How Much Does Soil Influence Taste?


From GENE LOGSDON

I had no more finished the post two weeks ago about improving vegetable taste, when I read an interesting interview with Eliot Coleman, a name you all recognize, in the November issue of Acres U.S.A. Eliot has been a leader in perfecting year-round, organic farming— in Maine of all places. One of his most popular crops is “candy carrots” and how he grows them is pertinent to our discussion.  He plants carrots, around the first of August, and when winter cold arrives, he slides a movable greenhouse over the carrots so that the ground doesn’t freeze. He has learned that with a double cover, or a cold frame under a fabric greenhouse cover, the ground, though plenty cold, doesn’t freeze.  In the interview, he says: “When you leave carrots in the ground like this, they protect themselves against the cold by changing some of their starch to sugar, sort of like antifreeze. These are known locally as candy carrots.  We’ve been told by parents that our carrots are the trading item of choice in local grade school lunch boxes.”

That’s the kind of detail about growing food for better taste that is so intriguing to contemplate. Do we know very much about soil in terms of health and food taste even with all the scientific effort that has been put to it? Does better taste mean better nutrition in the first place? I recently read about Lakeview Organic Grain Farm in upstate New York, known for its flour made from emmer, an old form of wheat. The taste of this emmer is highly prized by gourmets and food artists. It is mostly purchased by upscale restaurants. The farm grows lots of other crops including mustard, kidney beans, cowpeas, Austrian winter peas, barley, oats, rye and millet. Interestingly, not all of these crops are grown for market but as part of a very complicated, varying rotation aimed at maintaining fertility not only for the purpose of avoiding bugs and plant diseases without toxic chemicals but to increase the taste of the food. The owner of the farm was quoted as saying that the unique taste of his emmer “is not about the wheat but the soil.” 

Whenever garden farmers get together, the talk always embraces taste and sometimes turns into an argument over which varieties taste better. There is, of course, no use in arguing tastes, but what if the same variety grown on different soils, does taste differently. That could explain some of the disagreement. If soil is the source of good taste, what precisely in the soil makes the difference? And if you make something taste better to humans, will it taste better to bugs too? A great many books have been written about these mysteries and many soil scientists have devoted their lives to uncovering the secrets of soil life. I once had the opportunity to look at a speck of muck soil just down the road from our place under a modern, high-powered microscope. I was actually shocked by the world of awesome beauty that opened before my eyes. It looked like a scene out of the tropical jungle with brilliantly colored micro-flora and micro-fauna organisms flashing and pulsing everywhere. No wonder this muck soil grows such wonderful crops when it is drained of excess water.  If we all could watch a three hour movie of all these microbes interacting and preying on each other, and how they aid and abet healthy soil if allowed to do so, I have a hunch we’d swear off all toxic herbicides and fungicides for good.

But I worry that I overly mystify the influence of soil on food taste. I love sweet corn, but like it best at one point in its development that lasts only about a day. As the kernels develop, they reach what I call the pimply stage, then swell a little more to late pimply taste, then harden a bit more to what is considered the proper harvesting time, and then go on to get harder and chewer (or waxier, as I call it) by the day. I prefer corn in the late pimply stage, when the kernel is still a little immature but at its juiciest. Seldom is corn harvested and sold at this stage, but at its “next day” age. I think that consumers say they prefer “next day” corn only because they have never had a chance to compare it with late pimple corn.  I don’t know of any tests comparing the health or nutritional value of “late pimple” corn compared to “next day” corn. Is there any nutritional difference?

Or maybe the difference is sometimes only a matter of weather. When I sang the praises of those little cabbage heads that grow after the main head is harvested, my friend and consummate organic garden farmer, Andy Reinhart, cautioned me. The little heads that form on early cabbage when the weather is still hot, are quite bitter, he says.
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18 Comments

I am very concerned about GMO produce and saw gene on the documentary about GMO.
I used to read Adelle Davis who was a nutritionist in the 1970s. She wrote ‘let’s get well’.
Her advise worked until recently with this GMO. Natural vitamin e comes in liquid capsules and is from soy. Decades ago her advise on how it takes away pain from burn when the liquid vitamin e was put on a burn worked amazing well. It no longer works. Today these soy GMO vitamin e capsules provide no relief from burn pain when applied to a burn area.
Therefore, logical deduction must be that GMO produce means the destruction of vitamins within the plants. Is this biological warfare insidiously creeping in?

