From the June 2009 Idaho Observer:

Soil: The Foundation of Civilization

By Hari Heath

If, by some stretch of the imagination, we can call present-day society civilized, then we can also say civilization began when Man turned from the nomadic ways of the hunter-gatherer to the more rooted existence of the farmer-gardener. By remaining in one place, at least for a growing season, a more placid, civil existence could be raised from the soil.

Many of Man’s civilizations around the world are built on river deltas, bottomlands and other natural formations where the soil has received millenniums of organic deposits to enrich its composition. In mountainous regions, terraced farmland has been built, worked and passed down through the generations.

Soil is the foundation of civilization. The vast majority of people during the American Revolutionary era owned farms or were indentured servants or slaves that worked on them. Agricultural potential spawned a series of westward migrations in America. The Oregon Trail was built to pursue the promise of rich, fertile soil in the Willamette Valley of the Oregon Territory. As recently as the WWII era, a majority of Americans still lived and worked on farms. Only a small percentage of Americans work the soil today.

Where is "civilization" headed as we depart from its foundation? What are modern agricultural practices doing to our soil? How will civilization continue and remain viable with a depleting soil base?

Soil, presently, like many other things in our world, is a subject of both great mystery and crisis. In 1989, Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird authored Secrets Of The Soil, which explained the crisis of industrial-petro-chemical-agriculture, the natural mechanisms of soil creation and the application of biodynamic farming methods around the world. The introduction to their book, excerpted from here, is telling:

"Today soils are tired, over worked, depleted, sick, poisoned by synthetic chemicals. Hence the quality of food has suffered, and so has health. Malnutrition begins with the soil. Buoyant human health depends on wholesome food, and this can only come from fertile and productive soils. Minerals in the soil control the metabolism of cells in the plant, animal and man. Diseases are created chiefly by destroying the harmony reigning among mineral substances present in infinitesimal amounts in air, water, food, but most importantly in soil. If soil is deficient in trace elements, food and water will be equally deficient."

A warning

Tompkins and Bird quote the Nobel Prize winner, Dr. Alexis Carrel, from his 1912, Man, the Unknown, who warned then, "that since soil is the basis for all human life our only hope for a healthy world rests on reestablishing the harmony in the soil we have disrupted by our modern methods of agronomy."

And that was 1912.

They continue quoting Dr. Carrel: "Chemical fertilizers cannot restore soil fertility. They do not work on the soil but are enforcedly imbibed by plants, poisoning both plant and soil. Only organic humus makes for life. Plants are the great intermediaries by which the elements in rocks, converted by microorganisms into humus, can be made available to animal and man, to be built into flesh, bone, and blood. Chemical fertilizers, on the contrary, can neither add to the humus content of soil nor replace it. They destroy its physical properties, and therefore its life. When chemical fertilizers are put into soil they dissolve and seek natural combinations with mineral already present. New combinations glut or overload the plant, causing it to become unbalanced. Others remain in the soil, many in the form of poisons."

We can’t say we haven’t been warned. This is not some green fuzzy, new age thinking. These are the words of a Nobel Prize winner, published as humanity was about to enter World War One.

The origins of petro-chem agriculture

How did humanity depart from ten thousand years of working with the soil to the present-day petro-chemical assault upon the soil? Tompkins and Bird traced the origins of industrial agriculture:

"Poisoning of the soil with artificial agricultural additives began in the middle of the [1800s] when German chemist, Justus von Liebig, known as ‘the father of chemical agriculture,’ mistakenly deduced from the ashes of a plant he had burnt that what nourished plants was nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash (or potassium carbonate)—the N-P-K of today’s chemical agriculture.

"Liebig’s dicta—and he wrote profusely—led to a vast and profitable commercial development of synthetic chemicals. Lulled by propaganda, world farmers became dependent on German mines for supplies of potassium salts, known as ‘muriate of potash,’ without which they were told that nothing on their farms would grow. When World War I interrupted exports from Germany, prospectors located deposits in the United States, launching American companies into rapid exploitation of this bonanza of unnecessary chemicals.

"From the amount of phosphoric acid also found in the ash of a burnt plant, Liebig further concluded that phosphorus must be a prime requirement for the growth of plants. When vast quantities of sea-derived calcium phosphate were discovered, a whole new industry of artificial ‘mineral manures’ was launched.

