Soil is the Soul of the Finger Lakes

Delicate root crops like onions thrive in the soils of the Finger Lakes. Photo courtesy Christy Hoepting, CCE Cornell Vegetable Program

If the Finger Lakes region has a soul or a fundamental essence, it is found in the soil. Trace back any thread of prosperity in our region, and you will inevitably find that our soil has played an important role.

Summer scenes of active farms and the subtle flavors of local food are derived from the soil. The gorgeous arching canopy of hemlocks over our streams and waterfalls, and the fresh taste of unfiltered water from Skaneateles Lake exist because of our soil.

The prosperity of our villages and small cities is often assumed to be tied to human industry, but chances are that the industry and the lives of the inhabitants exist because of the special qualities of the soil.

And yes, even our wines taste the way they do because of the soil. It is not a stretch to claim that the scenic, economic, and cultural strengths of the Finger Lakes are wholly dependent on the exceptional soil beneath our feet.

Our soil is exceptional – the extensive prime farmland of the Finger Lakes is more productive than 90 percent of the rest of the land on the planet.

As any local farmer or earth-moving contractor can tell you, our soil can be obstinate and heavy or accommodating and soft. We have dark, almost black muck soils, beige sands, mottled clays, and rich brown loams, perfect for cultivating any temperate crop.

Each of these soils has a name. Much like the way we name species of birds or bugs, Finger Lakes soils have been delineated into scientific groups, then given everyday geographic names depending on where the soil was first mapped. To a soil scientist, a sample might be described as a sandy-skeletal, mesic Glossic Hapludalf. To laypeople, we would call it Palmyra soil – a grayish brown gravelly loam found among the drumlins of the northern Finger Lakes.

Elsewhere in the Finger Lakes, we can dig into poorly drained Lakemont and Romulus soil, well-drained Valois soil, acidic Homer soil, and fine-textured Nunda soil. They are all unique to the Finger Lakes, found nowhere else on earth.

How these many different soils came to be is also the story of how the Finger Lakes themselves were formed. The natural history of soil in the Finger Lakes is a story with five main characters: parent materials (shale, limestone, or sandstone), living organisms, climate, topography, and time. Of these factors, parent materials and topography have been most influential in determining the distribution of different soils that supports Finger Lakes farms, villages, and woodlots.

It took a mighty force to convert hundreds of square miles of sandstone and shale rock into deep layers of sand, gravel, and a talc-like powder that eventually became our soil. The force was ice – slowly-moving ice in the form of unimaginably enormous glaciers.

During the Ice Age, the Finger Lakes were no more than a frozen, silent, dark slab of undulating rock. The junction of the heavy ice and rock was a place of grinding friction. Rock was pulverized very much like a roto-tiller will pulverize garden dirt, but on a massive scale. Melting glacier water moved with equal force, shifting beds of ground-up rock even further to create a new landscape. River valleys, barren cliffs, hills, and sand pits were left behind.

Over those deposits grew lichens and moss, and eventually fields, brushlands, and forests. The annual dieback and regrowth of vegetation over countless seasons added nutrients, and the living soil accumulated and hence, produced our Finger Lakes landscape.

One result of the differences in mineral content gave us our current industry and culture. The limestone content of Finger Lakes soil decreases moving north to south, leaving more productive soil to the north and more acidic soil to the south. When combined with the agricultural base of recent human activity, an interesting pattern emerges.

Acidic, steeper soil in the southern Finger Lakes was abandoned in many places as farmland generations ago. Hardwood forests have re-grown and you will find a thriving timber industry where once there had been family farms.

Agriculture remains a dominant business of the northern Finger Lakes because the soil’s neutrality and higher content of sand and gravel keeps it workable and prime. In fact, much of the soil between Canandaigua, Penn Yan, and Seneca Falls is classified as exceptionally prime farmland – the largest extent of prime farmland found in the Northeast.

The minerals freed up during the chemistry and biology of soil formation have produced the character of the fresh water that sustains everyone living in or visiting the Finger Lakes. Some private wells suffer from iron and sulphur, but most everyone using public water from Rochester to Ithaca to Syracuse agrees: our water is pretty good. It’s the soils that make it so.

The taste of the Finger Lakes – perhaps our own terroir – may well be reflected in our wine, cheese, maple syrup, and any other foods dependent on a subtle interplay of ions from calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

If you have any interest in the life or history of the Finger Lakes, you should get to know our soil. Start with your own yard or property. The Natural Resource Conservation Services has placed all our soil survey information into an interactive, online digital map, known as the Web Soil Survey. You can also find old but current versions of printed county soil surveys in libraries or ask a Soil and Water Conservation District staff member or county Extension agent for your soil type.

Unearthing insights about what you may have thought was just “dirt” will keep you rooted in the most profoundly influential element of life in the Finger Lakes – the soil.

by Jim Ochterski

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