Innovative farmers and ranchers have, for generations, deliberately invested in building soil health. And this year — with the UN’s International Year of Soils and implementation of California's Healthy Soil Initiative well underway — we'll be pressing policymakers to turn innovation for healthy soil into standard practice.
The timing could not be better. Widespread implementation of practices that build and protect soil health is the only certain thing that will ensure farmers’ ability to both mitigate and adapt to worsening conditions associated with climate change. California's historic drought provides a dramatic case in point.
I'm encouraged to see society’s absolute dependence on healthy soil gaining recognition among policymakers and in public discourse. We’re taking advantage of this opportunity to identify critical policy steps needed to most effectively protect our soil resources for generations to come.
Existing policies show that government support can help farmers adopt practices that better protect soil resources. But public policy can, and indeed must, do much more.
Multiple practices, myriad benefits
If we want policies that do a better job promoting soil health, we first need to recognize the myriad ecosystem services associated with healthy soils, such as reducing non-point source pollution, preserving wildlife habitat, enhancing carbon sequestration in soils and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
And that's not all. Healthy soils are also associated with greater below- and above-ground biological diversity — and the associated functions of nutrient cycling and natural control of diseases and pests, increased plant vigor, increased water infiltration rates (preventing loss of soil and nutrients to runoff), and increased water-holding capacity (and resistance to drought conditions).
As the best stewards of the land know, it’s a combination of practices, continuous experimentation and modification of what happens on the farm that give the greatest long-term, soil-protective and profitable results.
Unfortunately, many conservation-focused farm policies target single practices implemented by larger operations. For example, a 2013 analysis of USDA conservation funding in California showed disproportionate support for more efficient irrigation systems for very large-scale operations.
We join many in arguing that our tax dollars can do much better. Sure, more efficient irrigation is a good thing — but why not support practices that also reduce the need for water, like building soil organic matter for greater water retention, or increasing ground cover for reduction of evaporative water loss.
Farm policy should be designed to support suites of complementary practices that farmers implement as they transition from conventional operations to those based on the science and practice of agroecology. Some of the most widely used practices include cover crops, crop rotations, increasing plant diversity, inclusion of deep-rooted perennial species, use of compost and other organic soil amendments, reduced synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use, conservation tillage and protection of pollinator & wildlife habitat.
Building soil health for drought resilience
Building healthier soils will be key to responding to California’s serious drought. Healthy soils are more fertile, and they absorb and retain more water thereby reducing runoff and erosion — making farmland more resilient in the face of climate disruption.
Policymakers have finally recognized this link, and are moving to support soil health with both the state's precedent-setting climate initiative and a newly introduced Agriculture Climate Benefits Act (SB 367). This bill expands the Environmental Farming Act of 1995 by including an explicit focus on reducing on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and increasing carbon storage in soils and woody biomass.
It also provides farmers with a variety of supports to implement climate-friendly and soil-protective practices: low-interest loans, technical assistance, educational materials and outreach and funding of on-farm demonstration projects. Here too, the wisest investments will be those that ensure long-term soil health rather than short-lived, albeit positive outcomes.
SB 367 passed the senate earlier this month, and now heads to the assembly for consideration; stay tuned for ways to support this important legislation.
I've never met a farmer or rancher who doesn't identify the soil as the foundation of their livelihood, but not everyone walks the talk. So let's put our tax dollars to work for those farmers and ranchers who demonstrate vision, wisdom and commitment to a healthy, just and productive future.