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  • Jim Chamberlin

Soil Health, Part Four

Jim Chamberlin, Happy Dancing Turtle’s Conservation Technician, also operates a 109-acre diversified farm and forestry operation near Deerwood, MN, with his wife, Audra. His knowledge about and enthusiasm for what we can do for soil and what soil can do for us will fuel this four-part series of blog posts.

In the previous blog posts, we introduced five principles of soil health. Soil health is defined as the “ability of soil to function as a living ecosystem.” This post explores a sixth principal, Managing for Context, and then looks at how we can move beyond soil health and to restore landscapes.

  1. Minimize Soil Disturbance

  2. Armor the Soil

  3. Keep Living Roots in the Soil

  4. Increase Diversity

  5. Integrate Livestock

  6. Mange for Context

This final soil health principle refers to the context of the land and those that live on it. At one point we had over twenty apple trees on the HUG campus, most of them producing fruit. The site is very sandy and drought prone. One year we had an exceptionally dry fall, followed by a cold winter with little snow cover. Despite having a thick layer or mulch over the soil, we lost nearly three-fourths of the trees. Our plums and cherry trees seemed to fare better.

Ecologically speaking, production should match site conditions. Intensive row crop agriculture on marginal soils or sloped land tends to be less profitable and often causes greater environmental impact then when practiced on level ground and better soil. However, marginal farmland is often well suited to adaptive grazing management or other perennial crops.

Ecological Classification is a system of classifying common landscapes based on soils, geology, hydrology, vegetation and other landscape characteristics. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, in partnership with the US Forest Service has developed a Ecological Classification System that identifies, describes, and maps progressively smaller areas of land with the smallest unit being Native Plant Communities. While not specific to agriculture, this is another tool producers and resource professionals can use when managing for ecological context.

Book cover of Field guide to native plant...
MN DNR Field Guide to Native Plant Communities of Minnesota

Managing for context also considers the human element. Farmers are invested in the system they operate, both financially and mentally. Change is hard, and often requires investment of time and money, something most farmers have little of. The good news is that soil health doesn’t have a rigid protocol, and following two or three principles will go a long way to improving the health of soil. Soil health requires seeing agriculture as part of nature and understanding that by supporting the natural systems we can create natural fertility and have healthier crops and livestock, while reducing purchased inputs. Farmers are resourceful and given the right tools and goals, they will find ways to adopt soil health principles when convinced of the benefits.


In the first post of this series I spoke of Dr. Lowdermilk’s work “Conquest of the Land Through 7000 years,” and how civilizations have failed or thrived based on their food system, and importantly, how they treated the soil. Soil health is imperative to the health of people and the planet, but we can take agriculture to a whole other level.

Beyond Soil Health: Restoring Landscapes

Agroforestry is the integration of woody plants into agricultural systems. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agroforestry Center recognizes five standard agroforestry practices.

  • Windbreaks are trees planted at strategic places on the landscape to slow winds that can increase moisture loss and soil erosion. Windbreaks can vary significantly in their design and function, with density and mature height being the most important factors. Effects of windbreaks can be felt as far as 13 times the height of the trees, with a twenty foot tree affecting wind patterns for some 260’ down wind. As farm equipment has gotten bigger we have lost many of our windbreaks, increasing the potential for erosion and eliminating the natural habitat they provide.

  • Riparian Buffers include trees and shrubs planted adjacent to water bodies. These buffers slow runoff and prevent sediment from entering waterways and have deep root systems that filter nutrients and chemicals in water moving through the soil profile. Being near water also makes buffers important wildlife habitat and travel corridors.

  • Alley Cropping is planting trees and shrubs in rows spaced far enough apart to grow crops or forage in the alley ways. Placed on contour these types of plantings can do an amazing job of restoring water cycles, improving habitat, and diversifying farming income.

  • Forest Farming is growing crops like mushrooms and herbs, such as ginseng and blue cohosh, under a forest canopy. Also known as nontraditional woody crops, carving wood, burls, and decorative florals are also considered forest farming products. The potential crops are limited only by the imagination.

  • Silvopasture is the integration of livestock, woody plants, and forage. Balancing the variables is labor intensive, but the benefits are huge. The savannah ecosystems that these production systems aim to replicate are the most diverse and productive landscapes on our planet.

Agroforestry has huge potential if we have the will to make it happen. Can technology help to make these systems less labor intensive and more profitable for farmers? Time will tell.

Arial view of farm integrated with forest
New Forest Farm - a working agroforestry farm featuring specialty vegetable crops and highly productive woody crop species

Another planning tool for food production is permaculture. This is a land design system based on the ethics of caring for the land, the people, and sharing the excess. Permaculturists are guided by a set of common-sense principles such as “holding water and nutrients high on the landscape” and “deep and deliberative thought instead of long and protracted work.” Systems are arranged by frequency of use and incoming and outgoing energies such as sound and wind.

Often dismissed as magic, biodynamics is a growing method that uses the earth’s subtle energies to guide production. Activities like planting by the moon, and special “potions” or teas are used to boost soil health. One of the most interesting is “BD prep 500,” which involves filling a cow horn from a lactating cow, with manure from a lactating cow, then burying it underground for several months. The “compost” that comes from this process is said to serve as a powerful biological stimulant with a handful capable of inoculating hundreds of acres when properly mixed with compost tea. Planting, harvesting, and spray applications are based on the phases of the moon and other planetary bodies in our solar system. While the scientific community has yet to “prove” these methods are effective, growers around the world are using biodynamics with success.

People go hungry most often due to political decisions, not because the world lacks food. We can grow food without sacrificing our environment or exploiting farm workers. It just takes understanding and the willpower to do the right thing.


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