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5 Signs of Healthy Soil in Honor of World Soil Day

Claire O'Connor

Posted December 5, 2013

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There’s so much to celebrate during this time of year.  But have you stopped to think about where your holiday dinner comes from?  Today, December 5, let’s take a moment to celebrate the amazing resource that makes all of our holiday feasts possible-- soil.  Happy World Soil Day!

In honor of World Soil Day, here are five signs of healthy soil

  1. You can’t see healthy soil.  One of the surest signs of healthy soil is that it’s hidden from plain sight, protected from the elements by natural armor.  “No-till” farmers build healthy soil by planting directly into the stubble from the previous year’s crop instead of plowing up the soil.  The stubble acts like an armor, protecting soil from erosion and preserving soil structure. 
  2. Healthy soil has living roots growing in it.  During the spring and summer, the Midwest is blanketed with lush growing fields.  The roots from the growing crops take certain components out of the soil, and exude others, adding to the dynamic soil ecosystem.  But for about nine months each year, most fields in the heart of farm country have nothing growing on them.   To keep the system dynamic and alive throughout the year, farmers can use cover crops, which are crops that are grown between commodity crop seasons specifically to improve soil health.
  3. Healthy soil is teeming with life.  There are more organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the planet!  Each of these organisms, including earthworms, bacteria and fungi, have a special role to play in building a healthy, resilient soil community that is pest- and disease-resistant, soaks up water like a sponge, and provides nutrients to growing crops.  No-till farming protects the life within the soil and cover crops feed it, generating a vibrant community beneath our feet.
  4. Healthy soil produces high yielding crops, even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.  For each 1% increase in soil organic matter, soil can store an additional 20,000 gallons of water.  That water can come in handy for growing crops if there’s a drought, and probably explains why farmers who used cover crops to improve their soil weathered the historic 2012 drought better than those who did not use cover crops.
  5. Healthy soil is surrounded by healthy water, ecosystems, and people.  When soil thrives, so do the ecosystems, water, and people around it.  Because healthy soil can soak up so much water and is protected from erosion, it helps prevent polluted runoff from contaminating water.  That means cleaner water for people to fish in, swim in, and drink!

Unfortunately, these signs of healthy soil are missing on many acres of our farmland.  Only about a third of U.S. farmland is no-till, and less than 2% of acres in the upper Mississippi River Basin use cover crops.  As a result, we’ve allowed much of our soil to become degraded, sick, and unproductive.  Fortunately, soils can be regenerated.  Programs like a “good driver” crop insurance discount for farmers who invest in regenerating their soil can help give our soils, and the farmers who care for them, the respect they deserve.


(NRDC Infographic: click for full size)

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DougDec 6 2013 03:34 PM

Claire, I have bought some land that was a homesite from the 1940s and was abandoned. It has an old house that is unrepairable and other refuse that will need to be disposed of. I would like to use this land for gardening. Are there any concerns I should have about doing so? Any recommendations?

Claire O'ConnorDec 6 2013 07:00 PM

Hi Doug, How wonderful that you want to start gardening! It's always a good idea to get your soil tested before you start growing food in a new plot. I'd recommend reaching out to your local extension office: The experts there can help you make sure your new garden is safe, productive and healthy!

Mary GoodsonDec 8 2013 03:31 PM

No-till farming invariably uses huge amounts of weed killers. The farmers hose down their property to kill weeds before they plant seeds.

I really don't see why this method is considered a sign of "healthy" soil, unless you're very specific about the use of mulches to suppress weeds rather than chemicals.

Doug Dec 11 2013 12:06 PM

Claire, thank you so much for your advice! Luckily, my county extension agent is nearby and I will check in with him on my next day off.

It is a neat piece of land that I have many plans for but was a little worried about lead from the house and all of the vasts amounts of trash!

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