BETHANY, Mo. — From the United Nations General Assembly, which declared 2015 the International Year of Soils, to Midwest farm management meetings, soil health is a topic garnering a lot of interest.
Doug Peterson, Missouri state soil conservationist for the USDA’s NRCS, said he has seen increased attendance at his soil health meetings and demonstrations in recent years.
“Soil health has come to the forefront in agriculture in recent years,” Peterson says.
Among the factors that affect farmers’ bottom lines, such as weather or markets, he views soil health as critical. Soil health determines how much the soil is able to utilize the water it receives, as well as how much grain it yields.
“As far as I’m concerned, soil health is the most important factor,” Peterson says.
The UN declared the International Year of Soils to increase awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for food security and ecosystem functions.
Fiona Bottigliero, communications specialist for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, referred to the Year of Soils website (www.fao.org/soils-2015/en) for the specific objectives the UN hopes to accomplish by naming a Year of Soils.
These include raising awareness among decision makers “about the profound importance of soil for human life,” educating the public about soil’s role in food security and ecosystems, supporting policies and actions to manage and protect soil, promoting investment in sustainable soil management activities, and advocating for enhancement of soil information collection and monitoring at all levels, from global to more local.
Peterson says soil health is a crucial issue for the world, especially with a growing global population. Agriculture needs sustainable soil-management practices that protect the surrounding environment and don’t lead to erosion and degradation.
“Anything that includes tillage is not going to be sustainable long-term,” he says. “We’ve got 50 to 60 years of soil left based on current estimates.”
Still, Peterson knows farming is a business, and sustainable management practices need to be effective and profitable.
“The principals of soil health integrate soil health into their everyday management,” he says. “They have to be profitable every year.”
Soil is a degradable resource, and it takes time to rebuild lost topsoil, but it can be rebuilt faster than previously thought if the right management practices are used.
When Peterson talks to producers about soil health, he talks about five key principals. These include disturbing the soil less by using more no-till, having crop diversity, growing living roots in the soil throughout the year, keeping the soil covered as much as possible, and adding livestock to the mix for part of the year.
“We can increase organic matter really fast if we apply all these principals,” Peterson says.
Farmers have had greater awareness in recent years about the need to manage soil health year-round.
“A lot of this is not new stuff,” he says. “Thomas Jefferson was planting cover crops. When we had the industrial revolution in agriculture from the ’40s on, we thought we could solve every problem with technology. Now, we’re kind of relearning (management practices).”
The NRCS national office has been participating in the International Year of Soils and soil-health education efforts. The NRCS has been making these efforts for the last five years, Peterson says, and the agency is going to have a new division focused solely on soil health.
Several other organizations are participating in the International Year of Soils, including the Soil Science Society of America. Harold van Es, a professor of soil and water management at Cornell University, is the president-elect of the society. The group represents the interests of scientists and professionals in the field of soil science, he says.
Van Es says good soil health does more than just increase yields.
“You have to think of (soil health) in terms of enhancing revenues by enhancing yields,” he says, “but also reducing inputs. It plays on both sides of the ledger. There’s less need for irrigation, less need for fertilizer.”
Each month during the Year of Soils, the Soil Science Society has a theme to emphasize the importance of soil. March’s theme is “Soils Support Agriculture.”
“We’re putting a lot of effort into celebrating this,” van Es says. “It’s kind of a unique opportunity for us.”
He says soils can be overlooked by the general population, but they are of huge importance.
“Soils are maybe not recognized for what they do for humanity,” he says. “They are the foundation of humanity. Everything we eat comes from the soil.”