Parables from the Garden: We have to Fix the Soil

A white paper published by an Extension Specialist working out of the Rutgers University Agricultural Experiment Station provided a concise but detailed explanation of how soil health influences the flavor of tomatoes.  Nutrient deficient soils will of course still produce tomatoes, some of them excellent.  But the fruits are more likely to ripen unevenly, crack, be undersized, or lack the fullness of flavor that a well nourished tomato might achieve.  And of course, a well nourished soil will produce a small or mealy tomato as well, but that crop has a better chance of producing fruit that fulfills its potential.

A Brief Example:

Now let’s imagine that a gardener plants three varieties, Red Roma tomatoes (great for sauce), Orange Whoppers (a tasty slicing tomato), and Yellow Cherry tomatoes (sweet and snackable) in different but proximate plots in her garden.  When the fruit begins to mature, she notices that the Roma tomatoes aren’t doing as well as the others, some are wonderful, but others are undersized, cracked, and just not that tasty.  She suspects their little plot of soil might be troublesome and a simple test confirmed her suspicion–a lack of nutrients.

She has couple of options:
1) She could leave the plants as they are and simply decide not to eat the Romas, allowing them to ripen and then rot on the vine.  She’d never have to deal directly with a bad tomato again, BUT she’d miss out on the joys of the fruits on the plot that are sweet and delicious, the rotting tomatoes would attract pests, and she’d squander the productive potential of that plot (a huge problem if this gardener were a farmer and dependent on the economic health of the garden as a whole).  So, indirectly she’d have to “deal” with quite a bit.

2)  She could rip the plants out by the root and plant again.  But the chances are it’s too late in the growing season.  And, since the new tomatoes would just have the same problems, this would be an impractical and costly waste of time and effort.

3) She could throw a quick fix, high potency chemical fertilizer on the soil.  That might improve some of the fruits, but these harsh chemicals are known to strip soils of beneficial bacterial, make soils powdery and susceptible to wind and rain erosion, and endanger the subterranean water supply.  She might see some better tomatoes in the short term, but the soil would be even worse when the next growing season comes around. And the fix might cause some more serious and more widespread problems.

If this gardener is worth her salt (and I believe she is), she’d FIX THE SOIL.  She’d carefully assess the soil’s needs and develop a sustainable, long term plan to amend it.  Compost, cover crop, a nutrient irrigation infrastructure, etc.  It might take some time, it might require some upfront costs, it might require a sustained effort, but in the long term, it will be more than worth it.

Now….Make Some Substitutions**

Gardener = American
Roma = Minority Population
Soil = Any given American geography
Nutrient = Educational, economic, food, and public health infrastructure.
** Also people aren’t tomatoes, so we also need to add ethical decision making and compassion to this equation.

Just as effective gardeners are stewards of the soil, ethical Americans are stewards of our communities…ALL of our communities.  Tomato plants already battling to make use of scant resources face an incredible challenge in trying to amend their own soils (though they don’t stop trying, dropping fruits and leaf litter that will compost in place).  But to achieve lasting, broad change, the gardener must be as invested in the health of the soils that are nutrient deficient as she is in those that are already productive.  And it would be downright ignorant and unproductive to simply accept as fact that Roma tomatoes are inherently no good.  As it would to believe that Orange Whoppers or Yellow Cherries are inherently superior just because they have the benefit of excellent soils.

As Americans we need to stop blaming the tomatoes (The Romas, the Orange Whoppers, and Cherries alike) and work together to fix our communities…ALL of our communities.  Perhaps the analogy strikes you as cheesy.  So be it.  I believe that if more were willing to think about our nation as we do about our gardens, we’d all be better for it.