Farm News

Profile: Hillsboro Silt Loam

photo of cilantro flowers

Hillsboro Silt Loam Is My Home

It is because of soil that I became a farmer. More precisely, it is because I loved a certain parcel of land and that land happened to lack a farmer. So with my family’s support, I bought the acreage that would become April Joy Farm. The buildings were aging, and the forest and cropland had been denuded by poor management and neglect. But even back then, I felt deliriously rich with the potential underneath my feet. From the very beginning, my motivation was to protect and restore the biodiversity of this special place. But how? I decided farming was a pragmatic way to both pay the bills and further my land stewardship aspirations.

It was in this roundabout way, I unknowingly entered into what has become one of the most important relationships of my life. Lucky for me, I hit the jackpot. That may sound melodramatic, but not a season goes by that I don’t kiss the ground at my feet.

I am one of the fortunate few to have deep, well-drained, highly resilient earth as a family member. A person can alter and change many things about a farm landscape, but like the genetics of a human being, soil is an inheritance.

Of course, this is the very important reason all farm consultants advise young farmers to seek out lands that are conducive to their goals prior to purchasing land. One crop may thrive in a certain soil type while another fails entirely. Soil tests must be taken. It is also recommended the land be visited multiple times of year to establish a baseline understanding of how weather, water and wildlife pass around and through a place.

But I had it all backwards. I wasn’t a farmer specializing in any particular crop or animal. I didn’t come to farming with preconceived ideas as to what I wanted to grow. And I didn’t find the land, the land found me. So in the same unplanned sort of way a wild, windborne seed finds the right soil with the right moisture at the right time of year, I found my way home.

photos soil and plants on april joy farm

“The place to start is where you are. Thousands of soil types have been named, classified and described. Knowing their names can tell you a lot about their general characteristics; but, like any living creature, each individual is unique. Find out what soils live in your area, how they are classified and described by soil scientists, and how that compares with what you observe about them yourself.

Soils worldwide have been classified into ten major orders.

# 3 Inceptisols: Young soils with limited horizon formation. May be very productive, as those formed from volcanic ash. Found in the Pacific Northwest, along the Amazon and Ganges Rivers, North Africa and eastern China.”[1]

With the eagerness and pleasure one finds in a new friendship, I set about to discover what my special place might be uniquely suited to creating. Thankfully, since I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about wanting to be a certain type of farmer, there was no need to force the land to produce any particular crops. Instead, my analytical nature lent itself to the joy of research and data collection. I was a sponge for agricultural information, because now I had a reason to know it. It seemed that no matter what textbook, journal or article on agriculture I picked up, everything hinged on soil quality. Quickly I realized that before I could learn to work with weather patterns, animals, or plants, I needed to learn about soil. In particular, I needed to understand the nuances of the unique soil at my feet. I was so ignorant back then; I didn’t even know her* name.

Odne, Cloquato, McBee. Riverwash, Gumboot, Cove. Cinebar, Cispus, Bear Prarie. Pilchuck, Sifton, Semiahmoo. Sara, Tisch, Kinney. Larchmount, Lauren, Gee.

 

The 1972 USDA Soil Survey of Clark County, Washington lists 39 soil series. Page 1 of the Introduction provided a beginners lesson, complete with vocabulary words.


How this Survey Was Made

Soil scientists made this survey to learn what kinds of soil are in Clark County, where they are located and how they can be used. They observed the steepness, length, and shape of slopes, the size and speed of streams, the kinds of native plants or crops, the kinds of rock, and many facts about the soils. They dug many holes to expose soil profiles. A profile is the sequence of natural layers, or horizons, in a soil; it extends from the surface down into the parent material that has not been changed much by leaching or by the action of plant roots.

The soil scientists made comparisons among the soil profiles they studied, and they compared these profiles with those in counties nearby and in places more distant. They classified and named the soil according to nationwide, uniform procedures. The soil series and the soil phase are categories of soil classification most used in a local survey.

Soils that have profiles almost alike make up a soil series. Except for different texture in the surface layer, all the soils of one series have major horizons that are similar in thickness, arrangement, and other important characteristics. Each soil series is named for a town or other geographic feature near the place where a soil of that series was first observed and mapped. Hockinson, for example is the name of a soil series. All the soils in the United States having the same series name are essentially alike in those characteristics that affect their behavior in the undisturbed landscape.

