Soil matters: Climate activists in our midst

"Every farm has its own personality," says Amy Norgaard, a soil science student at the University of British Columbia, and former farmhand and market manager with Ice Cap Organics.

Her two-year-long Master's thesis, which she will defend in late spring, required her to travel between 18 different organic farms across southwest B.C., the Pemberton Valley, the Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island's Comox Valley, to collate data about nutrients and soil amendments.

At first, she thought this was going to give her the golden key to running the Ur-Farm, the perfect organic system, as she compiled tips and best practices from all the farms she was visiting and researching.

But what she discovered is, there is no homogeny in small-scale, mixed-vegetable organic farming. And the idiosyncracies, in contrast to Big Ag's monotony, work. "I'm working with this very niche group and yet none of these farms look the same!" she exclaims.

Norgaard is an endearing combination of exuberance and intensity when she's talking about her passions, of which snowboarding, soil and the tastiness of Pemberton-grown vegetables rank high. Now 27, she grew up in Merritt, hunting with her dad, and ripping around the mountain at Apex. She loved animals, worked at the local vet clinic, kept chickens as part of her 4H club program and captained every sports team she played on. She studied kinesiology for a while and hated it, took a season off to live in Whistler and snowboard every day and spent summers firefighting. Then, she stumbled into a soil science course. It was life-changing.

She started learning about farming systems and their complexity and beauty and "the complete mess we've made with food production." Two years later, she interned for eight months at Pemberton's Ice Cap Organics to get her final six credits and dissolve what seemed to her to be a romantic idea about farming. It didn't work: She loved it.

Norgaard is still enchanted by the mystery of soil, and how, as much as we might have learned in the last 50 years, we're realizing how little we understand of the infinite complexity of this system. "Soil is the basis of life," she says. "This thin layer of topsoil we have on Earth is the medium for everything we depend on. Literally. For food and forests, for carbon cycles, for everything else it does like filter and hold water, and cycle nutrients. Literally, without soil we wouldn't have a medium for decomposition." And it's one-metre thin—akin to a single cellular layer of skin on our bodies. And like our skin, it's holding everything together. "Civilizations rise and fall with their soil management. It's considered a finite resource in relation to our human lifespan."

The goal is not to measure soil quality, but orient towards soil health. Health is an important reframe, because soil is living. "It's super offensive to a soil scientist to call it dirt, because dirt is inert. There's no life in dirt. But soil is life."

And as much as a farm is a product of its landscape and its soil health, it's also a reflection of the personality of its farmers, and the values and intentions they pour into it, liquidized as sweat.

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