We walk on it. We dig in it. We love it when worms wiggle to the surface after a hard rain, for this reminds us that an entire wondrous ecosystem lies beneath us. When it’s healthy, it swarms with life, from microscopic bacteria and probing roots ... to those curious, wiggly-nosed little moles that imperil our best root vegetables. And yet we poison it, over-plow it, and pave it over.
Finally, we’re encouraged! This year has been dubbed the International Year of Soil by the UN FAO and others. A growing awareness of the importance of soil, not only for growing food, but also sequestering carbon, ensuring water quality, and driving ecosystem health, is motivating a wide range of soil “players” to explore ways in which we can conserve and even grow this vital natural resource.
Erica Goode of the New York Times writes this week on the growing use of soil health conservation practices amongst farmers across our country. It is an exciting evolution (or de-evolution, depending on how you look at it) of large scale farming moving away from resource intensive operations to approaches that are more sustainable for the planet, and for their wallets. Goode opens with a farmer who is some what of a legend in the Midwest, Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who has been practicing conservation for the last 20 years, and frequently gives talks on soil health:
He no longer needs to use nitrogen fertilizer or fungicide, he said, and he produces yields that are above the county average with less labor and lower costs. “Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said.
Two main focuses of recent research into soil health promoting practices are cover cropping and no-till farming. Cover cropping entails planting a non-cash crop, usually a combination of a fibrous grass and a legume, after harvest to ensure the soil is never left bare. No-till farming is planting and amending the soil without disturbing the ground with a plow or any other implements. These two practices are not only proven to have environmental benefits, but economic benefits as well. Goode refers to another farmer, Terry McCalister, in North Texas to illustrate this point:
He credits no-tillage for one of his biggest wheat crops, in 2012, when extreme drought left farmers throughout the region struggling to salvage any harvest. His healthier soil, he believes, made better use of the tiny amount of rain that fell than did the fully tilled fields of other farmers."
While more research is needed to prove that farmers will see an economic benefit regardless of their location, soil type, weather and the other factors that complicate a farm business, Goode’s article is yet another bellweather that the soil health revolution is well underway.
Image via Flickr
Farmers Put Down the Plow for More Productive Soil via New York Times