I farm, and I am acutely aware of the role soil plays in my life as a grower of food. Healthy soils provide my farm with pasture areas for our laying hens so they can forage, enjoying some clover and chasing various insects in a plant-diverse landscape. I rely on these same soils to provide the foundation necessary for the green beans, cucumbers, and other vegetables we grow each season.
The health of the soil is critical for the continued success of my farm, yet many of the actions I take as a farmer are less than ideal for the ground I walk on.
Farming alters the soil
Most skilled farmers are fully aware that many of the techniques that come with purposely growing a crop or grazing a pasture will impact the health of the soil. The simple act of breaking ground so that it will receive the seeds for crops of our choice will change the soil’s physical, chemical, and biological properties. For the most part, these changes are not an improvement.
With the awareness that farming often damages the soil comes a responsibility to find a balance between successfully growing food and doing our best to maintain the health of the soil we rely on. A grower must do more than just consider how their farm provides income for their family, they must also be a steward that seeks to restore the ground we walk on to health.
Tensions between farming goals
In its simplest form, the goal for a particular season is to successfully see a crop, herd, flock, or orchard through to the point of harvest. Most farmers will declare the season a success if the yields are reasonable and, hopefully, the financial balance sheet shows some income. But, that formula omits the potential losses in the balance sheet that represents our soil’s health.
We have to give something back to the soil when we ship away nutrients in the form of our harvest. We must find a way to address the loss of soils to erosion that comes as a result of our working the land. And, we need to find ways to support the regeneration of the biological life in those soils that we weaken because we sprayed, we tilled, and we changed the habitat in which that life once thrived.
We have been aware for some time that excessive tillage is harmful to our soil. In fact, this has been one of the arguments for the increased use of pesticides in crop production. Unfortunately, the constant use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers also contributes to the degradation of our soils.
In its best form, farming couches the success of one season within a system that ensures success over time. Instead of hoping for record-setting yields each year, we should be looking for consistent yields of diverse crops. Rather than measuring success only in our monetary balance sheet, we should also be investing in our future by building up our soils and limiting practices that we know will harm them.
There is a third piece to the tensions farmers hold, and that is the role of public policy. At this time, many policies discourage farmers from using practices that are best for the health of the soil.
Practices that support healthier soils
Research and generations of farming experience tell us that the more persistent we are in using a practice that harms the soil, the more damage we cause. This cumulative effect applies to tillage, it applies to pesticide use, and it applies to monocropping. Unfortunately, this is exactly what corporate agriculture is pushing — and it is the last thing we need if we want to maintain healthy soils for future generations.
One of the simplest adjustments we can make to address soil issues would be to lengthen crop rotations. In Iowa, where I live, many farmers grow corn in the same field year after year. Others will alternate corn and soybeans. A minority will have three, four and five crop rotations. Simply getting a majority of row crop farmers to add crops to the rotation would be a good first step.
Soil is healthier when it has roots in the soil. Farmers need to be more willing to find ways to include cover crops in their rotations to provide soil coverage. The simple act of seeding down field edges to perennial grasses or putting in pollinator strips in land areas that yield poorly can also help. Adding hayfields or alfalfa into a rotation can break the tillage cycle for a few years and help soil to build itself back. None of these things are terribly difficult — they’ve all been done before.
Vegetable growers have even more opportunities because soil actually likes having a diverse population of roots in the soil. Intercropping and adding plants to attract pollinators are some of the simpler steps an operation of any size could implement. A farm that maintains some wild areas encourages pollinators and beneficial wildlife, which can actually improve yields. Adding animals into the rotation addresses the potential loss of fertility and encourages the restoration of soil biology.
Unfortunately, farmers may be willing to admit that these practices could be a good idea, but they are unwilling to fight a battle against public policies that favor agribusiness and corporate farms. Farming is a difficult job, there is often little energy to push against the status quo.
Worth our efforts
I do not pretend that the process of adapting to support soil health will be easy. But, our actions say that we believe that soil health is not necessary.
It is important that we expend the effort to create more diverse growing landscapes that include wild areas and perennial plants. We must reduce the use of chemicals in agriculture and we cannot allow ourselves to be stuck in a system that pushes large fields of a single crop. We need to re-integrate animals into our farms instead of pushing them into high-density confinements.
All of this is going to require more effort on our part, and that may be the biggest reason why we have done so poorly when it comes to defending our soils. We want high yields and we don’t have the energy to fight against the culture created by corporate agriculture and the policies they have pushed into place.
So we rely on mechanical tillage and chemicals because they give us the short term gains for less effort. And we ignore the long term costs.
The ground we walk on is worth the effort it will require to restore it to health. Let's make the effort to do so.