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  • Jim Chamberlin

Soil Health: The Challenge of Our Time

Soil health is defined as the ability of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem. The soil's ability to function, to cycle water and nutrients, is vital to grow healthy food, to help keep water clean and to build a healthy community. Farming in a way that works with the complexities of our natural world to build resilience in our food systems has been the greatest challenge of the human experience.

Conservation in the US

The Great Depression happened in part because of poor economic policy, but what also fueled the poverty and despair of this time was the deep drought that affected much of the agricultural landscape in the midwest United States. Out of the dust bowl crisis came consensus on the need for conservation on our agricultural lands. The Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) was signed into law on April 27th, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt after unanimously passing in congress. The first Chief of the newly formed Soil Conservation Service, Hugh Hamond Bennett, was passionate about soil conservation, an ethic first established in him by his father.

4 men standing by watershed plaque
Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett, (2nd from left), first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service and others at the site of the Nation's first watershed project in Coon Valley, Wisconsin.

From the PBS Series - The American Experiment

“Bennett had begun his campaign to preserve the soil by reforming farming practices before Roosevelt became president. He had joined the Department of Agriculture in the early 1900s. His mission to address the problems of land depletion was spurred on by the 1909 Bureau of Soils announcement, “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.” Throughout his career, Bennett worked to prove just how wrong this statement was.”

Within three years of the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service, by working with farmers to voluntarily implement soil conservation practices, soil erosion was cut by 65% nationwide. Coming out of the dust bowl crisis, Bennett sent his undersecretary, Walter C. Lowdermilk, on a trip around the globe to study past and present civilizations to assess their agricultural methods and how that impacted on their success or failure as a society. The results of his travels are documented in the publication Conquest of the Land through 7000 Years, which describes how neglecting soil has been the demise of civilizations throughout history.

“He [Lowdermilk] discovered that soil erosion, deforestation, overgrazing, neglect, and conflicts between cultivators and herdsman have helped topple empires and wipe out entire civilizations. At the same time, he learned that careful stewardship of the earth's resources, through terracing, crop rotation, and other soil conservation measures, has enabled other societies to flourish for centuries.” Preface to Conquest of the Land Through 7000 Years

Sustainability and History’s Lessons

Agriculture forced upon the landscape cannot be sustainable. Using mined and manufactured chemicals in an effort to increase plant growth most always degrades soil. Over-tilling the soil breaks up soil aggregates, damaging soil structure and harming soil life. Leaving soil exposed, without living plants or plant residue, allows for erosion, and creates a soil crust which inhibits water infiltration and soil air exchange. Monocrops, plantings of a single species, are inherently susceptible to disease, pests, and extreme weather, and they fail to mimic the diversity in nature. Land without living roots can’t feed the soil food web below our feet. And land that is chronically overgrazed, where the natural herbivore disturbance of acute, short duration impact is not imitated, cannot support biologically fertility.

Nature is resilient and abundant. I don’t believe we give it enough credit in its ability to heal. When we farm in nature's image we harness the healing power of creation, restoring soil life in an astounding short period of time. The old adage “It takes a thousand years to grow an inch of topsoil” is misguided. Soil life isn’t built on the soil surface, it’s built within the soil profile, through the root/ microbe interactions that take place deep within the soil. Farmers implementing the soil health principles are showing they can restore soil health in years and decades, not centuries or millennia as the old adage suggests.

As history has shown, human civilizations have depended on well-managed soil, and farming systems that harnessed the power of nature to grow and heal, or those civilizations have failed. When I look at climate uncertainty, declining water quality and ocean acidification, species extinction, and a multitude of other huge environmental issues we face as a global society, it seems clear to me we are failing. Only now, we’re running out of land to conquer.

A Few Suggestions for Action

One thing you can do–we can all do–is ask ourselves, the next time we take a bite of food, is “How was this food grown?”

Educate yourself about soil health and the challenges farmers face when growing food that supports it. And if you farm or run livestock, ask yourself if you can reduce input costs and build greater water holding capacity in your soil.

Several great educational opportunities are coming up! At the 17th Annual Back to Basics on February 11, has workshops like “Soil Health for All Applications,” “Grassland 2.0: A Community Vision for Agriculture,” “Adaptive Grazing: Planning for Success,” and a roundtable talk on “Agriculture & Food Systems in the Face of Severe Disruption.” Learn about registering for these workshops (and others!) here.

Woman standing in 10 ft x 20 ft tunnel
Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS MN

In addition, Back to Basics has a vendor exhibitor fair with offerings and information from master gardeners, seed library and seed vendors, the Minnesota Farmer’s Union, and others with garden/growing expertise. And do NOT miss the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Soil Health Tunnel! Get all the information about Back to Basics here.

Finally, please join us (via Zoom) for Change Exchange on February 21st at 6:30pm for a conversation about our agricultural soils. Change Exchange is the monthly discussion group that share ideas and concerns about sustainable living. Get more information and register here.


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