Not long ago, Sandy Syburg rolled into Flint, Michigan in his Soil Mobile. An old school bus repurposed to run on biodiesel and veggie oil, it’s designed to be a classroom on wheels. Syburg is teaching the public about the importance of healthy soil.
Flint is notorious for its tough economy and crumbling infrastructure—most recently its contaminated water supply—so Syburg wasn’t expecting much of a turnout. “You would think that they had much bigger problems on their minds than soil health,” he says, “but everyone has to eat.” The crowd in Flint was large, and the interest keen.
Since 2015, Syburg has been a part-time rambling educator who drives to garden stores and farmers markets throughout the Midwest to help people connect the dots between healthy soils, healthy plants, and healthy people.
It’s a subject he knows well. Syburg grows organic grain and vegetables (he’s a member of the Organic Valley farmer-owned cooperative) and he’s also president of Purple Cow Organics, a company that produces and sells compost.
Unlike farming that relies on chemical inputs, organic farming depends on a healthy soil that’s rich in nutrients, plant matter, and microorganisms. Soil that holds moisture and stays put when wind or rain hits. Such soil helps the farmer to control pests and weeds, guards against droughts or floods, and most important, passes on its healthy qualities to the food grown in it.
Unfortunately for all of us, such soil is rare. In fact, soil degradation is reaching crisis proportions. Why? Left to its own devices, soil develops in a healthy manner, albeit very slowly. When humans plow and plant, however, all its healthy qualities are gradually transferred to the plantings. Without some care from the farmer, a few seasons can strip the soil of its life-giving qualities—it’s degraded.
Degraded soil can’t grow much of anything. It’s also highly susceptible to erosion—it simply blows or washes away. After 250 years of farming, and the last 50 years of intensive treatments with pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers, U.S. soils are literally on the verge of complete collapse. The US Department of Agriculture reports that nearly 75 percent of farmable land in North America is already degraded.
The situation is not much better overseas, where deforestation and other farm practices are degrading soil at a similar rate. Indeed, if the current rate of soil loss continues, all the world’s farmable topsoil will be gone in 60 years, according to the United Nations.
While that might be news to most people, Syburg spends his life with his hands in healthy dirt, and such topics are of endless interest. When the United Nations declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, he realized that others might also be concerned about the state of our soils.
That’s when he approached Organic Valley with the idea for the Soil Mobile. He knew that the co-op’s program for young farmers, Generation Organic, had a school bus they no longer needed, and he proposed that he “repurpose the repurposed bus” for soil education. The co-op signed on and transferred ownership of the bus in exchange for donations to the cooperative’s farmer and employee emergency relief funds.
The results, as his Flint visit suggest, have been positive. The attention-catching bus attracts interest not only at its scheduled stops, but also on the road. “If I stop for lunch at a Chipotle or something,” he says, “what should be a 10 or 15 minute break turns into an hour-and-a-half of conversation in the parking lot.”
Many of these conversations, he adds, are incremental teaching moments. “I wouldn’t say there’s one big ‘a-ha moment’ in soil education,” he explains, “but there’s a lot of little ‘a-ha moments.’ Maybe I explain that the reason there’s a vitamins and supplements aisle at the grocery store is that those nutrients are no longer in the soil, and hence, no longer in the food that’s grown from it. And I see people begin to connect the dots.”
Syburg will be traveling throughout the Midwest during the summer of 2016. New events are posted on their Facebook page.