Sir: Hmmmmm, the example of the late growing carrots sounds suspiciously like the life cycle of our western sugarbeet crop harvested after the temperature drops in the fall.

of course soil influences taste. Potatoes that are commonly available in the local markets have been generally grown in the mucky soils and they taste like mud. My little farm has very sandy soil that has potatoes that are exceptional tasting. 40 or more years ago my dad used to raise sweet corn for the market, when the corn was “peaches and cream” (well before the super sweets) and he often sold as much corn as another guy in town who was always asking what variety the corn was since it tasted so good (his customers would sometimes tell him that dad’s corn was better) who raised five or six times as much acreage. It was all the same seed corn from the same seed houses but the soil made the difference.

My uncle swears that soil additions can make a difference. One year he planted potatoes in the garden after first spraying the row with fish emulsion. One of his kids wouldn’t touch the potatoes as she said they taste like fish. She didn’t know that he had in fact used fish fertilizer.

While we are all pondering this, can we solve the puzzle of what commercial enterprises do to the taste of broccoli? It is so radically different that we never fail to have folks comment on ours – what did we do, how do we cook it? We do nothing, it’s just way better than store-bought. WHY?

The soil on one end of my field is rotted limestone, with a pH so high that it fizzes when I splash vinegar on it. Everything I grow there is full of flavor, so my vote is for Calcium as the most important soil contribution. Unfortunately, the yield is low. There’s always a tradeoff.

Another aspect of plants having a higher sugar profile is that many insects can’t process sugar (no pancreas). Soil scientists who have studied raw milk as a pasture input have found that it increases Brix values in the grass/forage. This increased sugar content has also made the plants more pest resistant. Seems creation knows what it’s doing when allowing insects to select the less-healthy plants to eat and leave alone the healthy ones.

Of course soil influences taste, that’s what all the fuss on “terroir” is about. I do not know enough about wine, but had this experience with cheese. While I quite enjoy a good old white cheddar, as transplanted Dutch we were thrilled to find an artisanal Dutch cheesemaker in the region. For anyone in B.C. Tuitel’s farm between Lumby and Cherryvile, right on highway 6. You can see the cows graze on the banks of the Shushwap river, and peek through glass doors to an enormous vat of milk where magic is starting. The Gouda, made just like they made it in Holland, is delicious, yet something is missing. That something is present in the more commercial stuff imported by a specialty shop. (not that we go there but some friends do) We finally decided it must be the grass, therefor the soil. In my brother’s town Hoorn is a crowded cheese shop with nothing but local cheeses, all marked by exactly where they came from.

I had to post one last comment on the Eliot Coleman’s interview. I read that too and had never heard of Helen and Scott Nearing who he mentioned in the interview. I immediately ordered there two volume book: “Living the Good Life”. Which also had the sequel on moving from Vermont to Maine. He lived to be 100, was a vegetarian and swore off commercial fertilizer and pesticides. There must be something to it. What hit me the hardest when I read this book is how he described beds (raised beds), soil nutrient balancing, and mulching as being old concepts. I always thought these were more recent concepts.

All I really know is that I will be making nutrient dense sauerkraut tonight!

Sorry, it should have been Jo Robinson’s “Eating on the Wild Side.”

Gene, if you haven’t read Jo Robinson’s, it answers some of the questions about taste as it relates to nutrition. Seems as we humans have gone looking for the best taste, in many cases, we’ve bred the nutrition out, whether it’s a hybrid or an heirloom. She notes that the sweetest varieties often have the least antioxidants and other good things we need for optimum health. Fascinating book. Of course, you still have to have well-nourished soil — that’s a given, or should be.

Gene, a thoughtful post as always and great feedback in the comment section too. I have a few things buried in the garden and I’m hoping this Canadian blast hasn’t been too much. I’d love a little homegrown produce to get us through until spring peas.

