- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1 edition (May 9, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0393608328
- ISBN-13: 978-0393608328
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.6 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #21,613 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life 1st Edition
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“Surprising, inspiring, and thoroughly engaging. . . . Relevant to farmers, backyard gardeners, and everyone who cares about our future, this is a clarion call that should not be ignored.”
“In his reader-friendly style, Montgomery describes the environmental crossroads at which we stand and shows us not only the devastation but the potential solution that exists right beneath our feet.”
- Hope Jahren, author of Lab Girl
“In the past couple of years, an awful lot of smart people have started talking very seriously about the state of the planet’s soil. If you want to understand what’s at stake, and learn about the exciting possibilities, this book is a fine starting point.”
- Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
“This is a Sand County Almanac of agriculture, a Walden of loam and tilth, a paradigm-bending journey into the principles that guide the life beneath our feet and thus the life that nourishes us.”
- Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism
“Brilliant, well researched, eloquent, and deeply hopeful.”
- Denis Hayes, founder of Earth Day
“Montgomery has the rare talent of making complex scientific topics not only understandable but truly fascinating. Growing a Revolution is both exceptionally enlightening and tremendously enjoyable. Highly recommended reading.”
- Nicolette Hahn Niman, author of Defending Beef and Righteous Porkchop
“Being a long time ‘doom bat’ regarding the fate of the natural world, I was given hope by Growing a Revolution that there is a real possibility of revolutionizing agriculture with the result of growing more food, employing people, and putting carbon back into the ground.”
- Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia
About the Author
David R. Montgomery is a professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne Biklé, and Loki, their guide-dog dropout.
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I first heard of this book from an Urban Farming podcast, and I was intrigued. Soil science has been a new interest of mine, and I had never heard of most of the methods and practices in this book.
I'm not a true environmentalist, I don't fight for the whales, or boycott slaughtering animals, but anyone would want to be a good steward of the Earth. The philosophies in this book demonstrate that you don't need to sacrifice profits for 'going green' on the farm. In fact, it seems it might be more profitable. Shock, shock.
I'm inspired now to not only continue gardening, but to save up and buy some land! Hope my wife agrees with this whim.
As prescient as it is, I do have a few concerns.
First, is a technical point. He uses soil organic matter and soil carbon interchangeably, even in the same paragraph. If it were simply a generality, it wouldn’t be a concern, but when mentioning hard numbers (percentages), we need to be specific, since soil organic matter (OM) is only 58% carbon.
Second, while Montgomery tries mightily to be objective in the ‘war’ between permanent, continuous no-till (using herbicides) and ‘organic’ (with occasional tillage), it’s clear that he harbors some romantic notions of ‘organic’ small farms being superior, and this colors his analysis. (My quotes around organic indicate some beef with this term as used to distinguish certain types of food production methods, since ‘conventional’ farming and its product also relies on biochemistry – indeed, everything classified as food is made of chemicals, and they’re organic chemicals technically speaking, because they contain carbon.)
There are several problems with ‘organic’ farming as it is defined by governing bodies and practiced today. The reliance on tillage to control perennial weeds is a major stumbling block. While the book’s characterization of the ‘organic’ demonstration farm at Rodale as building soil and controlling erosion, this is the exception not the rule. To be building soil OM while doing tillage requires substantial inputs of organic material from outside sources – manure, etc., and Rodale uses heavy amounts of manure (which is from grain or fodder grown somewhere else) to achieve their result. There simply isn’t enough manure to go around if ‘organic’ were widely adopted. If we recycled all the human (and pet) poop and urine and brought it back to the land, we’d be closer to having the phosphorus (P) and micronutrients covered, but not enough carbon input to be wasting it with tillage.
Further, much of the world’s cropland is more perilously situated in regards to soil erosion than the Rodale’s research farm. Whether it be steeper, longer slopes, or soils inherently lower in organic matter due to being warmer climates, or in regions with stronger winds, the occasional tillage of such should not be considered an option.
Maybe the problem will go away in the near future with cheap robots to exterminate weeds, but for now, ‘organic’ shouldn’t be considered sustainable if it involves tillage – not unless it’s someplace with little wind, not much slope, and plentiful additions of manure (unnatural in their heavy rate) to offset the carbon loss from stirring the soil. Unfortunately, most of the world’s cropland doesn’t meet these criteria.
