This summer’s first cutting of hay is stacked in the barn. Seventeen acres of grasses transformed into golden squares, storing sun and soil’s energy for the winter ahead.
The unsung miracle of grass is a beautiful illustration of nature’s wisdom. Cows eating only grass flourish, turning these coarse blades, inedible to humans, into rich high-protein milk. This benefits the environmentas well as the health of people drinking the milk of grassfed cows. To me, fields devoted to hay and pasture make sense while factory farms make no sense at all.
Hay isn’t a fancy crop.
It doesn’t bring much in the way of money. Some years we scramble because there’s too much rain and not enough time to harvest. But this perennial doesn’t just nourish a few of our favorite ruminants. It helps preserve topsoil.
The loss of soil to water erosion, called sedimentation, is measured in tons of soil loss per acre per year. This runaway soil clogs waterways, smothering aquatic life and affecting navigation. The denuded land left behind is robbed of fertility.
The importance of topsoil can’t be underestimated. According to Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil, the decline and fall of civilizations are based on soil fertility.
Nearly everything we eat relies on healthy soil, yet it takes 500 years for nature to produce an inch of topsoil. Current farming techniques increase soil erosion 10 to 40 percent greater than the rate nature can replace it. We’re running out of the very dirt our lives depend on.
The living skin of our Earth is thin, wildly complex and more interconnected than we might imagine. That’s why, when I look out over the woodlands on our land, the pastures our cattle graze on, the hayfields—I am reassured. The continuous ground cover of pasture or forest protects the soil. Perennial hay fields, pastures and woodlands allow organic matter to build naturally.
I have just a beginning grasp of the vital interplay between amoebae, fungi, bacteria, arthropods and plant roots in soil, enough to sense those bags of “sterilized potting mix” found in every big box store are a mockery of the lessons to be found in nature. I do grasp that we survive, in large part, through the life-giving nutrients of what has died. Organic material of all kinds decays into humus and that makes soil a story of resurrection, writ large.
books worth reading
Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth by William Bryant Logan
Life in the Soil: A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi
Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis
The Secret Life of Plants by Christopher Bird and Peter Tompkins