Our Great Grandparent’s Food

Wisconsin 1890’s farmhouse

Among the exhibits were: a pear weighing 1 pound 14 ounces; a cabbage of 94 pounds, and several others from 50 to 80 pounds weight; potatoes of 3 to 9 pounds each; carrots three feet long; a squash of 217 pounds weight; five others aggregating 822 1/2 pounds; a muskmelon weighing 20 1/2 pounds; an onion of 5 pounds 2 1/2 ounces; corn 15 feet high, ears 2 inches in diameter, 18 inches long, solidly filled; five quinces weighing 6 pounds 15 ounces; 5 pears weighing 9 pounds 3 ounces; 5 fall pippins weighing 5 pounds 10 ounces, and many other remarkable products.

From a report describing a Fair held in 1887 in Arroyo Grande, California.

What made Arroyo Grande’s soils so good?  An excellent climate for sure, but beyond that we are not certain. Farm land along the creek bottoms was cleared from willow thicket and bear habitat. The creeks were spread out, flowed year round (a thing of the past), and were prone to flooding every year. The hills are steep and California geology is diverse, so mineral accumulation is certain. California is also prone to fire so it is likely that the chaparral in the hills burned every so often, which increased the amount of burned material, unburned material and mud that came down the creeks with the winter rains. Was it the minerals and charcoal that contributed to those three foot long carrots and two inch diameter corn? Was it the unbridled biology of the willow thicket?

After over 100 years of farming, Arroyo Grande farmland is still excellent, with many areas of class 1 prime farm land. The longevity of the soil is a testament to the natural processes that went into building it.

But even back then, not all produce was huge and not all yields were amazing everywhere. In order to make higher yields and therefore more money, crop yields needed to increase. And thanks to the development of modern farming methods, they did increase. As yields increased, the nutritional content of grains, fruits and vegetables decreased. And they continue to decrease today.  Both vitamins and minerals have decreased over time but the carbohydrate content has stayed the same or increased.

The result? We have to eat more to get the same amount of nutrition.

What are the possible reasons for our food’s nutritional decline? Several have been proposed…

  • “Dilution” of the nutrients due to higher yields. There are two possible mechanisms — breeding and hybridization with only yield in mind, not nutritional content — and selection within a variety for higher yields without consideration of the nutritional content.
  • Decreased soil fertility due to loss of soil life. Chemical fertilizers kill the soil organisms which supply nutrients from the soil.
  • More and more marginal, low fertility lands have been put into agricultural use.
  • Decreased soil fertility due to nutrient removal. Conventional agriculture replaces only a few nutrients, usually just nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and then only at the rate taken up by the crop. The other nutrients necessary for nutrient density leave the field with the crop and are never replaced.

Whatever the reason, we might take a clue from the natural processes that produced Arroyo Grande’s excellent farm lands.  Ample minerals, charcoal (we will talk about biochar), plenty of organic matter and pristine soil biology.