We Think Eating Vegetables Is Healthy

A research project completed at Spirit Farm


For two years, from mid July 2019 to mid July 2021, Covenant Pathways conducted a research project that was supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Here are the highlights:

  • There is a direct connection between the health of the soil and the nutrient levels in the food produced.
  • Healthy soil contributes to the overall health of individuals by improving gut biomes.
  • Foods produced in gardens using Indigenous Regenerative Intelligence are superior to store-bought foods, even those labeled as “organic”.
  • Food as medicine, specifically food grown in healthy soil, addresses the root cause of disease and yields superior human health than modern medicine’s pill-for-every-ill, band-aid approach.


Our hypothesis was that as the microbial soil biomass increases, so does the nutrient density of the foods grown in those soils. We periodically tested the soil as we amended it with microbial rich compost throughout the year. The produce was tested at harvest. Our research included six project gardens.

To achieve the highest nutrient levels in the produce and the best drought-resistant plants, the ideal ratio of bacteria to fungi (B:F) for the soil biomass is 1:1. Increasing the fungi is a challenge in our dry climate.

Soil samples were collected three times during the growing season (spring, summer, and late summer) at each of the project gardens. All soil samples were collected within six inches of the plant of the produce being tested and were analyzed within 72 hours of collection.
Harvested vegetable produce was analyzed for nutrient levels at the end of the growing season at each of the project gardens. This data was collected at the same time as the late-summer soil samples.

Three of the project gardens grew a specific pear tomato varietal that was also tested. (See Appendix A.)
Grocery store and certified organic produce were also analyzed for comparison with our project gardens.

For each of the growing seasons, we made over 30 bins of microbial-rich compost from October through March to share with the six project gardens. We also provided growing materials, including drip lines, mulch, fencing, and dosing pumps to each of the six project gardens. Training was also provided.

Soil Analysis
We used a compound microscope to count quantities of both beneficial and harmful microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. Bacteria to Fungi (B:F) ratios were calculated in determining microbial biomass changes. The number of microbes were recorded in a chart originally created by Dr. Elaine Ingham and modified by Owl McCabe. Both project directors, Owl McCabe and Joyce Skeet, for this research venture had previously completed several Life in The Soil classes with Dr. Elaine Ingham prior to the start of this project.

The project contracted with Work in Beauty, of which Owl McCabe – a Project Director, is the Executive Director to oversee the counting and recording of the microbial soil biomass. Owl trained 3 microscope technicians using the microscope and chart so that each one was counting and recording with similar accuracies. Soil samples were given to the microscope technicians and tests completed within 72 hours of the time the soil tests were collected.

The intent of this project was to demonstrate that as the soil biomass of the microbes increase, so does the nutrient levels of the produce at harvest time. The ideal ratio for the soil biomass in order to have the highest nutrient values for annual crops is to have a ratio of 1:1 (bacteria: fungi or B:F). At this ratio, the plants will produce more nutrient-dense food and will also have better drought resistance. The higher the number of fungi, the more the fungi can reach water that the roots cannot. Mycorrhizal fungi can enable a plant to have access to as much as 100 times greater water than plants with no mycorrhizal fungi. The challenge for our dry environment was to increase the fungi. The starting point for all of the soils at each of the farms was 1:0.0, so the project had a lot of work to do in order to increase this ratio. The goal the project envisioned was a 1:0.30 ratio. As the project unfolded, we began to see higher nutrient values in foods grown in microbial rich soils with a B:F ratio of 1:0.20, than in 50% of organic certified foods and 80% of grocery store conventional foods. As the ratio increased to 1:0.30, foods grown in these microbial soils had more nutrients than 80% of organic foods and 100% more nutrients than grocery store conventional grown foods. It was difficult to collect organic certified foods due to lack of available sources.

Trying to understand how the fungi can access water can be thought-provoking. This past year of 2021, Spirit Farm has been working on transitioning the hoop house into a heated green house. The first task was to dig out 18 inches of the dirt. With shovels in hand and wheel barrels ready to be loaded, we began the arduous task of hand digging our 21’x 36’ greenhouse. We soon noticed that the ground 4 inches deep was moist and continued to be moist the remainder of the 18 inches. What was more intriguing was that we had not watered that soil in over 8 months. Now, the water gathering task of the fungi at work made sense.

Produce Analysis
A refractometer was used to test the nutrient density of the produce by measuring the sugar content in the food, expressed as a Brix number (0-30). The higher the Brix number, the higher the sugar, and thus the higher the nutrient levels. While this is a primitive test, it is the only test available. Vegetables as a whole test much lower than fruits due to lower sugar contents. There are a few companies developing handheld instruments to be able to measure nutrient density with more accuracy. One of these companies is BioNutrient Food Association.

