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Soil Health - USDA - Changing the Mindset

When the Agriculture Council of America announced the 2018 National Ag Day theme for March 20, “Agriculture: Food for Life,” it made me think of the innovative technologies, scientific discoveries and more that farmers, ranchers and partners are doing to ensure we have a sustainable future of food and fiber for life.  The reality is - it all boils down to: SOIL HEALTH.

Soil health is the continued capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. Only living things can have “health,” so viewing soil as a living, breathing ecosystem reflects a shift in the way we view and manage our nation’s soils. Soil is the home of billions of bacteria, fungi, earthworms, and other organisms that create an intricate symbiotic ecosystem. In fact, there are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the earth!

As world population, urbanization, income and food production demands all continue to increase, that means we have to work harder to ensure our soils are healthy in order to meet the demands. We must thank those farmers who are changing their mindset by removing the “till” gene from their brain to change the way they have been farming for generations. Now they are working in accord with Mother Nature, to heal their soil by allowing the ecosystem of their soils to function as they are supposed to without destroying this delicate balance each time a plow runs through it. Tillage destroys “aggregation” or the soil’s structure – the habitat soil microorganisms depend upon to ensure critical soil functions like nutrient cycling. Tillage also reduces organic matter content and increases erosion, which reduces the sustainability of our food production system.

Thank the ranchers who are using livestock in prescribed grazing rotations and maximizing biodiversity to improve soil health instead of using a monoculture forage species, or overgrazing that demolishes the forage roots that hold the soil structure together. Innovative farmers and ranchers are breathing new life into their soil by seeding a “cocktail mix” of 6-12 plants to get diversity above-ground, which creates much-needed diversity below the ground. Through that diversity, they are mimicking the soil-building and microbial-friendly conditions of the diverse native prairies.

Thank the land stewards, the conservationists, the biologists, soil scientists and others who are showing us that we can improve land productivity, improve our natural resources, save money and time by working with nature - not against her. The concept is not new. More than 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson, a farmer and conservationist, used vetch, turnips, peas, and clover as cover crops. He used these crops in rotation on his Virginia plantation to build soil that he knew was being depleted with his tobacco cash crop.

In discussing this article about agriculture providing food for life with USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Texas state soil health specialist, Nathan Haile, he asked: “As a nation and a society, if not for the soil where would we stand, literally?” 

Soil health is the ground we need to stand on for agriculture sustainability if we are to feed nine billion people by 2050. In National Geographic’s article, “The Future of Food,”* they address five steps to ensure increased food production while balancing the environmental impact for future generations. One step is nearly all new food production in the next 25 years will have to come from existing agricultural land. With that said, we must make every effort to improve the health of these soil ecosystems in order for them to take care of us.

Hugh Hammond Bennett, first chief of the Soil Conservation Service now known as the USDA-NRCS said it best “As a nation we need to renew our acquaintance with the land and reaffirm our faith in its continuity of productiveness—when properly treated. If we are bold in our thinking, courageous in accepting new ideas, and willing to work with instead of against our land, we shall find in conservation farming an avenue to the greatest food production the world has ever known—not only for the war, but for the peace that is to follow.”

“Farmers and ranchers face challenges every day, but hitting the reset button to start from ground zero on soil health is a tough one for ag producers especially producers who are looking at retiring or passing the land onto future generations since soil health doesn’t occur over night,” said Haile. “NRCS can help agricultural landowners and land managers with technical and financial assistance to make the transition smoother by developing a voluntary conservation plan that will best fit their land management goals. As a result of these conservation soil health efforts, agriculture producers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.”

Conservation efforts that stabilize the soil and help move the crop nutrients into the root zone also helps water quality on the land and downstream. Soil health increases the soil’s ability to retain water and nutrients thus increasing utilization by plants and reducing the amount lost into downstream water systems. These cleaner waters in turn flow into the oceans that provide our seafood and other edibles of the ocean.

So remember, for agriculture sustainability to have food for life, be sure to thank those who are making a difference by nurturing healthy soils in order to provide a sustainable future full of food, fiber and other goodies from the ground!

Melissa Blair, NRCS, USDA, 3/20/18


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