"Up until Liebig’s time, it was believed that because virgin soils were highly fertile, and contained much humus, the various stages of this brown decaying organic matter must be the primary source of nourishment for plants. Liebig attacked the notion with vehemence."

Ten years after advancing the ideas of chemical agriculture, Liebig changed his tune and concluded that humus was the essential component for healthy plants after all, not chemicals. By then, the chemical companies had already developed a profitable market and a race to find and develop ever more chemicals for modern agriculture had begun.

The same powerful interests and industries which brought us to the first "great war" and its deadly chemical warfare, converted their leftover chemical stocks and factories to "peacetime" uses and ushered in the age of petro-chemical-industrial-agriculture.

German technology and American money joined to form the I. G. Farben Company in 1925. Closely bonded with Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, many of the atrocities on Hitler’s side of World War II were made possible by I. G. Farben products. After the war, Dupont, Dow, Monsanto and American Cynamid converted their munitions factories, built at public expense for the "war effort," to "fertilizer" production. The technology for DDT was also acquired from Swiss chemist Paul Mueller.

With crops already weakened by chemical fertilizers, farmers were encouraged to fight off bugs with new products such as chlordane, heptachlor, dieldrin, aldrin, endrin and "organic phosphates." Bankers, chemical companies, and agricultural equipment manufacturers combined to change the game from family-based subsistence farming to the industrial model of today. With funding from the petro-chemical interests, universities changed the focus of their research and curriculums to propagate industrial mega-farming.

As the corporate and financial powers set a new course for agriculture, a few scholarly voices around the world called for alternatives to chemical farming, as Tompkins and Bird explained:

"That chemicals were pointlessly poisoning the soil, killing microorganisms, stunting plants, and proliferating degenerative disease in man and beast was perfectly clear to a whole group of sensitive minds in Europe and America as early as World War I…Their main premise was that in soil properly nourished with adequate supplies of humus, crops do not suffer from disease and do not require poisonous sprays to keep off parasites; that animals fed on these plants develop a high degree of disease resistance, and that man, nurtured with such plants and animals can reach an extraordinary standard of health, able to resist disease and infection."

"Organic" foundations

Sir Albert Howard, sometimes known as the founder of the "organic" movement, spent the first 30 years of the 20th century conducting research in India as its Imperial Chemical Botanist. With ample funding, he grew a wide variety of crops under different conditions to test plants’ reactions to disease, insects and pests. Sir Albert found that the most important factor for resistance was a fresh supply of humus added to the soil. This compost component provided nutrition to the soil and gave a natural resistance to insects and fungus in his crops; even the livestock that were fed his organically grown fodder thrived in the midst of local diseases, which decimated nearby herds.

Howard returned to England in 1931 and began lecturing on the results of his experiments and published Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health. Sir Albert warned that, "The use of synthetic chemical fertilizers leads to imperfectly synthesized protein in leaves, and thus results in many of the diseases found in plants, animals and human beings."

Dr. William Albrecht, a soil scientist who traveled the world studying soil, called organic matter the constitution of the soil. "Insects and disease are the symptoms of a failing crop, not the cause. The use of poisonous sprays is an act of desperation in a dying agriculture."


The Austrian scientist, Rudolf Steiner, developed a unique approach to remediate the plight of European agriculture following World War I. His "Biodynamic Method" involves the use of certain "preparations" made from various combinations of fresh manure, minerals, herbs and animal parts. The process for making Steiner’s preparations would appear to the initial observer to be as much witchcraft as compost making, but their use has been very successful. Even though Steiner died in 1925, his work has been carried on.

Steiner’s biodynamics was as much a spiritual practice as an agricultural one.

Astrological timing, natural energies of the earth, and the many small creatures found within the soil are all part of the process. His "preparations," named "500" through "508," were meticulously crafted and cured, resulting in various liquid concoctions which were "sprayed" on the soil in what might be called "homeopathy for the earth."

Ehrenfried Pfeiffer began studying with Steiner in 1919 and then ran several biodynamic farms in Holland from 1926 to 1938. Pfeiffer avoided World War II by coming to America where he received a medical degree from a homeopathic college in Philadelphia.

He later moved to a stony and sterile 285-acre farm in Chester, New York, which he biodynamically transformed. An avid researcher, he sought to prove the chemical and scientific basis for the success of Steiner’s preparations.

Long days of farming and research took their toll on Pfeiffer as congenital diabetes and tuberculosis landed him in a sanitarium for a year. With access to the sanitarium’s laboratory he began to study bacteria. He discovered and isolated strains of bacteria that could be added to Steiner’s preparations and used to radically compost municipal waste.