For this project, the Brix was tested at the end of the growing season with vegetables ready to be harvested from the 6 Native gardens. It was tested at the same time the soil sample was collected in late summer. The soil samples throughout the growing season were collected within 6 inches of the plant of the produce being tested. Joyce Skeet, Project Director, completed the tests for all of the Brix measurements throughout the project.

Each year, up to 7 soil samples and brix measurements were completed in each of the 6 Native gardens. In 2019, the first and only set of soil samples were taken in Late Summer as well as brix measurements in each garden. In 2020 three sets of soil samples were collected in Spring, Summer and Late Summer, along with 3 to 7 brix measurements in late summer. Spirit Farm submitted 35 samples for brix measurements in order to make additional comparisons with grocery and organic store produce. In 2020 the project collected brix values from grocery store vegetables as well as organic produce and compared the Brix values from Spirit Farm and the Native gardens. In 2021 two sets of soil samples were taken in Spring and Summer. No Brix measurements were completed as the produce was not ready for harvest at the time of the summer soil collection as the grant concluded July 14, 2021.

This project not only helped us to confirm our research, application and studies, but allowed us to actually use techniques to compare and make the actual connection between nutrition and soil health. One thing that is important to understand is that the tools that are currently available to measure nutrient density are very primitive. It’s not at a level where it should be, but research is just now beginning to move in a direction to develop instruments that are more sensitive. Using the refractometer to determine the Brix levels, we also tested organic vegetables and other conventional non-organic products in grocery stores, as well as tested our own products here on the farm, Spirit Farm, and at the other 5 Native grower sites that were building healthy soil and using microbial rich compost. We confirmed that those using local indigenous materials such as compost, increased the microbe biomass in the soil (soils with B:F ratio higher than 1:0.30). The vegetables grown in these soils had Brix scale readings that were higher 80% of the time in comparison to the organic produce we tested and higher 100% of the time compared to the foods in grocery stores using conventional farming (Appendix D). About 50 percent of the time, the organic foods had higher brix values than the conventional foods in grocery stores. So, you might say to a large degree, we are often eating junk food, even though we think eating vegetables is healthy. There are problems with how the produce in grocery stores is not only manufactured, but how they are processed through a conventional system of commoditization. In spite of not reaching higher soil biomass numbers, the brix readings of the vegetables from all 6 Native farms still resulted in higher nutrients 80% of the time.

We can break the code on what’s really happened to our food system, our agricultural system, as well as our connection to the earth, the plants and soil microbes. This research project confirmed that our Indigenous Intelligence is spot on and is key for growing nutrient rich foods. James Skeets’ mom used to say, “The plants are reaching out to heal us because they were there before us, they’re our grandfathers and grandmothers.”

Building Healthy Soil within a Single Growing Season
Increasing microbial biomass in the Southwest desert, especially during droughts, is incredibly difficult. Microbes need consistent moisture to survive, reproduce and effectively complete their roles in the soil creating nutrients and medicines. In previous years we learned through many trials and errors at Spirit Farm realizing that there was a lot more moving parts to keep the microbes happy and multiplying in the soil than just adding compost and watering. Entering the growing season of 2020, Spirit Farm had experienced so many failures and was at a point of discouragement to move forward, but knew they had no other option. And remarkably, things came together in the growing season of 2020 and learned that there were 6 key principles to utilize that retain more moisture and microbes in our soil:

  1. Protect growing areas with windbreaks which reduces moisture evaporation and protects growing plants.
  2. Add 3-4” of microbial-rich compost after broad-forking each row. The broadfork opens and loosens the soil while the compost adds organic matter and multitudes of microbes.
  3. Add 3-4” of mulch on top of the compost to retain the moisture.
  4. Use drip lines with emitters every 6” to water the garden. This prevents dry spots and allows microbes to travel from plant root to plant root. Emitter placed further apart created dry spots in previous years.
  5. Add compost extract or humic acid to neutralize chlorinated and mineralized water.
  6. Apply shade structures, houses, and cloths to reduce the daily temperature extremes. Microbial numbers were higher under shade.

Implementing the above strategies during the 2020 growing season not only increased the quantity & quality of our produce, it created a tranquil, cool environment for conversation and relaxation.

Continuing into the 2021 season, we further increased our yields and reduced our pest problems (most notably reducing the potato beetle by 80%) by intermixing plant species. No two plants of the same species were planted next to each other. Contrast this to the modern farming practice of planting rows of the same crop.

