Soil, Not Dirt: How We Respect The Land

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Less than two percent of the population is responsible for feeding us. Farming is a costly and time consuming occupation and the majority of small farms bring in less than $250,000 per year.

The wealth lies in large-scale monoculture operations, which accounts for four percent of all farms in the US yet produces the vast majority of our food supply. These farming practices, although seemingly efficient, are starving our food of essential nutrients.

After decades as the onion producing capital of the world, the Black Dirt region of Orange County, New York ceased to grow. The land was prized for its incredibly fertile soil and farmers were dumbfounded when the fields developed an infestation.

Glaciers formed the land over 12,000 years ago and left behind pockets of low-lying bogland that built up deep layers of decayed plant matter. That matter created an intensely rich compost, heaped with sulfur and nitrogen up to thirty feet deep. Soil typically contains ten percent organic matter, but the Black Dirt region holds fifty to ninety percent in some areas.


A multigenerational farmer, Cheryl Rogowski has deep roots in the Black Dirt region. In her 2011 TEDxManhattan talk she tells how her family first began cultivating the land in the late 1800s. The fertile ground allowed them to grow onions, a tradition they brought over from Poland; and it’s high sulfur content created the perfect environment, giving them a concentration of pyruvic acid that causes the teary eyes effect upon slicing into one. By the 1930s, W. Rogowski Farm and the Black Dirt region was prized for their onions. Cheryl was even named Princess of the 1983 Orange County Onion Harvest Festival.

Cheryl Rogowski

From the 2011 TEDx Manhattan event titled “Changing The Way We Eat” held February 12, 2011 in NYC.

Not too long after Rogowski’s rein, the onions stopped. The land quit. Years of draining the same resources from the soil left the farm unhappy. A myriad of solutions were considered and nothing seemed quite right. It is a common story in monoculture, the practice of growing a single crop repeatedly on the same land. Close to 400 millions acres use this method to grow commodity crops like corn, wheat and soy. The land suffers when one crop is planted repeatedly on the same plot. Nutrients become depleted from the soil and are never replaced, leaving the dirt and the food with less nutrients.

Rogowski explains that her farm solely grew seventy five acres of onions for years. And that putting-in of the same material over and over with the same outputs stripped the soil, leaving behind damaged dirt. The only solution was to change.

Change at W. Rogowski Farm meant new crops. The soil required a variety of inputs to nurse it back to its healthy jet-black character. They began growing potatoes, peppers, carrots, cucumbers and a plethora of other plants. With this new variety and small quantities, the farm’s business model switched to community supported agriculture to provide the surrounding area with seasonal foods. The soil rejuvenated and the people benefited from the nutritional diversity as well.

Millions of acres of land across the country are starved of their value. Commodity crops are grown year after year using the same tired methods. The soil is so badly damaged that farms are forced to plant genetically engineered seeds in order to produce any crops. An unmodified  seed could not produce in such nutrient depleted ground.


Photo by Jorge Luis Zapico.

Photo by Jorge Luis Zapico.

The future of farming is turning though. Fred Kirschenmann, President of the Stone Barns Center For Food and Agriculture, predicts that new systems will restore the health of our soils and our global economies will be broken down into more diverse, self-sustaining bioregions. Small farms with less than five acres of land are already producing about forty percent of all food eaten.

The health of the land translates to the health of humans. In the USDA Report and Recommendation on Organic Farming, it is stated that, “soil is the source of life. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.” Farmers like Cheryl Rogowski understand that our land, our food and our people are one.

In order to protect this vital resource, the members of Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York began a petition to let the USDA know it is important to keep soil in the organic standards. New technologies are removing soil from the growing process and using water to feed plants, like hydroponic systems. Certified organic growing practices require strict standards of soil fertility and management that these new systems are not able to meet. Quality soil is necessary for quality organic food. Sign the petition here.

Rogowski reminds us that it is not dirt, it’s soil. And soil is something to be respected and revered. We have to be mindful of where our land, our soil and our food is taking us. Because we’re on this journey together.

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Brittany Barton is the creative behind She offers real food recipes, sustainable living guidance and inspiration for others to become more sparkly versions of themselves.

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