The fascinating interplay of soil, water, food, gut health, and our environment
Spencer Rudolph has lived in the unincorporated area north of Escondido since 1999. He’s intimately acquainted with the three acres at his family’s Sage Hill Ranch Gardens since he “crawled all over it” as a child when there were few residents beyond North Broadway. Now, he and his sister Paige, plus three other people, grow and sell organic greens, herbs, and flowers there using regenerative practices. “We’d rather generate than degrade,” he says. The farm is organic and sustainable, using compost they’ve made from cassia and clover, plus fungi, without any tilling.
Large farming businesses routinely plow plants back into the land to form a flat surface on which to plant new crops, but this extraction from the earth without replenishing it causes 10% of our greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Rudolph passionately tells us that it destroys aggregates—pathways for water and organisms to carry nutrients to plants. His analogy: “Imagine if you had your entire house turned upside down every 60 days.” He says tilling can damage crops by adding oxygen to the soil, thereby burning up organic matter and pulling carbon out of the earth into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.
The dark, crumbly soil beneath his feet is home to earthworms that enjoy living near the ginger plants in a “tunnel,” where lettuces and bacteria maximize the use of sunlight and heat. “Farming for us is all about bacteria, how it moves, how to make it healthier, and thereby make people healthier,” Rudolph says. Worm poop, or castings, are rich in nutrients for plants.
Outside, under avocado trees, Rudolph bends down and scoops away leaves to reveal mycelium, the woody substrate that supports wine cap mushrooms above ground. Mycelia can filter toxins and decompose organic matter, converting it into nutrients for plants around them. “Mushrooms are a sign that the soil is in good health in general,” Rudolph says. Healthy soil is defined by “the capacity to operate as a living system of diverse organisms, which combat plant disease and pests and combat climate change by maintaining or increasing its carbon content,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Living soils also have a greater capacity to hold moisture and transfer it to plant roots.
Rudolph observes his crops closely for any imbalances, such as pest infestations, and adjusts his practices accordingly. It’s easier for plants to fight off pests and disease if they are in good shape, just as humans can more easily fight off disease when in prime condition. Our own health relies on healthy soils and clean water passing along vital nutrients to plants in our diet. This, along with exercise, can help us avoid serious illnesses faced by a majority of Americans, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Plants prefer rain over irrigation or runoff, and their leaves and stems perk up afterward. Rudolph collects rainwater in a tank when possible and irrigates from his public water supply. Using rainwater helps reduce exposure to pollutants—such as pesticides, fertilizers, oil, and trash—that can encroach on land via runoff from streets and other properties, according to San Diego County Water Authority. Chemicals infiltrating soil or on our food can have negative health impacts if consumed throughout our lives, especially in the smaller, less mature bodies of children. The Environmental Protection Agency has a wealth of information on the subject. (epa.gov)
Buying food from local companies enables us to learn more about how the produce grows. Sage Hill Ranch Gardens sells its produce at a farmstand onsite on Saturdays during select seasons and welcomes the public on scheduled tours and for special events.
One person educating San Diegans about vegetables, fruit, and spices traditionally used to achieve optimal health is chef Lan Thai, aka Chef Lando, of Cardiff. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to parents fleeing the communist takeover of Vietnam, Thai has a rich Southeast Asian culinary heritage and has added to that through her travels. She grew up on a family farm in Lakeside, where she often had her hands in the soil. Years later, when her mother was given only two months to live due to cancer, Thai kicked into high gear by studying natural healing; she soon began offering her mom ginger and other herbs to ease the side effects of chemotherapy. She also gave her a cannabis tincture to help her get off pain medication. Her mother lived another two years, she said in a San Diego Union-Tribune article. Thai’s 19-acre farm in Bonsall isn’t open to the public, but she inspires and nourishes people at Enclave Café locations in La Jolla and Torrey Hills (now closed). Her vision to help people around the globe learn the ancient knowledge of Food As Medicine (FAM) has earned her recognition from San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors.
In her video podcast The FAM Show, Thai offers a blend of history with culinary and wellness tips as she chops, stirs, and pours into steaming pots and bowls. She uses fresh ingredients, including turmeric, moringa, fenugreek, and cardamom.
Moringa, she says, is also known as the “miracle tree.” “It’s like spinach and tastes 10 times better than kale. All parts of the plant can be eaten.” Moringa is drought-resistant and available year-round in many parts of the globe, “making it one of the most sustainable edible crops in the world. Africans have called it ‘never die’ because it’s the only thing that grows in the dry season and they’ve even called it ‘mother’s milk.’” (Scientific studies of moringa can be found online via the National Library of Medicine.)
The expression “We are what we eat” continues to take on a deeper meaning. Research is unveiling the exquisite way that tiny organisms in our gastrointestinal tract operate like one organ, passing important information to all parts of our bodies. Keeping these healthy gut microbes happy is key to our health.
Research shows that if we wipe them out by taking too many antibiotics, drinking too much alcohol, or simply not feeding them what they want, there can be negative consequences. Highly processed food, plus stress and environmental factors, can also alter gut microbes and has been linked to anxiety, autism, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, Alzheimer’s, and cancer. Conversely, scientists believe it’s possible that through understanding the specific role microbes play in our daily lives, we can harness them to treat diseases, including depression, mental illness, and insomnia.
So, how do we support the microbes in our gut that support our health? In general, studies show they prefer a diverse, plant-rich diet. The more we increase the variety of produce in our diets, the greater the potential benefits. Microbiomes are nourished by soluble fiber (found in grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes), plus prebiotics from vegetables and fruit. Probiotics, whether in supplement form, fermented foods (e.g., kimchi), or cultured products (e.g., yogurt), also play a positive role.
University of California San Diego is leading in gut microbiome research. Professors Jack Gilbert and Rob Knight direct their own labs as part of the school’s Center for Microbiome Innovation and cofounded the American Gut Project, which grew into The Microsetta Initiative, to collect and analyze gut microbiome samples from members of the public, dubbed “citizen scientists.” Participating allows researchers to explore how diet, lifestyle, and the environment can collectively change our microbiomes.
“Farming is all about the bacteria, how it moves, how to make it healthier, and thereby make people healthier.”
— Spencer Rudolph, Sage Hill Ranch Gardens
Not only do healthy soils, water, food, and air directly impact personal health, but we impact the environment around us—with how and what we eat and how we dispose of food and packaging. Education is key, as is simply getting back to nature more often. Growing our own food and mingling with neighbors and vegetable shoppers, plus cooking healthy recipes, all have their own benefits, like reducing stress and developing important social connections and support networks. Even putting our hands in soil releases a hormone that is proven to improve depression, support immune systems, and a lot more, according to research. Relaxing in a park or forest has also been shown to decrease stress responses.
Meanwhile, farmers also need a reprieve from their work after the harvest is over. Spencer Rudolph and his wife Missy will take a break from opening the farmstand over winter to spend more time with their baby. One day soon, she’ll be walking all over the farm too, as the cycle of life, soil, and harvesting continues.
***This article is not intended to provide nutritional advice. Consult your health practitioner before making any changes, especially if you are on a special diet. Even natural products can have side effects if used incorrectly or in conjunction with pharmaceutical products.
610 Calle Ricardo, Escondido
Farmstand open seasonally on Sat, 9am
Also at the Poway and Leucadia farmers’ markets
It's All Connected originally published in the winter 2022–2023 issue.