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Series of talks addresses how soil health affects climate

  • Tuilelaith McCrory repairs a rodent-damaged sap line with her dog Falie by her side in the sugar woods at her parents' Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. Her mother, Lisa McCrory will speak at the second event of a six week series on soil health at Bethany Church in Randolph, Vt., on March 13. "Just sticking your hands in the soil is such a therapeutic act," said Tuilelaith McCrory who plans to take a more active role in the management of the farm after completing a self-designed degree at Johnson State College that integrates alternative health and behavior studies with sustainable agriculture. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A refrigerator advertises winter products available at the Lisa McCrory's Earthwise Farm and Forest farm stand in Bethel, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. McCrory will speak at the second event of a six week series on soil health at Bethany Church in Randolph, Vt., on March 13. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Carl Russell's draft horses Mike, left, and Tom stand in a pasture near at Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel, Vt., Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019.Russell's wife, Lisa McCrory will speak at the second event of a six week series on soil health at Bethany Church in Randolph, Vt., on March 13. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The key to saving the Earth might very well be ... the earth.

The “little e” earth that lies beneath our feet (and, right now, varying amounts of snow) is mightier than many of us realize — or can be, if we treat it properly, said Cat Buxton, steering committee member of the Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition and organizer of a six-week series of discussions about soil-related topics beginning on Wednesday at the Bethany Church in Randolph.

“Soil touches everything. Of course it does. We’re dust to dust,” said Buxton, a Sharon resident who conducts workshops and provides consulting services on gardening, composting and community-building around local food systems throughout the region. “We all need to understand the really basic principles of soil and water health ... When we explain this information to people, they feel energized, empowered. They get ideas, they become innovative, they want to work together.”

And working together is critical, Buxton said. Conversations about climate change often focus on only one piece of the problem or one potential solution at a time, or fixate on wedge issues that stall progress. Not only does soil provide, well, common ground for people to discuss the health of the planet and its inhabitants, it can serve as a metaphor for what can happen when they do. In organizing the soil series, Buxton said she wants to create a “social mycelium” that mimics the collective intelligence that thrives underground.

In healthy soil, an astonishingly complex network of bacteria, protozoa, fungi and other organisms conducts numerous unseen tasks that are essential to the health of the visible world: decomposing organic compounds, sequestering nitrogen, helping the soil absorb excess water, eating pests that harm crops, and acting as food for some above-ground species. The fungi network in particular, known as mycelium, actually allows plants to “communicate” with each other, according to recent research.

Unfortunately, said Buxton, modern agricultural practices have impaired the soil’s ability to do these jobs effectively.

“In short, globally, something like half of our agricultural soils have been severely degraded and even desert-ified,” she said. “The carbon that used to be held in the soil or in the biomass above the soil ... is now CO2 up in the atmosphere.”

Unlike some types of ecological damage, though, soil degradation can be reversed. “The good news is that we can restore (healthy soil) and we can do it rather quickly, but we need all hands on deck,” Buxton said.

To that end, the series seeks to offer a big-picture look at soil and its role in environmental health as well as examining the topic from a variety of angles, some practical and straightforward, some unexpected.

Wednesday night’s topic, how soil health relates to human health, is one everyone can relate to, Buxton said. “If you look at the degradation of our soil, you’ll see a direct correlation with public health issues,” she said.

On March 13, a group of panelists from the farming community will discuss how farmers and homeowners can create bioversity in their own landscapes to promote healthy ecosystems.

Lisa McCrory, who owns Earthwise Farm and Forest in Bethel with her husband, Carl Russell, will explain how to create an edible landscape on the edge of a property to welcome a variety of species.

“It allows for that overlap and a habitat for a lot of the important plants and animals that we need in our ecosystem,” said McCrory, whose family raises most of the food they consume and uses a management intensive grazing system to nurture the soil. “We’re feeding the environment that feeds us,” she said. “We try to treat our farm as a living, breathing organism ... it’s really a microcosm of the bigger picture.”

Though McCrory is happy to advise people who aspire to live off the land, she also wants to make the topic of bioversity accessible to everyone. “I think we will all be talking about how to make a difference in manageable steps,” she said.

On March 20, the series will put a creative spin on soil, with a group of panelists who will discuss the power of stories in healing the land. “Each of the panelists are going to talk about how they use stories in their work, how stories have affected them in their lives, which stories resonate with them,” Buxton said. “We can learn so much from each other’s stories, but the land has stories, too.” said Buxton.

Buxton teaches “land listening” workshops for both farmers and schoolchildren, teaching them to listen to the land, not just with their ears but with all of their senses, as a way to gain a deeper understanding of how elements like water and wind behave and affect one another.

On April 10, panelists will draw connections between soil and community, from both a symbolic and pragmatic standpoint.

“We’re using soil as a metaphor … for the way in which different movements are working together and in solidarity with one another,” said Simon Dennis, founding director for the Center for Transformational Practice in White River Junction and chairman of the Hartford Selectboard.

At the same time, caring for the land is related in a very real way to caring for our communities, said Dennis, whose homestead includes a small permaculture garden. “It’s the basis of our ability to provide for our necessities. It’s the basis of our ability to protect those downstream of us from flooding,” he said.

While the series brings together an array of experts, it will be structured so that everyone can contribute to the conversation, Buxton said. She also hopes it can serve as a model for other communities that want to tackle the topic.

Though it lacks the buzz of topics such as new technologies, soil health may be starting to get the attention is deserves — not just in eco-friendly Vermont but across the country. The 2018 Farm Bill includes a provision that rewards farmers for using practices that promote soil health, and even industrial farms are beginning to re-think their practices. For example, some large-scale farms are moving toward grass-fed livestock and no-till farming, Buxton said.

Positive thinking can be risky when it comes to climate change, but in the humble soil, Buxton sees reasons for optimism. “One of our goals is to instill hope and agency into every person,” she said. “We can’t just abdicate our responsibility as stewards of this planet ... we can all play a role in this.”

The Soil Series: Grassroots for the Climate Emergency will be held on Feb. 27, March 13, March 20, March 27, April 10 and April 24 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Bethany Church in Randolph. Admission is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. For information, visit vermonthealthysoilscoalition.org/events.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com and 603-727-3268.