Date: 3/3/09

Tonight we’re getting down and dirty—our topic is DIRT. We’ll be talking with Randy Senock, professor of Soil Science at Chico State to learn more about this amazing stuff and then with a guy who works with and in it,  Carl Rosato, the owner Woodleaf Farm, an organic farm in Oroville.

Digging Up the Facts on Dirt

To provide a little background for our interviews we begin with Michael Bloch, writing for Living Green Tips in September of 2008, who makes some key distinctions in providing us  “the dirt on soil.” he explains:

Dirt, or more accurately, soil, is amazing stuff and something that we very much take for granted. But not all dirt/soil is created equal. I’ve been fascinated with soil since I discovered how long and how much material it takes to make it. For the sake of clarification, let’s make a couple of distinctions.

Dirt – mainly mineral based; pebbles and finely ground rock

Soil – mineral, plant, fungi and animal based.

Soil is a smorgasboard of nutrients; animal droppings and decaying plants and creatures add to its fertility. It contains a multitude of life forms including insects, fungi and bacteria – it’s an ecosystem unto itself. Because there’s so much dirt around, we can tend to see it as a limitless resource; but so much of the dirt on this planet isn’t really capable of sustaining life. It’s easy to tell dirt and soil apart. Soil will usually be darkish in color and have a rich earthy smell. Dirt just tends to smell like dust.

From the Inter Press Service News Agency  on February 27, 2009 Comes this story by Stephen Leahy  about the  “ENVIRONMENT:  Dirt Isn’t So Cheap After All”

BROOKLIN, Canada, – He says that  “Soil erosion is the ‘silent global crisis/ that is undermining food production and water availability, as well as being responsible for 30 percent of the greenhouse gases driving climate change.

“We are overlooking soil as the foundation of all life on Earth,” said Andres Arnalds, assistant director of the Icelandic Soil Conservation Service.

“Soil and vegetation is being lost at an alarming rate around the globe, which in turn has devastating effects on food production and accelerates climate change,” Arnalds told IPS from Selfoss, Iceland, host city of the International Forum on Soils, Society and Climate Change […]. Every year, some 100,000 square kilometres of land loses its vegetation and becomes degraded or turns into desert.”Land degradation and desertification may be regarded as the silent crisis of the world, a genuine threat to the future of humankind,” Arnalds said.

There is no formal agreement on protecting the world’s soils. Delegates at the weekend forum in Iceland will consider propositions for an International Year of Land Care to focus attention on soil stewardship, which affects food and water security worldwide.

A “New soil map for African farmers” is being reported by  James Morgan, Science Writer for the BBC in a January 13 posting. He reports:

The first detailed digital soil map of sub-Saharan Africa is to be created. The £12.3m ($18m) project will offer farmers in 42 countries a “soil health diagnosis” and advice on crop yields. Scientists from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) will take soil samples from across the continent and analyse nutrient levels. These will be combined with satellite data to build a high-resolution map, to be disseminated freely to poor farmers by local extension workers [. . . .]  The interactive online map, known as the African Soil Information Service (AfSIS), will be accompanied by advice on how to tackle soil deficient in nutrients. It is the first stage of project to build a global digital map – called – covering 80% of the world’s soils. The initial four-year programme is being funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra). [ . . .] “From the farmer in the field, right up to to the secretary general of the UN, we need precision soil information,” said Pedro Sanchez, of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, a partner in the project.

In June of 2008, Science Daily reported on “Sophisticated Soil Analysis for Improved Land Use.”

Researchers investigated different components of variation in soil at diverse scales ranging from the nanoscale to entire biomes in order to improve predictions of soil processes. Scientists used a variety of mathematical approaches to explore patterns of soil properties including water content, water movement, corn yields, and remote sensing data. Soil variation occurs across multiple geographic scales ranging from vast climatic regions of the Earth to a 50 acre farm field to the molecular world of soil nano-particles in a pinch of soil. New methodological developments better enable us to separate out these different sources of variation by examining soil variability over a range of scales, which is important for linking soil properties with soil processes. These linkages have important predictive capacities, such as forecasting corn yields based on soil characteristics, or understanding where microorganisms live in soil and how human alteration to certain soil properties affects their livelihood.

Journal reference:  Logsdon, S. D., Perfect, E., Tarquis, A. M. Multiscale Soil Investigations: Physical Concepts and Mathematical Techniques. Vadose Zone Journal, 2008 7: 453-455 DOI: 10.2136/vzj2007.0160

Our questions for Randy Senock:

Randy Senock is professor of Geological Environmental Science at CSU, who specializes in such topics as land managaement, environmental physics, and sustainability.