The old saying; “You are what you eat”, is true not just for us humans. What any organism feeds on will be a major factor in its health at maturation. And the best feed for our soil is compost made from diverse materials. We use grass clippings, leaf litter, chicken litter, and whatever kitchen scraps the chickens will let us have. Haven’t got around to doing humanure though it is in the long range plan. Gene mentions it in “Holy Shit”.

I feel that terms like nutrient density are just a new way to describe what used to be called food. The conversation should be about the nutrient deficiency in the overly processed stuff that passes for food these days. It’s like blue collar workers complaining about teacher’s pension instead of asking what the hell happened to theirs. People should be asking where is the good food and why isn’t Big Ag growing the best instead of the cheapest.

I cannot influence by myself the outside world, but can work hard to see that the food we grow is the finest possible.

This week is a good one for stew. Stay warm.

    Pat, I love that comment—“nutrient dense just a new way to describe what we used to call food.”. Beth, haven’t read that Jo Robinson book yet. Ken, the Nearings were a big influence on me. I read somewhere that he quit chopping wood at age 100— figured he had enough split to last him out. To all of you who commented, thanks for your keen insights. The mystery of soil and health is so deep. Gene

I’d say that definitely the soil and minerals(or lack of) in the soil has an effect on taste.Turnips grown on poor soil will grow slow have tortured looking tops and be bitter,grown on well mineralized ‘rich’ soil they grow fast and are very mild.Local Mennoite farmer that presses and cooks sorghum says there can be a difference in taste of the sorghum molasses from one side of a field to the other.They all plant the same variety but the batches from each farm tastes a little different.

Gene,

I believe you have hit the nail on the head. I have experimented with soil additives over the years to try and get a good balance of all minerals and organic matter on my very sandy soil. I have learned that tweaking the soil macro and micro nutrients result in extremely flavorful produce. I started with low levels of organic matter, sulfur, boron, and copper as well as high levels of Manganese. After much sampling every year I now have as close to a balanced soil as I believe I can get and the taste of my vegetables is off the chart. It does not matter if they are heirloom or hybrid, they all are bursting with flavor compared to any “store bought” produce.
Additionally I do believe excessive water due to rain or irrigation can dilute the taste which can cause variation from year to year, especially in tomatoes and melons.

We need more research into soil nutrients and nutrient dense foods.

Perhaps taste is partly related to ‘nutrient density’, one of Gary Kline’s (Black Lake Organics , near Tacoma, WA) favorite topics. Here’s a link to Kline’s latest post, with data comparing the mineral content of berlotti beans grown by Bob Price in his garden on San Juan Island in 2012, 2013, & 2014 http://www.blacklakeorganic.com/Nutrient-Density-Its-for-Real.

Price uses annual soil tests to identify patterns of minerals (and more) & amends the soil accordingly. Steve Solomon and Michael Astera, Big Guru Names in current ‘organic’ (or something like that) gardening also are currently keen advocates of growing ‘nutrient dense’ food (high mineral content, mostly). I’ve never been quite sure how / if that idea differs from classic approaches to gardening and farming: test, amend, grow, repeat.

What seems (moderately novel) to me is testing crops over time for their mineral content as soil mineral etc content changes over time by adding amendments to partly make up for what’s removed with previous crops. However, I’d be surprised if a knowledgeable, serious search of ag literature might not turn up a lot more information.

It would be great to know if ‘nutrient density’ relates to flavor in various vegies, fruits & grains. After all, lots of wild plants are very ‘nutrient dens’ but icky to taste.

As with wine grapes, I do think there’s a sense of “terroir” with any produce. With so many moving pieces (soil, weather, water, etc.) I don’t claim to understand the alchemy at play. But I did bury a row of beets and a couple rows of carrots right before this early winter blast hit us here in the Midwest and am looking forward to the magic happening beneath the ground when I dig them up this winter.

For the last 3 years we have left some of our fall carrots in the ground with a thick layer of wheat straw on them to keep them from freezing. When we dig them in March, they are exceptional! Sometimes there is some freeze damage on the top inch of the carrot, but the rest is amazingly firm and sweet.

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