Soil Health and its Payoff

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

It’s challenging to pick up any agricultural publication today and not see at least one article addressing soil biology. There’s clearly a soil movement taking place. As a matter of fact, I was just sent an email for a webinar about soil health improvement where I could earn 1 CCA Soil and Water Management CEU. We’ve all witnessed trends in the agricultural industry but this one is here to stay and it’s paying off – growers are witnessing a positive difference in overall crop improvement when they focus on soil health. The mainstay techniques of the soil movement seem to be reducing or eliminating tillage, keeping plant residues on the soil surface, keeping living roots in the ground and maximizing diversity of plants and animals. The latter point has been my drumbeat for quite some time now.

Why all the discussion around soil health? The reason is clear: farmers who have invested in improving soil health are growing more food while drastically reducing their use of inputs like herbicides and fertilizers (NPKs), which is the ultimate strategy for becoming more profitable. I recently read an article where a farmer shared with his friend, “Why can’t I make a good living on 600 acres of prime irrigated ground, and why can’t I bring my son into the operation? It started dawning on me that something is wrong with modern agriculture.”

In many ways, that “something” is that farming has become too expensive. Over the past several decades, farmers have increasingly paid more for inputs like equipment, seeds and chemicals, while commodity prices have remained stagnant or even fallen. Sociologists call this phenomenon the “double squeeze” putting pressure on profits. Soils that are deteriorating from centuries of tillage, monoculture and the overuse of synthetic chemicals only exacerbate the vulnerability of a profession that is already filled with uncertainty. For farmers, the blend of poor soil and the double squeeze makes it harder to survive a poor season. On a larger scale, it threatens rural economies, natural resources and food security alike.

I think that better awareness of soil issues has had an impact as well. We used to look at erosion and try to fix it with better drainage systems, without comprehending why the water wasn’t being absorbed by the soils and coming off the field in the first place. The simple answer is, degraded soil has a difficult time absorbing water.

There are numerous Fortune 500 companies investing and supporting the possibility of a paradigm shift in agriculture. There’s a realization, similar to the farmer’s story, that carrying on with the way we’ve done things in the past won’t get us where we need to be in the future. It’s an appealing investment that has the potential to pay considerable dividends.