In 1950 he began a project to compost Oakland and San Francisco’s garbage with his "starter." Tompkins and Bird reported that, after removing metal, glass and wood from the garbage, the "action of the bacteria was immediate. Within two to four days they could multiply 300 million times, with metabolic action so intense the mixture heated up to more than 150 degrees as various strains of furiously procreating bacteria decomposed and digested the garbage, producing enzymes to speed up the digestive process and make possible chemical changes…In less than a week, with decomposition completed, the piles would shrink and cool. Such bacterial life is present in virgin soil; but in the garbage compost the concentration is several hundred times greater. After the first week of violent decomposition, the garbage has ceased to be rotting material and has become stabilized plant food. It has no odor. Actually, it repels vermin and carrion birds will hover around the piles, but not venture to alight on them

"Vegetables grown with the converted garbage were found to weigh 25 percent more than those grown with conventional fertilizers, and had as much as three times as much Vitamin A. Grain showed a consistently higher protein content. Laboratory experiments showed that Pfeiffer’s mixture could restore even sterile sand to vigorous fertility, eventually transforming desert into rich farmland so long as adequate water was available. Organic matter, mineral balance, and essential structure were restored, permitting the absorption and retention of moisture.

"The hope was to provide the nation with a cheap supply of natural organic matter to anchor the topsoil and reverse the trend toward a continental dust bowl. ‘If all the U.S. garbage were processed each year,’ said Pfeiffer, ‘we would have about thirty million tons of compost, enough to fertilize ten million acres of land. Garbage dumps would just about disappear.’"

The chemical fertilizer interests were not about to lose their business and applied a concerted effort to stop Pfeiffer’s fledgling enterprise. After a two-year run, his Oakland composting plant was shut down. He returned to the farm in New York to continue his research, lecture and teach biodynamics. As Tompkins and Bird reported, "Along with the efforts of other organic farmers, he was derided by the powerful chemical companies with their vast assets and overt and covert financial control of agricultural colleges, newspapers, magazines and publishing houses."

Small greatness

What is it that makes such a difference in organic versus chemically treated soil? Microbes. Short lived and small, these miniscule creatures have the power to turn rocks into soil. They are the creators of humus; the makers of soil.

• More microbes germinate in half a cup of fertile earth than there are humans on the Earth.

• The combined weight of all the microbial cells on Earth is 25 times that of its animal life.

• Every acre of well cultivated land has up to half a ton of thriving micro organisms and up to a ton of earth worms which can daily excrete a ton of humic castings.

As Charlie Walters, editor of Acres U.S.A., puts it, "There are more kinds and numbers of minute livestock hidden in the shallows and depths of an acre of soil than ever walk the surface of that field. The weight of microorganisms busy under the grassland is far greater than that of all the large mammals, cows, horses, rabbits, mice, gophers, toads, snakes, birds, grasshoppers, spiders, and other types of animal life that run above it or take shelter in it. A single microbe reaching maturity and dividing within a half an hour, can, in the course of a single day, grow into 300 million more, and in another day to more than the number of human beings that have ever lived."

The worm

French scientist Andre’ Voisin makes the point that perhaps the most important animal in Man’s "civilization" is the earthworm. The author of Soil, Grass and Cancer and Better Grassland Sward, Voisin stated that the earthworm, or lumbricid, "is not only essential to agriculture, but the very foundation of civilization." Tracing the relationship of earthworms to man’s culture he found that after the last ice age, lumbricid earthworms were found only in the valley of three great civilizations: the Indrus, the Euphrates and the Nile.

The English naturalist, Gilbert White wrote: "Worms seem to be the great promoters of vegetation, perforating and loosening the soil, rendering it pervious to rains and the fibers of plants by drawing straws and stalks of leaves and twigs into it; and, most of all, by throwing up such infinite numbers of lumps of earth called worm-casts, which being their excrement, is a fine manure for grain and grass. The earth without worms would soon become cold, hard-bound, and void of fermentation and consequently sterile."

