"Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel, our shelter, and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”
This quote was taken from the Vedas Sanskrit Scriptures, which date back to 1500 BC. For a long time, cultural groups across the world have understood and communicated our vital connection with the soil. Yet, the voice of wisdom is still ignored in favor of the agribusiness dominated system that sacrifices the health of our soil for money. This dollar-driven, production-at-all-costs mindset has cost much in loss of biodiversity, land degradation and human health.
Today, farmers are growing our much needed food amidst this broken ecological system. Yet, mounting research in soil health suggests the promotion and maintenance of soil microbial life is critical to the resiliency of our crops. This is a reaffirmation of the idea that life begets life, and the introduction of more plant matter into the agricultural landscape brings a return in biological life and ultimately, sustainable yields.
Because of the potential benefits for both the environment and our farmers, The Land Stewardship Project started The Bridge to Soil Health initiative recently to explore the role biological life plays in farming. As part of this initiative, I was hired in October to start the dialogue with southeastern Minnesota farmers about soil health. Already, I have observed and learned much from our farmers and some of the revelatory practices they are implementing.
One of the most promising and widely adapted techniques is the introduction of cover crops into the row crop rotation, whether it be a single species or a multi-species mix. Farmers in the region are experimenting with different varieties of cover crops to determine their attributes, their ability to survive Minnesota winters, and how best to terminate them in the spring.
For example, Aaron Welti of Plainview noted an immediate response in terms of improved soil structure and weed suppression with just a single species of cover crop. Cover-cropping expert Sarah Carlson of Practical Farmers of Iowa reports that some Iowan farmers are interseeding a single line of nitrogen-scavenging tillage radish between rows to act as an early fertilizer for the next year’s corn crop. It is coming to light that cover crops have the ability to reduce herbicide and fertilizer usage, while retaining monetary value in both the soil and farmers’ checking accounts.
There is also a lot of excitement around the work that Minnesota farmers Bob Mierau of Caledonia and Curt Tvedt from Byron are trying with crimping their cover crop of rye while no-till drilling soybeans in the spring. The soybean crop benefits from the rye mulch because it is a weed suppressor and contributes to the soil's organic matter. Another important note: this practice reduces the kind of tillage which has been shown to collapse soil structure, destroy mycorrhizal fungi networks, and expose microbes to oxygen that they readily utilize in their decomposition of carbon matter and ultimately release as greenhouse gases. Such examples show me that with experimentation and practice, our goal of reversing climate change and rebuilding healthy soils can become an actuality.
In the grazing realm, there are a number of practices being incorporated to increase soil health. It seems that the closer we mimic our grazing systems to that of a herd of bison crossing a prairie, the more we build soil. This past summer, Kaleb Anderson of Goodhue seeded warm season annuals into his cool season pastures to diversify his feed source, and then utilized the mob-grazing rotation to return a large amount of plant matter to the soil. He is not only feeding the microbes in his cattle’s rumens, but also the microbes living beneath his feet.
Tom Cotter of Austin has been cover-cropping for 15 years and has just started to incorporate livestock back onto his land. He was initially worried that he would not be able to find a market for his meat, but once it was shared on social media that his grass-fed beef would be sold at the local butcher’s shop, people claimed all the meat before the cattle were even unloaded.
Such good news from the land comes at a time when soil scientists and farmers around the world are expressing alarm that our soil universe is on the verge of collapse. I have a background in wildlife biology, and have learned what happens when such a collapse occurs.
For example, consider a triangle of standing dominos, with each domino representing an animal species placed in the triangle according to its trophic level, or mode of energy consumption. The predators sit at the triangle’s top, or apex, and the plant community makes up the foundation, with our soil the foundation’s basement, so to speak.
With a single push to the top keystone domino, representing, for example, the wolf population, there is an expanding collapse right down to the base of the biological community, right down into the soil itself. There might be a few populations left standing, including humans, but the overall balance and structure of the system is compromised.
But it’s becoming increasingly clearer we can reverse the trend of sick soil, and build a healthy biology right on our own farms, field-by-field, pasture-by-pasture, returning stability to the overall structure of our agricultural systems. No matter whether you farm row crops, graze cattle, run a dairy, or just consume food, everyone has a part to play in improving soil health.
We are at a critical moment. Farmers have an opportunity to start nurturing back our ecological base, the soil. However, they will need the support of the entire community to accomplish this, because we are not only asking them to change their mindset but their business plan, farming techniques, and machinery as well.
We cannot rely on a movement of this proportion to originate with the powers that be in the form of policies. It will take a grassroots-led effort. Farmers are the caretakers of our land. Let’s not commend them for only growing the most corn on a single acre, but promote the system that nurtures a healthy ecosystem rich in biodiversity.
Shona Snater works with LSP’s Bridge to Soil Health initiative in southeastern Minnesota. She can be contacted at 507-523-3366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.