There are other issues with ‘organic.’ One of the founding principles is that anything natural is okay, but processing or human-made or human-altered is bad. But the universe doesn’t abide by these strictures. Rattlesnake venom is entirely natural. And if you’ve got a life-threatening infection, most people will accept a vaccine (unnatural, engineered). Rotenone is approved for ‘organic’ production, but is far more unsafe than many pesticides that aren’t allowed. ‘Organic’ permits any fertilizers or soil amendments that are dug out of the ground, but unaltered – so arsenic and lead should be just fine, right? The problem is that ‘organic’ grew out of armchair philosophy, rather than science. The caring for the status of the soil was most commendable, but most of ‘organic’ philosophy (now indoctrinated in rules/laws) was a suspicion of technology and a romantic yearning for a simpler time (nevermind that life back then was nasty, brutish, and short). When we look at it through a scientific lens, we see that human-made chemicals aren’t necessarily any more deleterious than natural ones, according to Bruce Ames, toxicologist (even I find this a bit surprising), once we factor in the dose. That there are hundreds of naturally occurring chemicals in, say, coffee, or apples, and some of them are harmful (while some are beneficial, and others neutral), and a great many are unknown in their effects – they certainly aren’t studied nearly to the extent that pesticides are.
This isn’t to say that conventional agriculture doesn’t have serious problems. Although I’m opposed to ‘organic’ in principle – not just because it’s destroying the world’s cropland, but also it’s not so safe itself (in addition to rotenone, it has issues with vegetables having high E.coli from manure applications) – there are some foods that I’d be willing to consider buying ‘organic,’ one of which is lettuce – because the conventional lettuce has issues with high levels of clorpyrifos (a chemical I’d like to see banned entirely; or sharply curtailed in its present use). But for grain crops, no way do I want to be buying ‘organic’ – I don’t want all the resulting soil erosion on my conscious, and the studies I’ve seen don’t show any safety or nutrition advantages to ‘organic.’ (I don’t eat potatoes either, regardless of ‘organic’ or conventional, because there’s too much ecological damage from harvesting them – severe erosion, silting of streams, etc.)
There are a few other obstacles. ‘Organic’ relies on legumes for part of its nitrogen (N) input. Some regions don’t have any reasonably well-adapted legume cash crops to include in the rotation – southwestern Kansas being one such locale. Maybe someday this could be solved with breeding (or gene-insertion technology), but it’s a serious near-term obstacle. Nor can some of these places use cover crops to help smother weeds (or supply N) every year – they’re much too arid to support both a cover crop and cash crop in the same season.
Likewise, the bringing of cattle back to the land presents issues in some of the warmer climates (areas far south of Gabe Brown in the USA) – they’re too fragile and cannot maintain enough mulch cover even without the livestock, because decomposition occurs so much more rapidly when it’s warmer. If the grazing is of perennials, then it’s no problem, but grazing on cropland in these climates can be a problem especially if the land has much slope (soils in these warmer areas are much more fragile and prone to water erosion anyway, because soil OM is lower than in cooler regions – plus the soils are geologically more ancient and weathered, i.e., usually resulting in poorer infiltration characteristics).
The polycultures and permacultures that Kofi Boa and others have implemented are amazing. Undoubtedly the most productive (by a large margin) per unit of land area. But they’re also very labor-intensive. It’s a wonderful system for parts of the world that still have lots of people on the land – micro farmers. Not so practical for huge swaths of cropland in USA, Canada, Argentina, Russia, Australia, etc. Not unless we want to move lots of city-dwellers back to the land and convince them to undertake back-breaking labor. Not only is that completely unrealistic, but also undesirable because the wealth of nations is founded on industry and technology – i.e., getting the vast majority of the population off the farms and letting them do something ‘more productive.’ (I work with farmers in my career, and am fiercely loyal to them; no slight is intended.)
Montgomery’s celebration of no-tillage cropping is recognition that’s long overdue. Consumers should be demanding it, and eschewing ‘organic’ -- at least for grain and legume crops. While astute no-tillers are ever trying to reduce their usage of herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides, and are succeeding at this with diverse crop rotations (more so with insecticides and fungicides than with herbicides), I doubt there’s going to be a ‘convergence’ with ‘organic.’ Not unless ‘organic’ gives up some of its more unscientific beliefs, and the public comes to accept that most herbicides can be used safely, and we undertake a massive effort to bring the poop and urine back to the cropland (and not just the cropland closest to the cities).
The book does a good job of pointing out the fallacies who think that every pesticide is safe and has no unintended side-effects, just as it takes to task some of the died-in-the-wool ‘organic’ beliefs. The book isn’t a scientific publication—it’s not the final word on which system is best, nor is it a methodic analysis of them. And there is much hard work to be done to better understand soil biology and how it might be leveraged to our benefit. But the book does a great job of highlighting some of the advances with no-tillage cropping, and pulls together diverse strands of thinking from around the world. Kudos, Dave! Job very well done.