  • What is soil ecology? What do you do as a soil ecologist?
  • You said in an e-mail to us that “soils are the foundation of many aspects of sustainability.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?
  • Often people think of dirt as, well, dirt. Just brownish dead stuff. But, in fact, the soil has a lot going on. What is happening in soil?
  • So the soil is a kind of ecosystem? What are the components of the soil eco-system? (We think of the old animal, vegetable, mineral game we used to play as kids.)
  • What are the regional differences in soil ecosystems? What causes those variations?
  • With all the rain we had in February and early March, we’re wondering about how the rainwater affects soil and its ecosystem?
  • What are the effects of air and temperature?
  • What concerns should we have in about the soil in our region?

Our Questions for Carl Rosato:  Carl Rosato is a very successful organic fruit grower from Oroville,and we recently had an opportunity to visit his Woodleaf Farm through David Grau’s organic gardening class at the Chico Grange. Carl is also a soil consultant and knows an incredible amount about our dirt.

  • Please tell us a little bit about the soil in our region of the Sacramento Valley and the foothills? What does it consist of?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of soil in our region?
  • You’re a farmer, and you consult with other farmers and gardeners. What are the kinds of things growers have to do to make the soil good for growing?
  • How do plants differ in their soil requiarements?
  • Can you tell us a little about the route that brought you to organic farming? What motivates you as a grower?

Do-It-Yourself: Understanding, Preserving, and Enhancing Soil

We began the program tonight with Michael Blochs “Green Living Tips” distinction between dirt and soil. We’ll end with some of his suggestions for “Things you can do to help save our soil”:

·        Start a worm farm and return the casting to the earth

·        Start up a compost pile

·        Mulch; this not only saves water in your garden but protects the soil and adds to it

·        Use natural fertilizers

·        Plant more trees and deep rooted vegetation

·        If you’re moving soil from one area to another, try to do it on a calm day or cover up the pile

·        Don’t pour hazardous waste and toxic substances onto the ground e.g. gas and oil.

From the City of Chico website, we find this information about Curbside Yardwaste Recycling

Lawn clippings, leaves, weeds, prunings and other yard waste make up about a third of the waste taken to the landfill each day. To protect groundwater and the environment, landfills are designed and operated to limit the flow of air, light and water. Without these elements, normal decomposition of yard waste does not take place. Additionally, state law requires cities and counties to reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. To make it convenient to recycle your yard waste, the City of Chico established a curbside yard waste recycling program.   This program is available through your garbage service provider for an additional monthly fee. The City of Chico also operates a compost facility in which residents and businesses can drop-off yard waste for a small fee for recycling. Finished compost is also available for sale at the Facility.

For more information call: 624-3529.

We’d also like to recommend a website for teaching children about soil. For example: Some experiments with “Soils, Water, Ecosystems, and Aquifers”

·        using an Apple as Planet Earth: A quick, simple illustration using an apple to help students understand the importance and limited nature of the soil resource or

·        creating a scale model of a soil profile: A simple illustration that gives students an opportunity to take home their own microscale model of a real soil profile.

·        using a sponge to examine several soil properties related to agriculture, water, the environment, and engineering.

·        demonstrating soil as a filter by  using different soil types to examine the filtering ability of soil when exposed to contaminants

·        showing how Soil Charges work by using magnets and paperclips to examine the mechanism of soil charges.

·        showing how Aquifers Hold (and Release) Water by using rocks, gravel, and coarse sand to visualize where water is stored in aquifers, and how it becomes available.

To find out more about these projects visit “Dr. Dirt’s” website:


1. Poor Old Dirt Farmer       3:53    Levon Helm      Dirt Farmer             

2. Mr. Soil’s Song      1:45    Singin’ Steve   Billy the Bean          

3. Dirt  4:20    Mary Mary  The Sound                                

4. Zemelya-Chernozem.   Black Soil. (Variations ) 3:35  Andrei Krylov Russian Classical Guitar Music. Vol 2. Romance, Folk Songs.                     

5. Dirt Made My Lunch         2:25    Banana Slug String Band    Dirt Made My Lunch                        

6. Weave Me the Sunshine  4:28    Peter, Paul And Mary           The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary           

7. Track 02     3:51    Angela Rose & Kate Stone March Sketch           Country