I am here at the National Agricultural Research Center. I have visited many such centers all over the world. But here, in a flood of blue and red colors, on inscribed rolls of paper, are the words of a mandate.
The mandate is the most noble of all – that food security through sustainable soil management is neither taken for granted nor neglected.
Our sweet earth is the poetic phrase found in religion, philosophy and the deliberate textbooks of our youth.
Where can there be more important words that these: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends”?
The term “husband it” is centuries old, from the Fertile Crescent to the Nile to the Brazilian plain to the Ethiopian steppe to the Iowa mollisol.
And we read this: “Abuse it, and the soil will collapse and die and take mankind with it.”
I am walking down a long open hallway. Rain is falling, and in front of me are four scientists.
We are taking a break from our scientific discussions for tea and cookies. And I pass this wall board.
On it are four section graphics. I read the words and think that here, if one knew nothing about soils and plants and the water flowing through them, an entire semester of instruction could be delivered.
I am drawn to think about the symbology of the poor chickpea, the expansive 2-to-1 bentonite-smectite or montmorillinite or illite clays, the results of compaction on root growth, the essential plant nutrients adsorbed to clays micelles in these loam soils, the Law of the Minimum and the challenges with saline and sodic soil.
Taken together, these graphics are universal in all crop fields. The professor delivering a semester of instruction needs nothing more than the beauty of these graphics, for they contain the colors of life, blue and green; the color of soil, brown; the color of all energy, yellow; and in her mind, the connection of all these as an inorganic carbon is made organic. Well, time for tea.
About mid-afternoon, we are done visiting. We say goodbye, and I am standing near the Water Resources Institute main building.
Nearby is a small one-quarter-hectare field. Here, small vegetables are under a plastic sheet in a hoop structure.
Rain and wind have misaligned some of the plastic. These workers are carefully positioning the sheet on steel rips inserted in the soil, and then a bit of earth is placed on the plastic exterior holding the cover in place.
I, too, think about field research and the anomalies of control. Yet here, the variable of temperature control is minor, as the plastic will be in place by evening.
I do not know the variable being studied here, but I do know that such an exercise of entering a field and looking at what is there, evaluating the difference of control and then adjusting the anomaly, are done everywhere.
My colleague, an engineer with the Water Resources Institute, is preparing tea for these men. I am walking along the gravel road carrying a platter of cookies.
A small sheet of plastic covers them from the drizzle that has been falling all day.
While waiting for the engineer and his tea, the men clean the mud from their shoes. I am now thinking that these men are the best of us.
They have a simple creed … enter the field with their shovels and their handled knives and their blistered hands and work.
It is the work of ancestors that entered the field centuries ago. And here, in this world of modernity, nothing can replace the essence of this creed … farmers and workers entering the field and helping plants grow.
Once in Narita, Japan, I saw the same thing in a flower garden; the workers were women. Once in Robe, Ethiopia, I saw the same thing; the African worker was applying fertilizer out of a wooden bowl with his hand.
I saw the same thing in Poltava, Ukraine; women were picking up cow piles one at a time. And I saw the same thing once in Algona, Iowa; a green and yellow machine traveled across the slightly curved bend of a terrace.
And here is the end of my story.
A man comes to work for the day. Rather than putting him to work in a laboratory, his supervisor tells him that the hoop structures in the experimental field need repaired.
But he does not have his rubber boots or field sandals. So he removes his shoes and socks and enters the field.
I do not know his name, his age or where he lives. Yet he is my ancestor. And he is yours. We are born out of every man and woman that has entered the field.
They are all the history of our very life; the tillers of soil, the makers of bread, the hands that enter the soil and find the bones of our generations; stirring, stirring and stirring into the sands and silts, the confined clays, the seeps of water pockets, the roots of a hundred years ago, the salt of the mountain, the sodium of desorbed ionic cleavage, the microbe transiting through the matrix … all are found here, and all will be here forever.
When we enter the field, we do so with the mandate made manifest.
In the drizzle of rain and the cool temperatures of a winter afternoon, we find the beauty of the world, and it is standing before us in soil-stained clothes, a wet stocking hat and huge fingers holding the tools of tillage.
And at the core are the bare feet of a man with the mud of the field all around … of all the things I will remember about a field visit today, it is this man, with these tools and with these bare feet I will remember most. Without him, the soil will collapse and die and take mankind with it. PD