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A growing revolution

Palo Alto scientist looks at the future of dirt and food production in new book

Most people probably don't spend much time thinking about dirt. Not so for David Montgomery, who has traveled the globe studying land features and the impacts of soil on civilizations throughout history.

His work has earned him a "Genius Award" (MacArthur Fellowship grant) and status as a notable researcher of landscapes and the processes that form them. Perhaps equally impressive, however, has been his ability to share his research with non-experts through award-winning books aimed at a general audience.

Montgomery, a Palo Alto native who currently is a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, has written numerous books based on his studies, including "King of Fish: The Thousand-Year Run of Salmon," "Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations," "The Rocks Don't Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah's Flood" and "The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health."

Montgomery is returning to Palo Alto on Friday, June 9, to talk about his newest book "Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life," which looks at how specific farming methods can actually restore soil damaged by plowing, pesticides and other agricultural processes.

"Soil degradation is a huge problem," said Montgomery, who spent months observing agricultural practices at both modern and small farms in Latin America, Africa and the United States.

People have degraded much of the world's agricultural soil, making it difficult to feed the growing population, he said.

But Montgomery's book is focused on solutions.

"We can actually turn around this land degradation remarkably fast," he said.

In his book, Montgomery combines scientific research with firsthand experience to demonstrate that soil regeneration is possible for farms of any size and in any climate. He outlines principles used by farmers across the world that -- when practiced together -- can restore soil and increase yields from year to year.

Farmers who ditched the plow, plant cover crops and alternate crops each year used anywhere from a tenth or half of the pesticides as their neighbors or what they were using before, he said. These practices also reduce the amount of carbon in our atmosphere.

Montgomery said that it is a big challenge to make people care about the soil that their food is grown in, but he hopes to change that by tracing the health of the soil to food and how it affects people and climate change.

A wide-scale move toward restoring healthy soil would revolutionize what we eat and who has access to it, he said.

Montgomery's own interest in rocks, dirt and topography started here in Palo Alto as a kid

while hiking around the mountains in the Bay Area as well as the Sierra Nevada.

He fell in love with the outdoors and knew he wanted to do something where he could spend the bulk of his time outside.

After graduating from Gunn High School in 1979, he studied Geology at Stanford University, which led to a brief career at a series of consulting firms where he described his "bread and butter" as looking at steep terrains and mapping -- the focus of his undergraduate degree.

"After a couple years of that, I wanted to learn more of how the world is shaped," Montgomery said. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in geomorphology (the study of land forms and their processes) at the University of California, Berkeley.

He described his obsession with soil and land forms as "love at first sight."

David Montgomery will talk about his new book, "Growing a Revolution: Bringing our Soil Back to Life," at 7 p.m., Friday, June 9, at Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto. For more information, go to booksinc.net.

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