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Book Review: A Soil Owner's Manual

About a year and a half ago, I enthusiastically started a series of blog posts on soil building. Dan and I had just found several video series by regenerative farmer Gabe Brown and agronomist Ray Archuleta. That was the beginning of a completely new phase of homesteading for us because it offered solutions to problems we were having. Since that time I've gleaned more bits and pieces of information, but it wasn't until now that I've finally been able to connect all the dots and see the big picture. And this is the book that did that for me.

by Jon Stika

It's not a very big book, only 88 pages, but it lays out the principles of improving soil health and their application clearly, logically, and to the point. No fluff, just facts.

Chapter 1: What is Soil Health and Why Should I Care?

As a lifelong organic gardener, I thought I had a handle on soil health. What I didn't realize was that, even though organic gardening is an improvement over industrialized chemical farming, it still follows the wrong paradigm. This chapter helps the reader understand nature's paradigm by explaining the five functions of the soil, why we don't need to feed the soil, and why a new fundamental understanding of soil is needed. 

Chapter 2: What's Wrong With My Soil the Way It Is? 

Explains why most soil in the United States (and the world) is dysfunctional. Explains how tilling the soil damages the soil ecosystem. 

Chapter 3: How Is Healthy Soil Supposed to Function?

We're all familiar with dysfunctional soil. The problem is that it is so familiar, that its dysfunctional state is now considered "normal." For example, my highly deficient compact red clay soil is considered normal for the southeastern U.S. This chapter explains why that is a fallacy. It defines healthy soil by describing properly functioning soil. Discusses water cycling, nutrient cycling, physical support, and biodiversity.

Chapter 4: Biology of the Soil

This quote from chapter 4 says it better than I could, "Soil microbiologists have determined that roughly 90% of the functions we expect soil to perform are biologically driven . . . Appreciating soil biology and all that it does is essential to improving soil health and becoming an economically and environmentally sustainable producer." Clue: soil biology is not just about earthworms! This chapter defines the Soil Food Web (SFW), describes the inhabitants that populate this web, how they function, and how they are fed.

Chapter 5: How Do I Restore the Health of My Soil?

"If the soil is managed with an understanding of the habitat requirements for the SFW, the capacity of the soil to function can be restored." This chapter details the keys to restoring soil health and how to make them work for you. I now understand why I have weeds! And I now know what to do about them. Also explains how the carbon:nitrogen ratio of cover crops and mulch affects soil microorganisms. Very useful information. Includes specifics for tailoring the principles of healthy soil to crop land, hay growing, pasture, rangeland, woodlands, and your yard, garden, orchard, or vineyard. 

Chapter 6: Goals and Tools

Explains how understanding healthy, fully functional soil can help you choose the best tools and equipment to meet your goals. 

Chapter 7: How Will I Know If My Soil Health is Improving?

This is an important question! Explains three simple, easy-to-do tests to get you started and help you monitor progress. Also discusses more sophisticated lab tests that can help measure the state of the soil's biologic activity. 

The book includes an appendix listing useful soil resources and a chart of the carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratios of soil mulches and cover crops. Explains how to choose these based on your goals. A glossary and bibliography complete the book. 

The only thing that's missing is an index. I have a paperback copy, so no search feature. But this is the kind of book I will search through and refer to often. Even so, it's definitely a 5-star addition to any homesteader's, gardener's, rancher's, or farmer's home library.

You can find A Soil Owner's Manual at Amazon or your favorite book seller. It's available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook. You can follow that link for a "Look Inside."

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