The 68th UN General Assembly declared 2015 the International Year of Soils (IYS). http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/68/232&Lang=E
Building Soil Health
Happy Dancing Turtle is passionate about healthy soil. The quote that hangs in the garden shed and has become the motto of the "garden people" here at HDT is "That's why we make compost" by Dr. Elaine Ingham. It came from a fortunate conversation I had with her a few years ago at the MN Dept of Agriculture Organic Conference where she was presenting. Our conversation was early in the morning at the buffet line, before the crowd began to show. I told her how much I admired her work on soil biology and that I was likely one of her biggest fans. At the time I was studying Gary Zimmer's methodology of balancing soil chemistry and our conversation turned to how complicated it is to balance all the soil nutrients. After a few minutes I commented as such, that I was overwhelmed by all the interconnections in soil chemistry, when she stopped me and said, simply, "well Jim, That's why we make Compost". Compost is the buffer that prevents nutrients from being tied up in the soil. Compost feeds the soil biology that in turn convert nutrients to useable forms that plants can uptake and utilize.
Protecting Water Quality
Healthy soil has huge potential to heal our planet and our bodies. Increasing the health of our soil requires increasing soil carbon. Increased soil carbon leads to not only more balanced soil nutrients but increased water holding capacity. Genetic engineering promises to create drought resistant crops by modifying their genetic structure so the plant needs less water. While this may address a symptom, it fails to solve the problem. Through diverse crop rotations, the use of cover crops and compost, and integration of properly managed livestock, farmers are increasing soil carbon at amazing rates. Producers achieving a 2-4% increase in organic matter in less than a decade have been reported across the country and around the world. A one percent increase in soil organic matter equates to approximately 25,000 gallons of additional water holding capacity per acre, leading to resilience to drought and, over large acreages, the ability to mitigate flood severity. Infiltration rates in excess of eight inches per hour have been recorded.
Ecology is the scientific analysis and study of interactions among organisms and their environment. The science of ecology is very complex, incorporating the studies of biology, chemistry, and physics, to name a few. Ecological based agriculture, often called agroecology, looks to the natural systems for answers on how to best grow our food and restore our precious soil and water resources. Ranchers have found that just one hour of high stock density grazing per year, done at the right time of year, on the right kind of forage, and for the right length of time, can increase soil organic matter by 1/2 to 1 percent. Just one hour in a year. The theory is that this technique mimics the large herds of migrating of herbivores that dominated every grassland and savanna biome prior to human settlement. These large migrating herds stayed in tight formations for protection from predators and weather and moved often to find fresh forage. They often wouldn't return to the same land for a year or maybe several years, giving the land time to recover. Modern technology allows us to mimic these herding patterns with the use of portable solar electric fencers and low cost, high tech poly-strand stainless steel electric fencing.
Increasing crop rotations and incorporating cover crops to keep living roots in the soil year around supports the soil microbial communities. One important member of the soil ecosystem is mycorrhiza fungi. This beneficial fungus forms a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, increasing water and nutrient uptake. In turn the plant feeds carbon, in the form of sugars back to the mycorrhiza that is converted to glomalin, a glycopotien which is believe to help seal the mycorrhiza stands and help transport water and nutrients. It is believed to improve soil aggregate structure and decrease soil erosion.
Agriculture that mimics natural systems has great potential to not just sustain our resources, but restore and rebuild our natural environment. Nature is inherently diverse and to preserve and restore the natural resources vital to life we must diversify agriculture. Livestock confined to feedlots and buildings and fed a diet of grains grown in simple rotations does not equate to diversity. Economically viable methods of agroecology are becoming more prevalent, despite the lack of support from government, industry, and land grant universities. It brings people back to the land and reforms the connections to our natural environment lost in an era of cell phones and facebook. It is this type of agriculture that can rebuild our soils, reinvigorate rural economies, sequester carbon, and restore water quality.
Gabe Brown: 2012 Growing Green Award