Worms worm their way through the soil, constantly bathed in mucus, which rubs off, retaining moisture in the soil. Essentially a moving digestive tract, they use sand and minerals in their gizzard to eat everything in their path, aided by digestive chemicals and bacteria. On the exit side, their castings are neutralized by carbonate of lime exuded from the worm’s calciferous glands resulting in a finely ground soil enhancer which Tompkins and Bird explain are, "five times as rich in available nitrogen, seven times as rich in available phosphates, and eleven times as rich in available potash as anything else in the top six inches of soil, producing a nutrient in just the right condition for the plant to absorb. Real organic NPK! What’s more, the castings are always more acidically neutral than the soil from which they were formed, naturally improving the local pH factor."

Earthworms help sandy soils to retain moisture with humus and other soils to drain better through their tunnels. They produce their own weight in castings each day, adding five tons to each acre per year, building soil volume by five percent a year. They break up hard soils, dragging compost down and bringing minerals up. They are a composter, rototiller, fertilizer and soil conditioner all rolled into one self-replicating (hermaphrodite) workhorse, or as Aristotle said, they are "the guts of the soil."

Most USDA "scientists" actively avoid any investigation into the benefits of earthworms. The USDA is, of course, intrinsically linked to the petro-chemical cartel and banker financed agribusiness. Why does the USDA avoid earthworm research? Tompkins and Bird explain the conflict: "Normally healthy and long lived, earthworms are discouraged if not killed outright by many pesticides and most chemical fertilizers. Copper sulfate, in concentrations near the surface of the soil, even in only 260 parts per million, can drastically reduce the worm population, and any nitrogenous fertilizer will quickly wipe them out. Nearly all commercial brands contain high levels of nitrogen in the form of ammonia, which destroys earthworms by creating intolerably high acidic soil."

Biodynamics down under

What can happen when biodynamics is put to the challenge of transforming the near desert lands of Australia? Alex Podolinski began applying biodynamic practices he learned in Germany to a rundown farm in 1949. Quietly at first, Podolinski’s efforts, techniques and success began to spread among farmers who faced very challenging soil and climate conditions. Chemical farming techniques had been progressively failing in Australia, requiring greater amounts of chemicals to achieve diminishing yields. A few farmers began trying Podolinski’s techniques, eventually forming the Biodynamic Farming Association of Australia.

As Tompkins and Bird describe, what radically changed things, "was a 38-minute prime-time feature film on Australian television, A Winter’s Tale, broadcast nationwide in 1985 as part of the highly-popular series, Big Country. Opening with a haunting scene of Podolinski on his tractor spraying 500 on a moonlit pasture with an owl hooting in the background, it went on to show Alex professionally stuffing and burying cow horns, communing with his herd of cattle in a lush and fertile landscape to which not a speck of chemical of any sort had been added in over 25 years. The film, unsolicited by Podolinski, but insisted upon by producer-director Paul Williams of the Australian Broadcasting Company, caused a sensation. No other program in the history of the ABC, either on radio in the early days or later on television, ever received as much response as the one finally made as a result of Williams’ trip to Podolinski’s farm near Powelltown. Soon after the broadcast, the station got over 6,000 letters, mostly handwritten, the largest number from farmers bursting to know more about what they’d seen and what many of them characterized as ‘just plain miraculous!’"

Tompkins and Bird extensively detail how biodynamics down under has revolutionized farming, converting dry hard pan soils to lush farms; growing healthy livestock, improving net profits and saving Australia’s farms. Biodynamic practices have increased yields, eliminated the costs of chemicals and created new markets for unpoisoned, nutritionally improved foodstuffs.

The Russian experience

The USSR was once America’s enemy, or so we’ve been told. But there is an entirely new threat to the U.S. corporate state, coming from the "red" empire—a green revolution. The Russians have a long tradition of working the soil and feeding themselves, but perhaps they have gone too far this time. What industry in Russia is larger than steel manufacturing; greater than electric power generation; bigger than chemical and pharmaceutical production; larger than the forestry, timber, pulp and paper industries; more productive than the manufacture of building materials; and a larger contributor to Russia’s GNP than the oil refining, natural gas and coal industries combined? Answer: The Russian people working small garden plots with mostly hand tools and organic gardening techniques. Yes!

If the American people ever catch wind of this phenomenon, and pick up their shovels, rakes, hoes and seeds, the hegemonic U.S. Empire may collapse. Imagine what might happen if Americans gave up TV watching, their absorption in the various virtual reality programs administered by their economic/political masters, the dream of excessive luxury pursuits and, instead, took up gardening. What would happen if we became actual producers, fed ourselves healthy food, cured our own ailments with nutrition and the abandonment of toxic grocery products and began experiencing original thinking after communing with nature in the natural process known as gardening? The Empire may not be able to withstand such an assault.

