Talk to any farmer and you’ll learn there’s more to raising crops than just planting and harvesting. There’s a lot of science, time input, and decisions that go into being a profitable crop farmer. At the right time, you plant at the perfect depth and population (the number of seeds per acre). You fertilize your field to make sure the crops have enough nutrients (food) to grow the most grain possible (highest yield). You do your best to control the weeds, which compete for nutrients and water that the crop needs, and check for pests that can reduce yields. You worry about whether the rain will come when it is needed or when you’ll need to turn on the pivot. Finally, fall comes and you’re ready to harvest. It’s fulfilling to see the trucks and wagons fill up and you know that you’ve made it through this year.
But there’s no rest for the farmer. Many times before harvest ever begins, a farmer is already thinking about next year. “How much fertilizer will I need? What variety of corn will I plant? What weeds are going to be a problem so I can figure out how to manage them?”
Many of us take the soil we stand on for granted, including myself. I mean, it’s everywhere – especially on my carpet with 2 boys in my house. However, without soil, we can’t grow crops. Farmers know that soil is a critical part of farming, and making sure that soil can continue to grow crops for many years to come is at the forefront of every farmer’s mind – sometimes without even realizing it.
When you hear about programs focused on soil health you might wonder, “What in the world are they talking about? Dirt isn’t alive.” Well, it’s true that the soil itself isn’t living, but if you listen to scientists in the ag community, they talk about a soil solution. The soil solution includes not only the soil particles, but also water, air, and all of the organic matter and living organisms within the soil. Now that, is certainly living; it’s a whole other world down there! Like we as humans live with water, air, and other animals above ground, so do the worms, insects and microorganisms below ground. It’s that ecosystem that people are referring to when talking about soil health.
All of these living organisms contribute to growing a bumper crop. Worms and burrowing insects break down the organic matter (crop residues like leaves and stems) into smaller pieces and incorporate it into the soil. Their burrows also act as channels for water to flow into the soil rather than running off when it rains a lot. Bacteria and fungi help to degrade that organic matter even more so that the nutrients in the crop residue are in forms that are available for future crops to use as “food”. All of these things impact the amount of water and nutrients the soil can hold and therefore how much plant life (crops) it can grow.
I help lead a group of folks across 12 states in the North Central part of the United States called the Soil Health Nexus. The Soil Health Nexus was initiated in 2015 and includes representatives from land-grant universities, SARE, InterTribal Ag Council, National Soil Health Partnership, and NRCS. The goals of the group are to:
- increase access to soil health-related research and educational programs,
- increase critical soil health knowledge and skills,
- promote conservation system practices that enhance soil health and associated ecosystem services, and
- provide long-term organizational support for soil health research and education.
So when farmers go to workshops or study websites like http://soilhealthnexus.org to learn more about soil health, they’re looking for ways to help the organisms in the soil flourish with healthy populations, thus making their crops grow better, not just this year, but for years to come.