Soil & Sustainability

Old Order Mennonite discing a field

By Peter

I was recently asked to speak at a nearby First Nation’s Reserve about Sustainability. “It’s ironic,” I said, “that someone who’s lived in the area less than 20 years is talking about sustainability to people who have lived in the area for 1000’s! However,” I continued, “some of my distant kin—Old Order Mennonites—have lived on the land for almost 500 years.”

I’m not sure how much Wes Jackson would be impressed with my ancestors’ history on the land. Jackson is the visionary force behind the Land Institute, a Kansas collaboration making slow, significant progress towards breeding a miracle. Their holy grail: perennial wheat—a timeless, food crop that would need no soil-disturbing plow and no genetic modification.

Wes Jackson Land Institute perennial wheat
Jackson compares perennial wheat grass roots to annual wheat roots

Jackson feels that any green-leaning farmer grasping at sustainability is vulnerable to the next owner who’s greed or ignorance prioritizes greenbacks over the needs of the soil. The best way to conceptualize conventional agriculture, Jackson has stated, “is that it is a mistake.”


Compost Turner #1

I recently drove up the gravel laneway of a farm that some people would see as backwards, if not a mistake. It has a much smaller land base than most modern successful agricultural enterprises. It is home to an unusually large number of people and types of crops and animals compared to many modern profitable farms. Enclosed by the house, the barn, and the workshop, little within view of the courtyard could be described as bright or shiny. This could include the man inside the workshop I stumbled upon after creeping down a few aisles filled with a cornucopia of machine parts. Entrenched outside Elmira, Ontario, this humble Old Order Mennonite farm—like many in the area—works their land with horses but has a manufacturing business on the side. Beyond the dusty entrance, it just so happens that this farm manufactures perhaps the best tractor-pulled, farm-scale compost-making machines in the world.

Compost Turner #2

Despite this knowledge, I wondered if the elderly staffer shuffling to the back desk had some disability or just wasn’t fit for work elsewhere on the farm. His back was a bit stooped, he moved slowly, and his inexpensive blue overcoat was dusty.

Having noticed a scant supply–only two bags–of their special compost for sale outside the shop I asked him, “Excuse me—do you have any more bags of compost that I can buy?”

Surprised and disorganized, he mused, “Oh—I thought we still had a bunch. We must have sold some. We’ll have to make some more next week.”

“I’m from out of town,” I replied sadly. “Well, I guess I’ll take those and a bag of your mineral soil powder, although I already have some.” I paid him in cash and watched him laboriously write out a receipt on a carbon-copy contraption from the 1950’s. “What kind of dosage do you use?”

“Oh—we just use a little sprinkle on any plant that doesn’t look like it’s doing so good,” he replied.

“Okay, but if I’m applying it at broad scale to a garden, what do you recommend? Can I find the information on, um, the internet or anywhere like that?”

Just as I anticipated, he answered, “No.” The old man stopped what he was doing, stood upright, and shuffled to a backroom, reappearing with a simple purple brochure that most modern middle school students could improve upon.

Scanning it, I noticed various application rates, laboratory macro- and micronutrient analyses, and more.

As he launched in to a carefully considered monologue about where the material came from, how it differed from garden-centre-variety soil lotions and potions, and what he thought might make it effective versus what had been “scientifically proven,” scales began to fall off my own eyes. I began to realize that there was more to this man than I’d perceived.

“Are you Edward? Edward Sattler?” I asked.*

“Yes,” he said.

Soil Dwellers
Soil Dwellers

“I know you from the soil microscope microbiology seminar years ago,” I continued. He had been by far the oldest participant, and also by far the only one wearing a conservative Mennonite short collar and plain coat!

“Oh—yes, that was interesting, wasn’t it? I went on to do the week long course with Professor Ingham later. Did you go to the workshop held by Graeme Saite last year?”

I confessed that I hadn’t, but that I had wanted to.

“Oh—it was good,” he continued. “I pretty much knew where he was headed with that, and that’s where he went, but it was all good. Like he said, these days we’ve pretty much mined a lot of the good stuff out of the soil.” He rambled on at length about proven versus theoretical concepts in compost making, the evolution of compost tea-making equipment, electromagnetic and paramagnetic influences on and in the soil, and several other concepts that—as a well-read soil geek—I was barely aware of, much less fluent in. In his eighties, his mind was still logical, humble, thirsty and insightful.

“Yep, we’re still learning about this stuff.” A little wistfully, he added, “I’m passing it on to the next generation.”

As my attention span lagged, I offered, “I’ll take two bags of the mineral stuff and come back another time.”

“Sure, just give me five bucks and we’ll forget the paperwork,” he answered, smiling.

No matter what anyone aboriginal, ultra-modern, or otherwise says, this old-country man with his new country clan are not nearly as backward as we might think. Regarding sustainability of the fittest, they are probably the humans best-adapted to the new millennium.

*not his real name


2 Replies to “Soil & Sustainability”

    1. Thanks, Sue. Nice to hear it from one who appreciates these issues and decent writing! -Peter

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