At Spirit Farm, we are able to make healthy, chocolate-cake-like soil with good microbial biomass within one growing season. We shared this model with our local community, and it is easily adaptable in other locations. Our biomass ratios (B:F) at Spirit Farm grew from 1:0.043 in the late summer of 2019 to 1:0.429 by the summer of 2021! (See Appendix C.)

Workshop at Spirit Farm
In July 2021, when COVID restrictions were lifted, we held a workshop to discuss Indigenous Regenerative Intelligence and bio-cosmology, as well as demonstrate the method we use to build healthy soil. The engagement and interest of young and emerging Native farmers was overwhelming. The highlight was training our Navajo workers to lead demonstrations in the morning. The day began with much anxiety, but the presenters grew in self-confidence and blossomed with self-respect as they shared their topics and engaged with the attendees. In the afternoon deep discussions on Indigenous Regenerative Intelligence took place and challenged all to continue farming and incorporate a little more of their own Indigenous ideas into their farms and listen to the cosmology of their ancestors.

The pandemic restrictions challenged the way we engaged with farmers. This included the farmers in our research as well as others Spirit Farm assisted. Phone conferences were the most common as many Navajo families have unstable internet access. We were asked to give presentations on healthy soil, microbes, composting, nutrient rich foods, Indigenous Intelligence, bio-cosmology,etc on a monthly basis. On one of the calls, one of the Navajo growers was so excited about the produce she had been harvesting, eating and sharing with her family. She talked about picking her green beans every day for over 2 weeks. She was amazed at the flavor and expressed that the beans tasted much sweeter than the beans she purchased at the grocery store. Spirit Farm had provided a lot of compost to over 40 Navajo and Zuni growers in 2020 and 2021. Most would pick up the compost at the farm, and on one occasion we hauled several tons of compost 3 hours west into Arizona for Navajo families to pick up at a central location.

The Dry Southwest Desert
Access to affordable water was a greater problem than we imagined. Two of our growers had no running water and had to haul it in. The others had access to municipal water or other running water, but one grower had to reduce watering her 25’x25’ garden because she could not afford the $200+ monthly water bill. This was unfortunate because her initial spring 2020 biomass tested the highest of all farmers. It plummeted when she reduced watering. (See Appendix B.)
At Spirit Farm, we decreased our garden size for two consecutive years due the exhausting and time-consuming process of hauling 5-7 loads of water each week (40 miles round trip). We were, however, able to harvest 20,000 gallons later in 2021 through a water catchment system we installed. Winter snows were poor in the 20-21 season and the farm depended on hauling municipal water 20 miles one way for the first part of the 2021 growing season until the monsoons hit hard in the middle of July. The farm did not have to haul any water for the remaining growing season and relied solely on rainwater.

Importance of Amending Municipal Water
Chlorinated municipal water kills microbes, inhibiting growth of the soil biomass. Through studies with Dr. Elain Ingham, we learned the humic and fulvic acids in compost extract neutralize both chlorinated waters and highly mineralized well water, allowing soil microbes to flourish.
Using a dosing pump designed by Owl McCabe to add compost extract to our drip water system, Spirit Farm’s soil biomass went from 1:0.043 in 2019 to 1:0.429 in 2021. This provided 2 benefits. We were able to distribute soil microbes from the compost throughout the garden in the drip lines, and the natural humic and fulvic acids in the compost neutralized the chlorine from the municipal waters. At Spirit Farm in 2019, the soil biomass numbers were very low as demonstrated in Appendix D. In 2020 the farm started using the dosing pump and the soil biomass numbers increased by the 1000’s and continued to be high in 2021. In 2021, we were able to provide dosing pumps to the other project gardens. While they saw some improvement in their biomass, the high cost of water reduced their ability to adequately irrigate their gardens, so their numbers were not as good as those at Spirit Farm. Microbes need consistently moist soil to thrive. Despite not obtaining higher soil biomass numbers, the brix readings of the vegetables from all six Native farms were higher 80% of the time. (See Appendix D.)

Locals Want to Farm Again
In spite of the challenging climate, people in our local Navajo and Zuni community want to farm. Fifty percent of these farmers are in their 20s, where the average US farmer is 57 years old. Native people of all ages are seeking the wisdom from their ancestors. COVID challenged many Navajo and Zuni families to change their eating habits and to grow their own food. Many are on a journey to become self-sufficient and learn how to grow nutrient-dense foods like their ancestors. Native communities in the Southwest are being challenged to grow their own nutrient rich foods in healthy soils.

