Being raised on a Wisconsin farm may have given me rather high expectations for soil. Our humble 40 acre farm had deep, rich, black soil that you could sink your arm into, well past your elbow. That was considered “below average soil,” and that is where my false soil illusions began.
My brother and I would hunt night crawlers and all kinds of earthworms for Summer trout fishing. It was rarely much of a challenge to fill a bucket in a few minutes. The biggest challenge was to dig without severing the multitudes of them that squirmed below our shovels. We often abandoned the tools so to dig with our hands. We also wanted our worms to be happy and content in their last hours before they became trout bait. So sever we would not.
Fast forward over three decades and several thousand miles and land me in the Hawaiian islands where you would again find me digging in the dirt in search for worms. The result was quite different, because day after day, I found none. Not a single worm. This was a discouraging discovery that I needed to resolve, because if there were no worms, there would be no farm.
Industrial agriculture, wind erosion, lack of cover crops, multi year drought, years of nutrient depleting sun, and lack of organic materials, are things to consider when beginning a transition plan for a parcel. Though this area was prized for being some of the richest soil in Hawaii, that estimate took into account only soil type, and left nothing to be said for soil treatment.
The summary was easy: there was nothing to temp a worm to take up residence, and every other action on the farm was contingent upon this cornerstone of soil health.
The solution was equally clear: create a worm paradise.
If key players like worms were missing, that was a good indicator that other members of the soil building chain, like soil microbes, were also in short supply. I decided to focus my attention on the actions of one person, and develop a farm plan based around a worm’s favorite location: the compost heap. Creating a farm that was comprised of an organized pattern of composting heaps that would be piled on top of existing soil. The squash crop to be would be planted directly into the decomposing heaps, benefitting by the heavy food source available. The worms would be able to pull nutrients from this moisture and food rich pile, and bring the nutrients deep into the depleted soil.
No-till was an easy choice for methods, because a decade long drought and wind erosion had left little to till. No-till gardening techniques were expanded to a 1/4 acre scale. Between garden and farm in proportion and methodology, this framework would conserve moisture, encourage microbes, worms, and stifle weeds.
Cardboard created a zero waste solution, along with growing blocks reclaimed from the local hydroponics farm. Together, the cardboard, and both basalt and coconut coir growing blocks would create a moisture holding, shady mulch where worms could hide and soil would form. As pumpkins were harvested, some would be chopped into chunks and buried face down in the mulch. This created “worm buffets” that were also cool hiding places where worms could gorge and reproduce.
Now a year later, the soil is several inches deep of sweet smelling soil. Just like the days of my childhood, I often dig with my hands so not to risk severing any of the welcome guests that will not become trout bait. An “intensive soil care” initiative was the first move for the farm, and the efforts have surprised even the most hardened of soil scientists. Now reconditioned into a healthy soil system, EM-1, homemade fish emulsion, and coffee grounds are the additions made to the area.
Vines now tumble and interlock with each other, birds, bees, and butterflies circle overhead. Mushrooms show themselves and again disappear into the cycle. The purple worms surface and dip through the paradise that was both created for them, and one that they helped to create. Several tons of food has been gathered from a small, once dusty parcel, giving hope to one more farmer who has spent their first year farming new soil.