Many of us buy our food from local farmers, and for good reason! Supporting farmers is most always a worthy cause, your cash stays in your local economy, the food is fresher, and the food’s carbon footprint is often smaller. But, we don’t hear many claims about local food being more nutritious, and here’s why: nutrition totally depends on soil quality, and soil quality can vary greatly from farm to farm.
If two identical tomato plants were planted in different soils – one in nutrient rich, biologically active soil, and the other in soil lacking in any nutrient, the tomato produced from rich soil would provide far more nutrition. Plants can’t create nutrients out of air. Vitamins and minerals, nutrients we all expect in a good tomato, must be supplied by the soil. For example, take manganese. It’s a crucial mineral for activating enzymes for our bodies to use vitamins B1, C, and choline. If manganese is not in our soil, it’s not in our food. Soil quality is key!
What about the farms where you buy your fruits and veggies? Do you know the quality of their soil? When you go to farmers markets, does the produce from certain farms stand out?
Here are simple things anyone can look for to get an initial feel for soil quality:
At the Produce Stand:
- How does the produce look? Fruits and veggies grown on healthy, balanced, productive soils are often beautiful. They won’t look perfect, but they should be the picture of health: plump, heavy, shiny, deep in color, and very appetizing.
- Very little insect damage. This one is controversial, as organic producers usually take a hit for damage to their crops. This is definitely true for farms transitioning to organic – pests attack these crops with little mercy. However, for a farm that’s been using organic methods for at least 3 or 4 years, if the soil is rich, the plants will have all they need to defend themselves against pests. Poor soil leaves crops vulnerable. If you doubt this, read Louis Bromfield’s Malabar Farm. In three years he transformed his depleted soil that would barely produce anything worth eating into deep, rich soil that produced healthy, nutritious produce with virtually no insect predation. The veggies were so satisfying he juiced them into tonics. Amazing!
- Does the farmer offer samples? Taste it! Nutritious produce tastes like you’re getting something special. Sweet, juicy, flavor at its height. Nutritious produce never tastes watery, dry, tough, or bland.
Know Your Region’s History:
- Do you live in a Corn Belt state? Don’t worry, it’s a good thing! Your region’s top soil is probably depleted, but you’re sitting on highly-mineralized, glacial subsoil. Good farmers know how to tap into this and rebuild quality top soil.
- Live in the Deep South or Upper South? These regions were heavily farmed in cotton and tobacco, two of the worst crops for soil. The soil is likely depleted. Ask your farmer how she rebuilt the soil.
- Live in a state known for dairy? Good news – productive cows on grass require highly fertile soils. For more information, read Newman Turner’s old and wise book Fertility Pastures.
If noticing these things tends to leave you with more questions, ask the questions! Ask your farmer how he returns nutrients to the soil. If he says, “we buy fertilizer” ask what kind of fertilizer. Write it down, and check it out. If he says, “we apply lime and rotate crops and use grazing and deep-rooted legumes to build fertile top soil” you’ve got yourself an excellent farmer.
While I was visiting my parents recently in Oklahoma, we stopped at a large farmer’s market. Most of the produce looked good, but not great. There was one stand where the produce looked perfect, gorgeous. I kept on walking, thinking produce that perfect was probably fed an all-chemical diet. This was before I read Malabar Farm. Now I wish I would have stopped and asked, “How do you fertilize?” “How do you manage insects?” Without asking, I might have missed out on some exceptionally nutritious fruit and veggies.
Have thoughts or questions? Leave a comment!