There’s a lot of similarities between cultures; for instance, several cultures believe the creation of man began in the lifeless dust from the earth. But, was the dirt that the creator molded into man really lifeless? The world beneath our feet is very much alive. In a single teaspoon of soil, there is an estimated one billion microbes including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protists and micro-animals. All of these microbes serve a purpose in the complex ecosystem underfoot.
Generally, the first question we ask is, “Is it serving a good purpose?” For a grower, a nematode, fungi or bacteria may not sound like a good thing. But, there’s a lot of good things these critters are doing. Take nematodes for instance. The “bad” nematodes make up 5 percent of the species of nematodes, while the “good” nematodes eat bacteria and make nitrogen available to plants. Another microbe, Mycorrhizal fungi, has a mutualistic relationship with several plant species. In exchange for sugar, mycorrhizae provide plants with nutrients and water during times of drought. The reality is there really aren’t “good or bad” microbes, they all fill a niche, but when the checks and balances of the system are gone, problems arise. That’s usually when we try to find out what pest is causing the problem. Really the question we should be asking is: “What caused the imbalance in the first place,” and, “Are we doing more harm than good by throwing all of those “x-icides” on?”
Those are questions the regenerists are asking. Regenerists are the producers focused on regenerating soil health and the profitability of their operations. As Nicole Master’s writes in her book, For the Love of Soil, “The Path to successfully regenerating soils is through enhancing natural cycles and using proactive practices which address root causes, not the symptoms of a degraded system.”
What if all this time we’ve been trying to kill that weed or nematode, we’ve been treating a symptom and missing the disease entirely? Some scientists believe that severe flooding, erosion and even climate change are only symptoms, the true disease is biologically degraded soil.
How do we know our soils are degraded? In her book, Nicole Masters discusses the functions of healthy soil; one of the most important being water infiltration. Would you believe that a biologically healthy soil can absorb over 18 inches of rainfall in one hour; in contrast, average cropland soils in the Midwest absorb only 1/2 inch of rainfall per hour? That number may seem impossible, but regenerative producers like Gabe Brown are witnessing it firsthand.
What does water infiltration have to do with biology in the soil? Those microbes in the soil create a special substance that allows soil particles to form aggregates. This creates that crumbly, cake-like structure that allows soil to absorb water like a sponge and take in gases like carbon dioxide — see where climate change comes in?
If the disease really is our soil, how do we start to treat it? The first step is to work with nature and understand how she solves these problems on her own. There are five general soil health principals that mimic nature’s processes.
First, minimize soil disturbance including chemical and physical disturbance. Chemical disturbance such as synthetic fertilizer inputs and herbicides upset the natural nutrient cycles and have a big impact on microbes. When plants are supplied with synthetic fertilizers, they no longer need nutrients from mycorrhizae, so the plants no longer send sugar to the mycorrhizae. This harms the mycorrhizae and later in the summer when plants need more water and nutrients, the mycorrhizae don’t deliver. Mechanical disturbance such as tillage breaks up soil structure and creates an inhospitable habitat for microbes by increasing soil temperatures.
Second, keep armor on the soil. Whenever we create bare soil, mother nature puts a bandage on the problem in the form of weeds. This is nature’s way of moderating soil temperatures for microbes, decreasing evaporation, reducing compaction from rainfall and providing food for microbes.
Third, keep a living root in the soil for as long as possible — for example, using cover crops or growing perennial crops. Living roots in the soil are crucial for feeding the microbial critters throughout the year.
Fourth, incorporate livestock into the system. Grazing animals are an important part of nature. They help cycle nutrients and they provide important light disturbance on the soil. The key here is to utilize animals in a way that does not cause more harm than good. It’s not about stocking rate, it’s all about timing; how long you graze and how long the plants have to recover.
The final principal is diversity. Nature does not believe in monocultures, that is a human invention. Diversity includes plants, livestock, microbes, wildlife and insects, as all of these critters interact in the ecosystem. Diversity helps increase yields by decreasing pests and improves the health of the ecosystem.
We’ve spent a lot of time — and money — fighting with nature when nature already had answers to a lot of our problems. I think Andy Goldsworthy sums it up perfectly with this quote, “We often forget that we are nature. Nature is not something separate from us. So when we say that we have lost our connection to nature, we’ve lost our connection to ourselves.”
It’s time we remember this soil as something we are a part of and something we nurture. As with anything, these changes can’t happen overnight. It all starts with a step. Maybe that step will be implementing cover crops, decreasing herbicides or planting a pollinator plot. It’s time we start taking those steps and get back to the soil.