Soil Health is Your Health

Written by Kelly Key, LEAP's Director of Programs

I spend a good amount of my non-existent free time at Bramble Hollow Farm in Montvale where our good friends Brent and Anna Wills raise heritage hogs and meat chickens on pasture. When I first moved to Virginia, after having spent the previous two seasons living on a farm, I needed a way to get my farm fix. I started volunteering my time and skills to help on their chicken processing days. Six years later and having our own farm to tend to, my husband and I still go to every chicken day we can in order to spend time with them, their kids, and their farm. It's a hard day of work but I feel very rejuvenated and hopeful for the future of our food whenever I leave.

Their farm is a great example of what Brent calls "feeding the land instead of feeding the crop." At Bramble Hollow they do this by using mobile chicken pens. They are able to move their chickens every day to a new piece of grass allowing the chickens to forage with the added benefit of fertilizing every inch of that farm. The chicken manure slowly decomposes and as it incorporates into the soil it promotes soil biology. Year after year their pasture is more lush and stays green even in drought. And year after year their chickens are healthier and larger because of the increased nutrients they receive from pasture. Brent and Anna are very proud of their grass because it is a true indicator of their soil health.

The same concept, known as “rotational grazing,” can be applied to all types of livestock. On the farm I lived on we rotationally grazed a motley crew of cattle, goats, and sheep. This entailed setting up a movable electric fence every morning adjacent to the paddock the animals were in, herding them into the new enclosure, and removing the movable electric fence from the day before to have ready to set up the next day. It is more labor intensive than letting the animals roam a large paddock at all times but results in the image your brain conjures up when you hear the word “pasture.”

The key to rotational grazing and greatest distinction between other grass fed meats is REST. Not only do animals have access to pasture all day, but they have access to NEW pasture regularly. This keeps the pasture from being overgrazed and overly compacted in spots that results in more exposed soil, rainwater runoff, more parasites, and reduced forage diversity thus less healthy animals.

That's all fine and dandy, but what does that have to do with you and your fruits and veggies??

As an inspirational farmer used to tell me, "healthy soil, makes healthy plants, makes healthy people." Many small farmers, like Brent and Anna, know the value of using compost, cover crops, green manures, and other soil amendments to continue to increase their soil health year after year. You will find that farmers who sell at the farmers markets are incredibly proud of what they produce. They know that not only are they producing something delicious, but healthier than produce you can find other places. I always knew my health was related to what I ate, but until I worked on a farm, I had never really thought about how everything my body needs is not coming from the food, but the soil my food is grown in.

I encourage you all to take advantage of face to face interactions with farmers at farmers markets, farm tours, and farm days. Our farmers are passionate about what they do and love to talk about it! See how our local farmers who are mostly not organically certified, are growing "beyond organic" or are raising “beyond grass fed” by taking the extra step to produce not only chemical free food, but nutrient dense food.

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