Classic soil science concepts fall flat on their face, or when it's better to describe soil as a womb
I drove my old truck from Oakland out I80 to El Sobrante, one of the inner ring East Bay suburbs. Not a cookie cutter suburb, it’s hilly out there, with small houses packed together on narrow roads without curbs. I saw the grassy slopes of the farm before I found the sidestreet to the farmhouse, which was just another house on the street. The house backed up on the valley and the students I was about to teach were far down in the training field, double digging and mulching to prepare their beds for production.
I was out there at the invitation of my colleague Ana Martinez to teach soil fertility to students in the Bay Area Farmer Training program operated through MESA (the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture). The program trains 30 apprentices in intensive sustainable agriculture production while emphasizing cultural diversity and social justice. It was early in the season and the students had only just met the previous week, but already the rapport was palpable. Back in the garage for my talk, they gathered around plank tables and chatted as I pulled up my slides for the soil fertility lecture I usually give to UC Berkeley students.
As I introduced the material immediately something felt off. I identified with the MESA students, because the way I learned to grow food was more akin to their program than to the university classes I was now teaching. I learned to garden through an internship at a queer intentional community in Tennessee. Many of the MESA apprentices seemed like they could have fit in out there, especially more recently since that community did some serious work addressing white supremacy and more people of color started spending time there. However, I did not start my talk off by talking about how I learned to farm. I did not talk about the similarities in either farming method or sociopolitical orientation. After asking them to define soil fertility, I just jumped right into macro and micro nutrients. The room felt flat as I talked about Leibig’s law of the minimum and other classic soil science concepts. I could feel myself falling deeper and deeper into the hole of academic jargon (which didn’t even sound that jargon-y to me – case closed!). I couldn’t figure out what to do to rescue myself other than keep going.
Things came to a head with our old friend, cation exchange capacity (CEC). The idea of CEC is thrown around casually in urban agriculture but it can actually be tricky to understand. Basically, it refers to the ability of the soil to retain positively-charged nutrients (which are called cations, as in cat-ions). Understanding CEC means grasping the idea that the soil is full of charged particles that are all interacting through the old maxim, “opposites attract”, so that we have a charge balance in the soil. After patiently sitting through most of my talk, Ana and the students now really took charge (get it?), articulating the balance in a healthy soil in ways I would never have dreamed of. Eventually a student was describing the soil as a womb, and I realized I would need a whole new vocabulary and conceptual framework to successfully teach the material in this environment.
Indeed, what was the point of these soil science concepts, a student asked? There are many ways to understand your soil, I said. Soil tests give you information that can help you keep your soil healthy and grow healthier plants. There are other ways to reach the same outcome, ways of understanding soil health by looking at your soil and looking at your plants. Quantitative or observational, both lead you to a positive, more informed outcome.
As I left, I realized that if I want to be a bridge between academia and social justice-oriented urban agriculture, I need to remember that identity and positionality matters. We have to acknowledge who we are because that determines what information we have access to. If you are in a group underrepresented in science due to institutional biases, the science-based ways of knowing (or knowledge which requires more institutional access, like soil testing services) might not seem very relevant in comparison to observational ways of knowing (or methods requiring less institutional access, like DIY soil tests). If I’m trying to use my position (as a white trans man with access to academia) to expand access to science, both institutional and DIY, I need to acknowledge who I am and why I have access. I need to share the material in a way that actually makes it accessible, teaching not from the part of me that has access, but the part of me that knows what it is like to be different.
Sarick Matzen completed his PhD in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management department at University of California, Berkeley in 2020. He is now a postdoc in the Soil, Water, and Climate Department at the University of Minnesota working on iron cycling in marine systems.