Saving the soil, one improvement at a time
By Michelle Pelletier Marshall, Women in Agribusiness Media (March 21, 2023)
Sustainability efforts start below our feet – in the soil – in the foundation of growth for the majority of our agricultural crops. And while there are many moving pieces to achieving environmental sustainability while at the same time providing sustenance for a hungry world, maintaining healthy soil is the cornerstone upon which we can be successful in this ambitious endeavor.
According to a study published in Earth’s Future, since farmers began tilling the land in the Midwest 160 years ago, 57.6 billion metric tons of topsoil have eroded, and the erosion rate is expected to be double what the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) says is sustainable. This doesn’t even account for the fact that the least developed economies have been found to experience the highest estimates of soil erosion rates, so that regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia are at even higher risk.
The causes of soil erosion in the ag sector are well-documented: deforestation, cropland expansion, overgrazing, tillage, fertilizer use, and unsuitable agricultural practices. The impacts are well-known too – whether that be land degradation, fertility loss, siltation, eutrophication of waterways or enhanced flooding, and the much talked about effect of increased CO2 emissions. And the risks? Well, not much can be grown in poor soil.
What’s being done to protect this vital resource that the USDA calls an “intricate symbiotic system” and not simply an inert growing medium? To start with, the USDA offers its Four Soil Health Principles:
1). Minimize disturbance,
2). Maximize soil cover,
3). Maximize biodiversity, and
4). Maximize the presence of living roots.
Thankfully, farmers have been using these practices for a while now, and are making headway in soil regeneration and preservation. For April Hemmes, who grows soybeans and corn at April Farms in Iowa, this means carrying on soil preservation practices passed down from her grandfather and father, like growing alfalfa on sidehills so that soil can run off during a big rain.
Hemmes explained that she has taken things a bit further. “On my farm, I use mainly no-till practices, where I just plant my soybeans or corn into the soil without disturbing it. I also use cover crops on my soils and have added native prairie grasses along one of my streams that do just as good of a job as the cover crops.” Additionally, Hemmes noted that she varies the application rate of fertilizer and chemicals, as well as nitrogen, to feed the crop only when it needs it. “Healthy food starts with healthy soils,” she said. “Whatever name you want to put on it – sustainable or regenerative – to those of us who raise crops, we see it as taking care of our number one resource.”
On her cattle farm, Amanda Severson, who owns and operates Grand View Beef with her family in Iowa, views livestock as an integral part of improving soil health. The Seversons practice intensive rotational grazing by moving cattle in small pasture paddocks every 24 to 48 hours. This practice increases soil microbiome, rainfall absorption, and biodiversity by providing habitat for wildlife. It also reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, with manure acting as a natural fertilizer. Severson sees opportunity with cover crops and livestock. “As more farmers plant cover crops, those cover crops can be grazed by livestock,” said Severson. “It’s a win-win. The farmer gets natural fertilizer distributed on their land, and the rancher gets feed for their cattle.’
Additionally, agribusinesses are working diligently providing products – like Corteva Agriscience’s nitrogen stabilizing fertilizers, which help keep more of this precious nutrient in the soil and reduce the escape of greenhouse gases up to 51 percent.4 Or companies like Indigo Ag, which works to identify microbes that are most vital to a plant’s health; or Trace Genomics that provides tool for early detection of soilborne diseases for faster remediation and less damage to the soil; or AgBiome, which develops innovative biological and trait products to enhance the global food production processes.5 And of course, there is the entire indoor farming industry, such as Aero Farms, App Harvest, and Bowery Farming, where soil is not even used, and revolutionary practices are changing the entire ag mindset.
Healthy soil is the lifeblood to success in agriculture. And while degradation may be accelerating in many areas around the globe, so too are the innovative and unique solutions to counter the destructive practices and keep ag on track to feed the world.
- Michelle Pelletier Marshall is contributing editor and author for HighQuest Partners’ GAI News and Unconventional Ag, and managing editor for its WIA Today blog. Additionally, she is the company’s Senior PR/Media Manager. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Thaler, Evan A., Kwang, Jeffrey S., Quirk, Brendon J., Quarrier, Caroline L., and Larsen, Isaac J. Rates of Historical Anthropogenic Soil Erosion in the Midwestern United States. Earth’s Future. Volume 10, Issue 3. March 2022
 Borrelli, Pasquale et al. An Assessment of the Global Impact of 21st Century Land Use Change on Soil Erosion. Nature Communications. December 8, 2017.
 USDA. Soil Health. https://www.farmers.gov/conservation/soil-health
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