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Dirt. I can assure you that at age 17, and in my first quarter of college as a wildlife management major, the last thing I wanted to study was dirt. In my first class, I mentioned dirt, and was abruptly interrupted. “Soil, not dirt, Mr. Gore," the professor quickly corrected me.

Being the environmentally conscious community Missoula is, I suspect many folks are already familiar with the wisdom and teachings of Dr. Aldo Leopold. If you are not familiar, please investigate. His observations, findings and writings in the 1930s and ‘40s are as appropriate now as then, and I believe even more pressing. Seems we have not made much progress in valuing and taking care of our soils.

In 1923, Leopold stated, “Growing away from the soil has spiritual as well as economic consequences.” Soils are valuable to our health and wealth as individuals, families and society. Children raised in rural areas close to and in dirt are found to have better immune systems than kids reared in cleaner, more sterile city environments. And healthy soils, those containing rich organic matter of plant and animal materials, sequester tons of carbon.

Our past history of deep plowing of land has transferred to the atmosphere tons of carbon. Plowing soil exposes the turned over ground to air, where the carbon combines with oxygen to form CO2. Up until the 1950s, excess carbon dioxide in the air resulted in our plowing and forestry practices. These, along with other ongoing human actions such as burning fossil fuels like coal, has led us to today’s predicament of a warming earth.

Disturbing soil by plowing destroys its structure, reduces fertility and increases susceptibility to erosion. Healthy soil is alive. Bacteria, protozoa, millipedes, mites, sowbugs, fungi, nematodes, earthworms and many other organisms provide soil enrichment. Leaf fragments may be moved down as much as three feet by earthworms mixing and aerating the soil. Plowing destroys this life by drying out the soil. With the structure broken down, soils erode.

Tons of our country’s soil and nutrients are washed down rivers, thus affecting our capacity to sustainably produce food crops. Modern agriculture is slowly adapting practices that reduce plowing by using no-till farming, which incorporates more organic materials.

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Still, many believe that even with modified farming methods and improved soil management, the USA will not be able to feed the world. Perhaps we could support 3 billion or 4 billion people, but certainly not 7 billion or the projected 9 billion. To attempt to do this will put our soil and agricultural capacity in peril. Using our feed crops to produce ethanol for gasoline additives is foolish, and a phony energy program.

Immunologists in the medical community have coined the term “farm effect” relative to the health of children raised in farm areas. Such children have less allergies and asthma. It seems that there is a richer soup of soil microbes in rural areas as opposed to city areas. Microbes in soil, stable dust, manure and unwashed food are more available to children in the farmlands. Researchers cultured farm children’s mattresses and found a mix of bacteria, most of which are typically found in soil.

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Early life exposure to a variety of microbes is believed to dampen the allergic response of our adaptive immune system. Genetic (DNA) swapping of soil microbes with our bodies' gut bacteria may trigger a more adaptive immune system. Maybe we should eschew the teaspoon of medicine and play in the dirt more!

In today’s drive for profits, we put off thinking about tomorrow and understanding unintended consequences. That is a recipe for earth’s destruction. We need to change out mindset to understand that continued growth is not good. Our economic model should shift to emphasize quality over quantity. We should strive to have less, but quality and artfully done products which will last many years.

Leopold developed a philosophy and ethic to honor the land. He encouraged harmony of people and the soils. He observed that agricultural science is largely a race between the emergence of new pests, and development of their control. We now more fully understand the relationship of soils and our health. Consequently, better land and soil stewardship must follow.

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Jay Gore’s 55-year conservation career included work with three state, three federal and one non-profit conservation organizations. He writes from Missoula. 

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