restoring our soils

Agricultural Methods to Help Restore our Soils

Soil is an incredibly complex mixture of rock derived minerals, plant-based organic matter, dissolved nutrients, and a food web of interacting organisms. Just a handful of soil contains thousands upon thousands of different microscopic species. Unfortunately, over the centuries, we’ve abused our soils with numerous methods in farming, including plowing, tilling, and chemical protectants use. Agricultural soil degradation is still a problem today, due to the general lack of understanding and awareness about the effects of these methods in farming. Plowing and over tilling has increased erosion in agriculture at enormous rates, leaving farms reliant on fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. The use of chemical-based protectants to eliminate weeds, insects, and pests stems back centuries ago, due to the loss of the topsoil from these farming methods. Topsoil is rich in soil organic matter, a spongy material formed from decomposed plant/animal tissue and residues. Soil organic matter is critical and helps soils absorb water and nutrients to support the soil’s microbes. Our soils are depleted of nutrients and structure, and it’s affecting our agricultural and food system today. Soil degradation is an increasing problem because it threatens our ability to produce food. Reconstructing and rejuvenating our soil’s health boils down a combination of four factors: Minimizing soil disturbance, growing cover crops, a balance of nitrogen and carbon levels in soil, and agricultural biodiversity. Reviving our soils is complicated, but farmers, agriculturists, and scientists are implementing many new technologies and techniques.

Farmers are improving soils microbial by using cover crops to prevent soil disturbance and loss from wind and water erosion. A cover crop is a crop of a specific plant that is grown primarily for the benefit of the soil rather than what the crop can produce. They are  commonly used to help build and improve soil fertility, control diseases, and pests, and promote biodiversity. Cover crops are typically grasses or legumes because they are high in nitrogen, which is essential for the health of the soil. Farmer’s intentions for tilling crops are to speed up the natural soil building process and improve conditions for microorganisms. In recent years, farmers have been replacing intensive tilling to no-till practices to prevent the destruction to soil structure. No-till farming is a way of growing crops without the disturbance of soil and increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil. In many agricultural regions, it can reduce or eliminate soil erosion and improve the soils biological fertility.

Natural soils are thriving with life, and contain a diversity of microscopic bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other organisms. These organisms interact closely with one another, forming networks to communicate and work together to break down organic materials, which is then transformed into carbon. They then use this organic material, like decomposed plants and animals, to transform nitrogen gas that's released in the breakdown to regenerate another plant. This is essentially a natural recycling process that soil is capable of doing to create more organisms. A balance of carbon and nitrogen in the soil will speed up this recycling process of organic materials, to promote growth within the soil's microbes. Without a balanced microbial community, nutrients are no longer recycled, leaving room for unhealthy bacteria to invade. Agricultural biodiversity is also a large contributor in maintaining soil health. An abundance and variety in crops and organisms helps soil fertility, resistance to climate change, harmful bacteria, and pests. 

So, how can consumers like you and I help? Soil is not a self-renewing resource and needs a lot of protection. Composting at home and growing your own food are two active ways that we can give back to the planet by enhancing the soil and reducing our volume of waste. Awareness and understanding of agricultural policies and supporting the farmers who adopt regenerative practices is going to make a dramatic impact as well. Supporting and advocating for farmers working within the regeneration of agriculture, that are pouring hard work to reverse agricultural practices can make a difference. Here is a list of 17 organizations promoting regenerative agriculture around the globe. Let’s do what we can to protect our precious soils, and be a part of the solution to restoring our soils structure, resilience, and overall health!