The Russians picked themselves up after the collapse of the Soviet Empire; their experiences provide us with an example and some astonishing data. Russians are primarily urban apartment dwellers as differentiated from America’s predominance of suburban living. Although "dacha" has had many meanings over time, such as "landed estate," the contemporary meaning is the garden plot of an urban dweller. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new movement has formed—the Dacha Movement.

Urban Russians have been able to acquire small plots of land out in the country to garden and often build a small cottage on. Typically these dachas are six hundred square meters or about one sixth of an acre, which is smaller than most American’s suburban lots (hint, hint—you could do this at home, too). Over 50 percent of urban Russians (dachniks) have a dacha.

Vladimir Megre, in "Who Are We?"—the fifth of nine books in the Ringing Cedars Series (see ad below), explains the facts behind the Dacha movement: "The Russian State Statistics Committee published the data for 1997 in their publication, Goskomstat, which revealed that 14.7 million families had fruit-growing plots while, 7.6 million had vegetable plots, for a total cultivated land area of 1,821,000 hectares (a hectare is equal to about 2 ½ acres). On an average of two-tenths of an acre each, these families grew 90 percent of Russia’s potatoes, seventy-seven percent of its berries and seventy-three percent of its vegetables.

"In 2004 Goskomstat reports that Russia’s gardening families—without heavy machinery, hired labor or government subsidies—have grown on their free time and using predominantly organic methods, 33 million tonnes of potatoes, 11.5 million tonnes of vegetables and 3.2 million tonnes of fruit and berries, which represent 93%, 80% and 81% respectively of Russia’s total output of these crops and 51% of Russia’s total agricultural output. This Dacha Movement is 2.3% of Russia’s gross domestic product (GDP). A US$14 billion production value, in 2004, the contribution of these rural family growers to the Russian economy exceeds that of any of the following industries: steel; electric power generation; chemical and pharmaceutical; forestry, timber, pulp and paper; building materials; or oil refining, natural gas and coal industries taken together."

Read that again, over half of the food grown in Russia comes from people’s gardens and it is a major industry. How effective are these urban "vacationers" in their dachas? Leonid Sharashkin, the editor for the English translation of Megre’s Ringing Cedars Series, wrote his doctoral dissertation on this phenomenon. Sharashkin adds to Megre’s information:

"In 2006, 53% (by value) of the country’s total agricultural output was coming from household plots which occupied only 2.9% of agricultural land, while the remaining 47% of output by commercial agricultural enterprises (often the former collective or Soviet farms) and individual farmers, required 97.1% of agricultural lands… household production requires 38 times less land area to produce 1 ruble worth of output. It is noteworthy that such exceptional productivity has historic antecedent: prior to World War I, Russian peasants’ private plots attached to their dwelling were at least four times more productive than the fields outside the village."

Sharashkin concludes his dissertation:

"The example of Russian family agriculture is also of great relevance to the broader policy issues surrounding American agriculture. Industrial agriculture in the U.S. is faced with a wide range of exacerbating problems: high-energy demands and dependence on imported petroleum, dependence on government subsidies, environmental degradation, social injustice, and many others. In this context, more and more farmers, researchers, policy makers, and members of the public are on the outlook for more sustainable, smaller scale, environmentally and community-friendly food production alternatives. To them, the Russian example will offer a valuable perspective on a highly decentralized, highly productive and self-sustaining, multi-crop food production and distribution system providing a wide range of economic, social, environmental, and cultural benefits, while requiring a minimum amount of land and natural resources…

"Russia’s experience shows that food gardening even as a leisure activity can be highly beneficial and productive, and the development and encouragement of similar practices in the U.S. may offer similar benefits.

"I would like to conclude with a quote from a famous Russian proponent of healthy living through closeness with nature, Porfirii Ivanov. He wrote: ‘Separate not your thought from your deeds. It’s good that you’ve read this, but it would be much better if you acted on what you’ve read!’ In my research, I have witnessed that many a Russian family do not diverge in their actions from their tradition-honored aspiration to live a good life in harmony with Mother Earth. Come spring, millions of hands touch the earth, and it sprouts billions of shoots. Today, as a thousand years ago, Russians ‘have their food from the earth.’ And the light flows on."

Leonid Sharashkin’s dissertation, The Socioeconomic and Cultural Significance of Food Gardening in the Vladimir Region of Russia, can be found at: