Farmers must wear many hats. And we’re not just talking about their sun hats. They plan, seed, plant, propagate, harvest, wash, sell and so much more in between. And for many, there is another very important role in their job: microbial steward.
Maybe microbial steward is a job you haven’t seen on LinkedIn or at a career fair, but for farmers, soil health is paramount. And don’t you dare mix up “soil” with “dirt”. Farmer Calvin Bailey of Stubborn Roots Farm explains.
“For us soil geeks, dirt is a four-letter word, so to speak. Dirt gives a tone of uselessness and valuelessness. We see the ground we walk on as soil: a living, breathing organism as infinitely complex and mesmerizing as the cosmos.”
Bailey and his wife, Brady, run Stubborn Roots Farm, a diversified vegetable farm outside Fort Collins. Born and raised in Fort Collins, Bailey has been working in agriculture for the past 10 years and has a passion for soil health.
The Bailey family is rounded out by their two young daughters — their farmers in training. That’s right — the Baileys are juggling multiple jobs, raising kids and raising food, like so many farmers.
Soil, not dirt
According to Bailey, “There are intricacies and relationships between microscopic species in soil that we are just scratching the surface of understanding; all of which play a part in the quality, nutrient density, and flavor of food.”
So, a key component of growing nutrient-dense food is caring for the complex ecosystem within our Colorado soil.
“We try to curate and cultivate an environment conducive for flourishing microbial life on our farm because we see that as the foundation from which a healthy community is built.” The extra work to balance soil acidity, attract beneficial insects, prevent erosion and fertilize naturally is worth it for the Baileys. They understand the role of good food in community, the role of good soil in producing good food, and their role in nurturing nutrient-dense soil.
Maybe you’ve noticed, from your chapped lips or itchy eyes: Colorado is dry. So, what does it take to nurture soil in the foothills of the Rockies?
Bailey shared many of his trade secrets with us, including both what they add to their soil and what they plant. Home gardeners, take note!
At Stubborn Roots, they use composted sheep manure as their primary fertilizer, as well as mushroom compost from beloved local mushroom purveyor Hazel Dell Mushrooms. The Baileys also brew a compost tea, which is how they inoculate their fields with fungi, bacteria and microbial life beneficial to the soil food web.
Plants that are put into the ground also significantly affect soil health. Stubborn Roots operates on a seven-year crop rotation plan that includes nitrogen fixing and carbon sequestering cover crops such as field peas, vetch and sudangrass for erosion and weed control as well as green manure. The Baileys also work with the USDA to plant pollinator habitats and plant beneficial insect attractants such as borage flower and snapdragons in their field plots.
We are frankly in awe of the farmers who grow our food and do the work of giving back to the land and regenerating our soil. Turns out, farming is more about getting your hands soily than dirty.
Support Stubborn Roots and its peers on Saturdays at the Boulder and Longmont Farmers Markets, on Wednesday at the Boulder Farmers Market (starting May 4!), or online at bcfm.org.