Indigenous Regenerative Intelligence
We have chosen Indigenous Regenerative Intelligence to describe the essence and science of Native cosmology and give respect to our Native ancestors for the sanctity and respect for healthy soils with the ancient understanding that healthy soils not only impact and increase the nutrients of the foods we eat but keep the climate and environment (Mother Earth and Father Sky) in balance. See our video at https://vimeo.com/584015528/c17d6e4218.

An old Native American Prophecy proclaims, “When the earth is ravaged and the animals are dying, a new tribe of people shall come unto the earth from many colors, classes, creeds and who by their actions and deeds shall make the earth green again. They will be known as The Warriors of The Rainbow.” On earth at this moment in time, we see the earth ravaged and animals dying. But there is hope in the many numbers of people nationally who want to see change take place.

Doctors from the local Indian Health Service come to Spirit Farm to learn about the connection between healthy foods and healthy soils full of microbes. At Spirit Farm we are demonstrating and teaching doctors how the microbes in the soil heal and impact the microbiome in the gut. One doctor kept repeating, “I’m just putting out fires.” When asked what he meant, he said, “All I do is prescribe a pill that only puts a band aid on a symptom, it doesn’t take care of the root cause and provide healing like the microbes.”

Indigenous Bio-Cosmology vs. Industrial Food Production
We have long been concerned about our health. As we studied it, especially from policy, medical field, and dietary stances, the more we felt a disconnect between food and food-as-medicine. But it goes deeper than this; the problem is rooted in our soil. Our soils are lifeless because of industrial farming techniques, including overgrazing, plowing, fertilizing, and chemical spraying. We tried looking at things from a reductionist, AMA perspective but found it wanting. In the end, these modern approaches are contrary to the indigenous ways our ancestors taught us, and we are worse off for following them.

So we developed the Indigenous “bio-cosmology” concept, which treats the spiritual and physical realities as one. The word “indigenous” means incorporating local materials and concepts, rather than relying on external inputs. We began to understand soil biology—the microbes, fungi and bacterial—and how it relates to desertification and climate change here in New Mexico. This research project helped us confirm our beliefs and allowed us to show the connection between soil health and nutrition levels in the produce. We demonstrated that those using local, indigenous materials (like microbial rich compost and amendments from our own environments) increased the microbe biomass in the soil. We also established that produce grown in these soils had higher nutrient values than grocery store and certified organic produce.

So you might say, we are often eating junk food, even though we think eating vegetables is healthy. How can food be medicine when it is devoid of nutrition? We return to the fact that microbes in the soil create nutrients that the plants draw up and give to us. As we eat these nutrient-rich foods, the soil microbiome transports to our gut, improving our immune system. Healthy gut microbiomes protect us from the inflammation, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and food intolerances that cause ill health. We can reconnect with the earth and bypass our industrial food system. There’s a lot more that has to be done and the one thing we stress at Spirit Farm is that Indigenous Cosmology is our native science. And it produces some of the best vegetables. We believe indigenous people have the answers to get us out of this mess of ill health.

The Truth be Told
Although higher soil biomass numbers were not reached in this study, the nutrient levels of the vegetables still resulted in higher nutrients 80% of the time, including certified organic. The frightening reality is as consumers we have gotten so far off track from the way foods provided the nutrition several decades ago. The research results have left us pondering how much higher the nutrient levels will increase when the B:F ratio of 1:1 is reached. For now we can only imagine the astonishing flavors and nutrients we are missing out on today!!

Other Stories
Spirit Farm was honored to be one of 12 NM farms featured in a report that examines the socioeconomic benefits of soil health for New Mexico farms and ranches. See http://www.crcworks.org/nmsoilhealth.pdf?cmid=258d8ea4-2340-488d-9db3-720f8ab397f6. The story of Spirit Farm begins on page 14.

There is literature and podcasts available about the link between the microbes and healthy food. Dr Zach Bush, MD, one of many advocates, has podcasts and publications about the link between microbes and healthy food. Gabe Brown, in his book “Dirt to Soil,” captures well a rich essence of the meaning of regenerative agriculture.

Appendix A: Soil Biomass and Brix for Pear Tomato

GrowerSoil BiomassB:F Ratio Brix Reading
Project Garden 11:0.1856
Project Garden 21:0.2498
Project Garden 31:0.31710

Appendix B: 2020 Soil Biomass at Project Garden 4

Spring RatioSummer RatioLate Summer Ratio

Appendix C: Spirit Farm Soil Biomass

YearSpringSummerLate Summer

Appendix D: Nutrient Brix Comparison Readings

Project GardensCertified OrganicGrocery Store
Gold potato754
Swiss chard784
Sweet corn12.598
Red Chery tomato97.55.5
Roma tomato8N/A2.5

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