We Need Healthy Soils
Healthy soil grows healthy plants and animals. Poor soil leads to unhealthy plants and animals. Modern agricultural practices have been causing a lot of soil degradation in our country.
Our poor soils mean food is less nutritious, more chemicals are needed to grow it, and our waterways are suffering.
There is hope. Newer techniques are being developed to help preserve and even grow healthy soil. Not all farmers are using them, but more and more each year are trying new methods.
Buying sustainable foods may cost more, but they are a good way to help encourage farmers to work to make healthy soil. It’s also a good way to ensure you are getting the most nutritious food out there.
Modern agriculture has been getting bigger and bigger over the years. Bigger machines, more fertilizers and pesticides, and more acres of just one crop at a time. Farmers have been encouraged to grow large monocrops. We grow over 3700 calories a person a day in North America alone.
Yet our modern farming practices are hurting the soil. Tilling, not keeping the soil covered, and not maintaining the soil food web all contribute to poorer soils.
Soil breaks down every time you plow it. Initially, healthy soil gets a boost from tilling. The organic matter and oxygen combine into soil that grows big, healthy crops.
However, tilling also digs up weed seeds, breaks down the organic matter and disrupts the fungi in the soil. Less microbial soil life means that the plants have a harder time getting the nutrients they need. Soil can’t hold on to the water it needs with less organic matter, and soil becomes crumbly rather than spongy.
When you till, you tear up the plants and the roots in the soil. If a farmer does not use cover crops, the soil may be bare for some time. Rain and wind erode the soil quickly, especially if the soil has been farmed for some time and the organic matter and fungi have gone.
Since we plowed up the prairies and other native healthy soils, we have lost a lot of our topsoil. There have been scary reports about how we only have 60 years of soil left.
Right now, US farmers could lose a half inch of topsoil by 2035, which is more than eight times the amount lost during the Dust Bowl. On it’s own, nature takes 100 years to form an inch of soil.
The NRCS is working with farmers in our country to teach them how to farm without tilling the land. They show them how to keep the soil covered year round with plants and how to plant buffer strips and plant with land contours to slow erosion.
When soil erodes, it takes nutrients with it. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was over six thousand square miles in size last year. The nutrient runoff from farms is killing marine life.
As we lose our topsoil, we also lose the organic matter in it that helps regulate water. The soil can hold less water, leading to flooding. It can also dry out faster, meaning more irrigation is needed.
A drier soil will erode more with water and wind. As we lose healthy soil to erosion and poor farming practices, we set up a nasty cycle of losing more topsoil unless new practices are put in place to improve the soil.
Healthy soil holds carbon, helping to mitigate climate change. As we lose our topsoil, we are losing its carbon. We need our soil to stay in place.
Soil erosion is the physical movement of topsoil from farms to streams and other places. There is a lot more to healthy soil besides erosion. Even if the soil didn’t erode, modern farming practices are killing the life that lives within it.
Plowing the soil breaks up complex food webs below the ground. Those food webs are important in making sure a plant gets the right nutrients to grow. With less microbial and fungal life in our soils, farmers need to apply more fertilizers.
A healthy soil doesn’t just have good ratios of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and trace minerals. It also has the microbes and bacteria that can synthesize the needed nutrients into a form best used by plants to grow.
Without the soil food web, farmers have to supplement nutrients to help their plants grow. Thus larger applications of nitrogen and other fertilizers are applied at rates much higher than plants need, and often run off into the streams when it rains.
Often plants that need extra fertilizer, and especially plants grown as a monocrop, require more pesticides than healthier plants. Farmers kill weeds and kill insects and diseases that affect their crops.
It is much easier for a pest to find their favorite food in a field full of a single plant type than to find plants to eat in a more diversely planted area. In addition, with less microbial life, plants are less healthy and more appealing to pests and diseases.
Breaking up the soil food web also breaks down the organic matter in the soil. When you till, the roots left behind break down much faster. Less organic matter means the soil can’t hold water, and the farmer needs to irrigate more.
Modern farming practices lead to needing more fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. Farms are more prone to flooding because the soil is no longer a sponge. Organic matter decreases, leading to less healthy plants.
Farmers need to spend more on machinery, on fertilizers, pesticides, and water, while their soils erode and become less fertile each year.
Growing food becomes more expensive for the farmer due to soil loss and increasing requirements of chemicals to replace what plants need.
The USDA said that in 2010, 97% of corn acres needed fertilizer, compared to 85% in 1964. The amount of nitrogen used is now 140 pounds per acre, while in 1964, it was 58 pounds.
A healthy soil is alive. It has bacteria, fungi, earthworms and insects living in it. The soil sticks together, making it harder to erode. It holds more water when it rains, yet works like a sponge to not saturate plant roots.
Healthy soil has what it needs to grow healthy plants. The life in the soil reacts to plants and will give them available elements that they need.
When farmers till the soil, they break up the soil food web. Less nutrients are available to the plants, so the farmer has to provide them. Dumping synthetic or organic fertilizers and pesticides on the plants is expensive, pollutes our water, and doesn’t grow plants as well as healthy soil does.
Improving the Soil
Fortunately, there are things we can do to stop or even reverse soil loss. Nature, on its own, will rebuild soil, but it takes time.
Basic techniques, like using cover crops, planting more diversely, and not tilling the land, can help improve the soil. Every year more farmers are trying these techniques.
Unfortunately, most farmers grow the same thing year after year thanks to government incentives, habits, and simplicity.
Soil loss is slowing, but many farmers remain who are unwilling to implement these new techniques. Fortunately, there is a growing change happening slowly across the country.
Though organic farmers have to do crop rotation, some still till for weed control, and use fertilizers that run off into streams. Some practice good soil practices but it they aren’t required to do so.
Regenerative agriculture takes soil regeneration a step farther. In general, these farmers are working to improve their land, often by combining animals and plants together in a more natural setting.
Animals can be used to manure the land naturally, to use their innate behaviors (like scratching or rooting) to cut down spent crops and disrupt disease and insect cycles.
Regenerative farms plant diversely, encourage pollinators and beneficial insects, and work to make healthy soil by mimicking nature. They may not be organically certified, but often these small farms grow much healthier crops than big agriculture.
To help improve our soil, you can help by buying from farmers that use better techniques to grow their crops. We grow enough food, but not enough quality food. Use your dollars to help farmers that are pioneering new ways to grow quality food.
What You Can Do
Buy from sustainable farms. That means buying local produce and animal products. Conventional ag means acres of monocrops, mostly corn and soybeans, mostly used for animal feed.
Regenerative farms are not just slowing erosion and soil degradation, they are actively making healthy soil and improving habitat for wildlife and farm animals.
Farms that grow both animals and vegetables together are often a healthier option for both plants and animals. Animal welfare is better in a more natural environment, and plants grow better when animals help disrupt disease cycles and naturally fertilize the soil.
Buying local food is a good way to ensure you are buying sustainable food. You can talk to the farmers, or even visit their farm. Your food comes from a person, not a corporation. It’s often the best way to ensure you are buying healthy food rather than following marketing hype.
When you choose food that comes from farms that are working to improve soil health, more farmers will want to do the same. Soil erosion has been declining, but it is still at unsustainable levels.
Things are improving. Farmers don’t want to lose their healthy soil, and they don’t want to pay more for pesticides, fertilizers, and irrigation. Help them improve faster by buying from sustainable, local farms.