explanations of a rotten system, and love your turns of phrases. Keep up the good work!

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