Farms Finest: Dirt is still the most interesting conversation yet |

Farms Finest: Dirt is still the most interesting conversation yet

Joni Keefe
Special to The Aspen Times

Show me a real farmer or rancher, and you can bet the conversation will quickly turn to dirt.

I am not referring to scandalous gossip but that black gold, soil.

Long before factory-made fertilizers were available, agricultural land was replenished using natural methods. Rotating crops and livestock and adding organic materials maintained healthy soil.

Through record-keeping and observation, early pioneers learned how to build fertility and keep fields productive. The practice of giving back to the land was simply how it was done.

This foundation for our food and sustainability can be stripped of value if we do not replace the nutrients we remove. Wounds from excessive tilling, compaction, nutrient depletion and toxic chemicals will result in conditions nothing can live in or on.

Thankfully, even soil that has been drained of nutrients can be restored with care and time. But before reaching for a bag of the latest “silver bullet” fertilizer, let’s first consider what nature provides.

Soil essentially consists of water, air, clay, rocks, sand, minerals and organic matter. The ratio varies based on where it is, and the amount of organic matter is the key for rich nutrient levels.

Just below our feet lies an invisible and underappreciated world. The more diverse this community is, the better, the richer and the healthier. In complete darkness, earthworms, moles, nematodes and much more weave magic into the soil web.

The hidden world of fungi, bacteria and mycorrhiza provides a high-tech system of silent communication that lights up like nature’s own version of the Internet. Soil is the great host to a feast of feeding, being fed and nutrient transferences, all crowded together within masses of food-seeking roots.

Agricultural chemical companies, with their trophy products and monoculture wisdom, are proving not to be the world’s answer to food production. The circling clouds of doubt are gathering while we begin to ask: Can we reverse the toxic chemical damage done to our farmlands?

It is no wonder that these industrial chameleons are changing colors again and are buying soil companies, seeking answers to the very problems they created.

There is a language in nature that many today have lost. This lack of fluency is especially evident with those who only consider sales and profit margins. We have been following them like sheep, dismissing nature’s wisdom.

Eons before the pioneering food producers, simple but sustainable techniques were used and served mankind well. No longer is growing healthy food considered just a counterculture movement or weekend hobby. We must buy products from producers who know how to work with the soil to provide us nutritious harvests. Healthy food, the kind that tastes good, comes from healthy soil.

Today we are slowly turning back to nature for answers to our needs and pushing aside those rote textbooks. We are discovering the answers have always been there for many of our needs. One instance is the ongoing worldwide research about using fungi as a method to manage our waste problems more efficiently.

Nature’s classroom literally surrounds us in these Rocky Mountains and the beautiful Roaring Fork Valley. Here we also have an abundance of educational opportunities to reintroduce the language of nature.

The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies offers numerous programs including its recent two-day fungal ecology class taught by Rob Reinsvold, mycologist and professor at University of Northern Colorado. The harvest of varieties, from two days of teaching in our local forests, overflowed the conference tables.

There will be another local class available soon that offers another forest hike called “Mushroom/Fungi ID and Hunt.” This one is taught by local expert Hilary Burgess on Sept. 6 and is provided through the Pitkin County Landfill’s “Living Laboratory Workshops” program. See more at

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, like apples from an apple tree, and are an important part of healthy soil. All fungi are considered the experts in decomposing organic matter, which recycles nutrients back to the soil.

We hear the term “sustainable” all the time now. Unfortunately it has become a marketing jingle hijacked for selling everything from food to sneakers. Nature has worked to be sustainable since the beginning of time, and this concept is not at all new.

Industrial food marketing has a habit of stealing words from the natural world to sell totally unnatural products. “Organic,” “sustainable,” “healthy,” “natural,” “farm,” “grass-fed” and “free-range” are only a few terms they use to market food impostors.

Understand nature’s language, eat simple, healthy food, and best of all, go find a local farmer or rancher and talk about dirt.

Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at