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Conference digs into new research on soil health

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“To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” —Gandhi

A growing body of research into the health and future of our planet is focusing on a component right under out feet — the soil.

Sustainability resources as old as dirt are actually in the dirt, according to scientists, farmers and environmental activists — and expanding knowledge of soil’s capabilities is offering hope and direction amidst devastating messages about catastrophic climate change that can leave many people feeling helpless and despairing.

Inspired by the new research and the positive steps it offers in sustainability and healing, the Yellow Springs-based Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions is hosting a symposium Friday and Saturday, Feb. 24–25, that is devoted to the topic of soil. Co-sponsors are Antioch College, Central State University and the Soil Carbon Coalition. Activities will be based at Antioch College’s McGregor Hall.

Organizers note that there are multiple, interconnected facets to the subject of soil, and the symposium will focus not only on the relationship of soil health within the ecosystem, but also the relationships of individuals and communities to our land-use practices and policies.

Community Solutions has long focused on issues of sustainability and climate change, so gathering people together to talk about soil health in light of the growing knowledge base seemed timely, said Susan Jennings, the nonprofit group’s executive director. “Soil is now being seen as an important strategy for mitigating climate change” through the reduction of carbon emissions, Jennings said. As “the largest terrestrial carbon sink,” it has the capacity to capture — and process — “more carbon than plants and the atmosphere combined.”

Citing research by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, Jennings said that particular land-use practices not only could curb the world’s carbon emissions, but also start to “chip away” at the already released carbon in the atmosphere.

“It’s very hopeful news,” she said.

What’s more, soil health affects the health of our waterways and aquifers, Jennings noted. And of course, soil health is intrinsically linked to the quality of our food supplies. In short, soil health is connected to everything that sustains life on earth.

The symposium, which will feature speakers who are involved in research, farming, activism and gardening, will address not only “the whys, but also the hows for building soils,” Jennings said.

The keynote speaker is Didi Pershouse, the founder of the Center for Sustainable Medicine and the author of “The Ecology of Care: Medicine, Agriculture, Money, and the Quiet Power of Human and Microbial Communities.” In a related event, Pershouse will give a reading and book signing on Thursday, Feb. 23, 6:30 p.m., at Yellow Springs Library.

Other participants in the symposium include Peter Bane, author of “The Permaculture Handbook: Garden Farming for Town and Country;” Chad Bitler, research scientist at the Greeneacres Foundation; David Brandt, a long-time no-till farmer in Fairfield County; Leslie Garcia and Doug Seibert, of Peach Mountain Organics;  Sarah Hippensteel Hall, of the Miami Conservancy District; Yellow Springs native Bob Huston, a small-scale homesteader since 1970; Kim Landsbergen, an ecologist and owner of CarbonEcology Consulting; Eric Pawlowki, a sustainable agriculture educator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association; and Sabrina Schweyer, of Salsbery-Schweyer Landscape Design.

The intended audience ranges from experts to novices. And attendees don’t have to be practitioners with their hands in the soil, either. Deeper knowledge about healthy land use can empower everyone to engage in adopting beneficial policies and legislation, Jennings said.

Talking about soil makeup can seem daunting to many who don’t think they have enough understanding of the science that appears to be involved. But Jennings is confident that everyone can get something out of the symposium. One of the goals is to show how everyone has the ability — the “agency” — to take positive steps. “We can do things individually and collectively,” she said.

With that understanding, another goal of the symposium “is to develop a community action around soil health.” The event is “an action-oriented gathering” and will have the opportunity for attenders to share their own ideas and experience, Jennings said. The purpose is to start an ongoing conversation. Where do we go from here?

Cost for the two-day Healthy Soils Symposium is $75 or $50 for one day. Jennings said that organizers don’t want cost to get in the way of people attending, and scholarships are available as well as a $10 limited-income price. To register, go online to

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