ORONO, Maine —There was a silver lining in the Wall Street crash of 2008. People woke up to the treasure of their own backyard.
“We had a big spike that year,” Bruce Hoskins, an assistant scientist who tests soil at the University of Maine’s Analytical Laboratory, said. “When people feel insecure, they want to grow their own garden.”
And the first place to start is right under foot.
“The whole local food movement is built on soil health. It’s a huge deal,” said Hoskins, who conducts tests on soil sent in from gardeners, farmers and institutions across Maine, countrywide and abroad. He tests for microbial activity, pH levels, chemicals and nutrients. The turnaround can be as fast as one week.
As more people become self-sufficient, more are taking their soil in for a check up.
“A fundamental piece about farming or gardening is to know your soil,” Susan Erich, director of UMaine’s School of Food and Agriculture, said. “If it’s wet or flooded it can’t change, but sand can be good for certain crops. There is a whole range of soils that can be cropped productively.”
And there are many avenues to get there.
Jeff Fisher of Bumbleroot Organic Farm in Buxton knew that before he could grow succulent, organic peppers to make chefs in Portland swoon, he needed good soil.
“We were working with soil that had not been farmed in some time,” Fisher, who works 2 acres behind an old farmhouse with his partners, said.
Armed with facts from Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, he placed a call to soil healer Tony Ramsey of Living Acres in New Sharon. Things slowly took shape. “It can take a few months to get pH levels right,” Fisher said, and years to build up soil balance.
In a greenhouse, the farmer uses the compost company’s Light Mix for seedlings. “It’s all we’ve ever used. We couldn’t do it without it,” Fisher said. “That’s where everything starts.”
But before Bumbleroot Organic’s veggies graced menus at Tao Yuan in Brunswick and Evo in Portland, he shipped a soil sample up to Orono.
In the lab, soil is tested for chemical properties such as calcium, potassium and phosphorus to determine how much organic material is in soil. “If the pH level is low, we have to bring it up with lime so something grows well,” said Erich, whose team recommends what crops will grow best where.
Soil health is a growing field of study across the country, and in Maine’s agricultural circles the topic has evolved accordingly.
When Living Acres launched in 1979, selling organic compost to farmers was a hard sell. “It took 15 or 20 years of trying to educate people and retailers. By 2000 retailers knew what we were saying,” Ramsey said.
He composts dairy and poultry manures, peat and other materials for all-natural fertilizers and potting mixes in 4,000-square feet barns. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is his top client.
“The foodie movement goes hand and hand [with soil health]. Offering varieties of plants that have better flavor that chefs and restaurants care about is very exciting,” he said. “More and more people that care about growing food in ways that are sustainable and healthy.”
Ramsey is on the road daily delivering a melange of organic manure and potting mixes to farms across the state. His products, including the emulsion and seaweed fertilizers, are shipped throughout the country to key markets such as the Carolinas and Illinois.
“In the last 10 years, the knowledge base of the average gardener has really exploded,” he said.
Genetically modified crops is one reason. Unhealthy chemicals in the garden is another.
“People are more and more aware of toxic materials in farming and gardening, pesticides and caustic material,” Ramsey said. “If it’s caustic to insects, what is it doing to me?”
Such growing consciousness has kept business brisk at the Maine Soil Testing Service on the Orono campus. Seventy-five percent of gardening samples come from people seeking organic recommendations. “One-third are for home gardens,” Hoskins said. “It’s an exciting time to be here.”