Ag 101 Week 40

No Assembly Required

I posted this graphic on Instagram this week. At the time, I had planned on writing a lengthy explanation as to what I meant and at the last minute deleted. I wanted to see what kind of response I would get.


One person asked if I was against soil building techniques. The following was my reply

“Not against good management practices at all. They are part of what it takes to be good stewards of the soil. But, soil comes pre-assembled. It’s like a set of shelves that are ready and waiting for you to start stacking books on. Or better yet, to start using and storing nutrients in for the microbes and plants that rely on it. All you need to do is take time to understand the specs the shelves came with, or what I refer to as the inherent characteristics your soil came with. We amend, which is a temporary change to the physical and chemical characteristics and we fertilize which is strategic and is intended to feed the biology in the soil and the plant, depending on the type of inputs you use. Neither build, they complement what’s already there.”

Another person explained, “permaculture allows for amendment added in 1-foot layers starting from a depth of 6 feet below grade. That’s building soil…The amendments are specific and by their nature create a mycillium layer right at the frost line. “

To this, I responded

“If I understand correctly, you still have the parent material left. For lack of better terms, that is what ‘builds soil’ and dictates its characteristics. I have long wanted to understand permaculture better and have not taken the time to do more research on it. If you have any good resources I would love to read more about it.”

If indeed taking away the top six feet is what permaculture prescribes, it seems pretty destructive to me. Here again, I don’t know that much about it.

Three things I want to point out-

1.     Soil doesn’t know and or understand any of this. It comes the way it is and has had stuff growing in it way before we got here. We need to either work with or against it. It is selfish and doesn’t follow trends.

2.     If people understood the difference between amending and fertilizing that alone would save them money and have a more significant impact on helping the environment than some of the other things we do.

3.     Long-term soil fertility, the kind that keeps soil healthy and you and the next generation farming and eating is a balance between the actual make of the soil specifically the clay fraction, organic matter management, and the physical management of it as well.

The notion that we build soil has been around for a while now. You see it phrased that way on social media, industry gurus say it all the time, everyone who’s anyone has used the term at some point in time. It sounds powerful and gives us a sense we are in control. It is what good marketing is made of. It’s even on one of my favorite books, Building Soil for Better Crops by Magdoff & Van Es. If you’re in the industry, you want to jump on the bandwagon and ride the wave of being known as the one who builds the best soil ever! Right?

Here’s the challenge I have with the statement, “build soil”-

We can’t build soil. It comes no assembly required. You don’t open a box like you do from Ikea and put the pieces together.

It comes pre-assembled with both physical and chemical characteristics that we can’t change. They are dictated by its parent material. We have nothing to do with it. The soil is what it is, and we have to except that.

I talk about those in weeks 8 & 9

However, there is one thing we can do. We can amend it. But, there’s another kick in the pants. No matter what amending you do, no matter what type of amendments you use it is only temporary. It doesn’t last forever. Soils main objective is to go back to what it originally was no matter what we try to do with it. You always have to be tinkering with it to keep it the way you want it.

I hate to say it, but there is no Ronco Set It & Forget It when it comes to soil. It is a constant work in progress.

I have said that organic matter gets all the attention and clay is often overlooked while being misunderstood for what it brings to the table in soil management.

If I were to put it into somewhat crude and simple terms

Organic matter

is the girl you want to date. She’s fun, easy to get along with, doesn’t require much attention and is relatively inexpensive. It is the most biologically active fraction of the soil. It does have a negative charge due to humus. However, it is referred to as being loose because it doesn’t have the structure that clay does. Humus, all though being somewhat stable breakdowns faster than clay and needs to be replenished to keep nutrient holding capacity and availability in check.


is the women you want to marry. However, she requires more strategy. She won’t go for just dinner and a movie. She might need something more expensive to keep her happy. However, if managed properly and the timing and application are well thought out and strategic, it will be well worth the effort and expense.

When you have a balance of both organic matter and clay you get married and live happily ever after. I realize my analogy is probably offensive to some, but it illustrates my point.

All of this leads back to knowing your soil type, getting a soil test and balancing the biological, the chemical, and the physical.