When I first read the pages of my Dad’s hand-me-down torn-edged copy of the Clark County Soil Survey, I was enthralled. I had no idea the soil of our region was so rich, diversified or deep (some soils are nearly rock free for over 300 feet into the ground). This was a revelation, given the many stories I’d heard from my family about the annual need to pick rocks (sometimes boulders) out of their Midwest fields. I raced ahead to find the black and white aerial photograph with soil map overlay that would tell me the name I wanted so eagerly to learn.

Hillsboro Silt Loam (HoA)

The Hillsboro series consist of deep, well-drained soils on terraces. These are medium-textured soils that developed in deposits of old Columbia River alluvium. Most areas are nearly level to gently sloping, but strongly sloping to very steep areas are along drainageways and streams.

Hillsboro soils are among the most productive terrace soils in the county; about 90 percent of the acreages is cultivated. These soils are used extensively for high income crops, such as pole beans, strawberries, sweet corn, cucumbers, and other truck crops, and for hay and pasture. They are also used for urban development. The soil is well drained, moderately permeable, and easily tilled. The available water capacity is very high. Fertility is moderately high.

Most of the acreage of this soil is cultivated or in urban fringe development. Nearly all the crops suited to this area are grown. Pears, caneberries, strawberries, pole beans, potatoes and walnuts are important truck crops. Alfalfa and red clover are important legumes for hay, and white clover is important for pasture.

That may not strike you as particularly meaningful, but when a farmer reads, “In places the profile is loam to a depth of about 36 inches, sandy loam to a depth of 48 inches and sand between 48 and 62 inches.” she gets up on the couch and starts jumping for joy. Deep, soft, well draining soil with a high capacity for self-generated fertility all located in a mild climate. That’s basically equivalent to winning the lottery.

Thus I began my relationship with the soil your vegetables are growing in.


I often here the statement “food connects us all.” Well, if you want to get particular about things, actually it’s soil that connects us all. Without soil, there would be no humans. The basic truth we as a society have forgotten is this: not only does soil support the plants that shelter, clothe, and feed us, but it also filters our drinking water. When New Mexico soil scientist Clay Robinson visits school kids to talk about soil, he jokes, “Without soil we’d be hungry, naked, and homeless. Also, breathless, because it’s the plants growing in soil that produce our oxygen.” So why is it that we associate being ‘soiled’ with being unclean, but yet the very thing we use to get clean (water) is itself cleaned by the soil we are so prejudice against?

When I read the 1972 Soil Survey of Clark County, I can see the transition between an old way of viewing the world, and a new one. Profiles, Names, Parent Materials, becomes comparisons and categorizing. Cloquato and Sara become “how it can be used.” It’s telling that on one hand, we fondly name our soils and use words that could easily be mistaken for describing humans, and on the other, we are big into comparisons and categorizing. It is also telling that farmers who have spent their lives committed to responsible land stewardship talk of particularly healthy and vibrant soil as being of good heart.

I did not have to read very far, or spend much time in my fields before my past ignorance of soil as an inert, inanimate object, a lifeless medium, rapidly dissipated. The more I learn of the inner workings of soil, the deeper my admiration grows, and the less I feel I truly know.

I’m perfectly content with this conundrum. Each season, my journey of learning continues, and each season, I make a concerted effort to pay back my soil for her generosity, flexibility, and patient, forgiving nature. Soil is accurately a ‘being’. Like us, soil lives and breathes; like us, soil can be energetic or depleted, even dead. The creational potential of my soil is the heart and soul of my work. I am here, doing what I do, because I fell in love with a certain parcel of Hillsboro Silt Loam. Though I may sell vegetables, I am not a produce farmer. Nope. I am soil farmer.

“… the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.”
– Dr. Daniel Hillel

*Some of you might be rolling your eyes, put off that I’m personifying the soil of our crop fields, and nonetheless as a female(!). That’s fine. We can call HoA a he if you’d rather. But before you tell me to go back to singing Kumbayah, just remember that the Soil Family is what made possible the breath you’re taking right now. I’m not married to the gender, I’m only adamant that we begin to show respect where respect is due. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses our “deeply held assumptions about human exceptionalism, that we are somehow different and indeed better that the other species who surround us. Indigenous ways of understanding recognize the personhood of all beings as equally important, not in a hierarchy, but a circle.”

[1] Gershuny, Grace and Joe Smillie, The Soul of Soil.

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