I’ve been reading a book about bacteria. Not an everyday kind of summer reading, I know, but when I saw it on the shelves of my local library I started it right away. The bacteria under discussion aren’t just any microbes–they are the kinds of microbes that make grass grow and bodies healthy. Part personal story, part scientific history threaded with a microbe manifesto, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health is a book that has helped me understand two concerns that have been central to my life for the last several years: soil and health.
A little background. After college I apprenticed on a farm that practiced pasture-based agriculture. With time I began raising some of my own animals on pasture—pigs, sheep, chickens, and cattle. I learned a great deal during those years about animals, but what was surprising was that I ended up learning just as much about soil and grass. Many pasture-based farmers actually call themselves “grass-farmers.” Provide good forage, fresh water, and the animals will do the rest. It’s not quite that simple, but for the most part good pasture based farming is about providing the conditions for healthy animals.
As my understanding has grown with some forays into vegetable growing I’ve come to understand that really good animal husbandry is also microbe husbandry. The heart of good soil is a healthy soil ecosystem, an ecosystem that thrives with a steady diet of fresh animal manure and hoof action. So a farmer raising animals on pasture is helping cultivate a thriving soil ecosystem that in turn helps grow good forage for animals–one among many beautiful agricultural and ecological cycles.
Life as a full-time animal and microbe farmer didn’t work out for me. The economics didn’t add up (there was no opportunity like the Grass Roots Cooperative at that time) and I was led to other work. I’ve continued, however, as an eater of meat from animals raised on good pastures that promote healthy soils.
That brings me to the second part of my journey. After my farming days were over I found myself on the verge of diabetes, significantly overweight, and addicted to cigarettes and sugar. While I knew how to keep animals healthy I’d forgotten to pay attention to my own health. I began to use some of the knowledge I’d gained raising animals to address my own health. Cattle are amazing because they can turn grass into meat. Grass is the right diet for them and when they are put on another diet (like too much corn or soy) they can become unhealthy. I had to figure out what the most healthy diet was for a human being. What I came to was a “paleo”-style diet of quality meats, vegetables, and nuts. I cut out most grains, dairy, and legumes from my diet. That change in diet, along with exercise (I took up triathlons), brought me significant improvements in my health.
One thing I discovered along the way, however, surprised me. As I started to read health experts who were tuned into the same kinds of holistic thinking I’d applied to agriculture I found a significant amount of literature on beneficial microbes. I started to eat fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut, and in the process I began to change my own body’s ecosystem. Eating quality meat, high in Omega-3 fatty acids (as grass-fed animals are), aided in that process.