Soil Health for Earth Day

By Allison Rian

My 6 year-old daughter wanted to help make soil mix for planting vegetable seeds this weekend. As we got our hands dirty mixing compost, peat, and nutrients, and then adding water, I was treated to a passionate oration on the importance of plants for food and trees for clean and fresh air. (I was one proud mama.) “It all starts with the seed,” she told me. “What about the soil?” I asked her. “The seed grows in the soil,” she answered.

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My 6 year-old helping prep for garlic planting last fall.

Yes, the trees and plants grow in the soil, but it is more than just a medium. It is a living ecosystem, capable of providing the essentials of life to plants and animals. Leonardo Da Vinci said, “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” True in the Renaissance Period and still true now.  

This year’s Earth Day theme is “Protect Our Species.” We are in the middle of the greatest rate of extinction since the time of the dinosaurs. Pesticide use, habitat degradation, a warming climate, and other factors are contributing to this astonishing loss of species. All factors can be traced back to poor stewardship of the soil.

In the aftermath of the great dust bowl of the 1930’s, Hugh H. Bennett, the father of soil conservation and chief of the newly formed Soil Conservation Service, sent his assistant chief W.C. Lowdermilk on a world tour to explore why civilizations throughout history thrived or failed.  The result was a publication titled Conquest of the Land through 7,000 Years. Dr. Lowdermilk discovered that soil erosion, deforestation, overgrazing, neglect, and conflicts between cultivators and herdsman have helped topple empires and wipe out entire civilizations. At the same time, he learned that careful stewardship of the earth’s resources, through terracing, crop rotation, and other soil conservation measures, has enabled other societies to flourish for centuries.

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Rather than being a source of pollution and degradation, agriculture has astonishing potential to heal the land and preserve biodiversity. By following the soil health principles, farmers are restoring soil in years or decades, not centuries as previously thought. Increasing plant diversity and keeping living roots in the ground are vital to the soil food web and healthy, resilient soil.  Minimizing soil disturbance and keeping the soil armored protects the soil structure, stabilizes soil temperatures and prevents erosion. Bringing grazing livestock, properly managed, back to the landscape fuels the biology of the soil. The practices that support these principals diversify the landscape and restore habitat and reduce the need for harmful agricultural chemicals. Everyone eats and agriculture touches everything. Done poorly agriculture causes degradation and suffering. Done right agriculture heals. Maybe the best way to “Protect Our Species” is through implementation and adoption of the soil health principles.

Just like my daughter and I planted the seeds of our garden, I planted the seed of the importance of soil in my daughter’s thoughts that weekend. “Soil is alive. So many microscopic creatures live in the soil and do so many good things for us humans. The plants feed the life in the soil, and then the life in the soil can feed the plants.” So on Earth Day this year, celebrate the earth beneath our feet. Contact us with questions, take a class, come for a tour, and research “soil health.” Find out what you can do in your own garden and with your consumer dollars to promote preservation of soil and biodiversity. Protect “our” species, as in the species we live with on earth, and protect our species, as in us.

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Here are some more links to help get you started:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UfnbiBo-Ds

https://www.sfa-mn.org/soil-health-videos/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwoWrHVWNTs

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