Soil Health and an Era of Ecological Experimentation in Agriculture

By Steven Rosenzweig, Ph.D. student, Department of Crop & Soil Science, Colorado State University

This blog post originally appeared on the HumanNature blog from the School of Global Environmental Sustainability at Colorado State University.  It is the first in a series of global perspectives on the concept of soil health.

 

Curt Sayles is doing something radical in his part of the world. There are only a handful of farms like his in eastern Colorado. Purple flax, yellow sunflowers, and every conceivable shade of green – it’s a welcome sight to see some color in a landscape of brown wheat and fallowed fields.

Curt grew up farming the conventional way. Farmers in Colorado grow wheat every other year, alternated with a year of fallow, where the land lays bare to store up rainwater for the next wheat crop. It’s been that way ever since the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. But at 60, Curt is experimenting with a greater diversity of crops than conventional wisdom would suggest is possible in his climate, which is famous for wildly variable weather and multiyear droughts. He grows a mix of six different crops at once that his wife and son-in-law move cattle through to graze. He grows this forage mix in rotation with other crops like rye, corn, sunflowers, and millet. And he’s completely eliminated fallow, a daring move for a farmer without irrigation or much rain. It’s not easy trying something new in plain sight of judgmental eyes.

“I quit going to the coffee shop because [other farmers] look at you like you're… I mean you may as well have flown a UFO in because they think you're crazy,” he says.

But Curt is inspired to farm differently. After a trip to Dakota Lakes Research Farm in South Dakota, a group that’s been pushing boundaries in agriculture since the early 90s, Curt became a different kind of farmer. And he’s not the only one who is making changes. Curt is swept up in an excitement that is inspiring thousands of farmers and ranchers around the country to try a new approach. Agriculture is on the brink of another revolution.

A New Vision for Agriculture

Farm-to-table, local food, organic – they all seek to tie the consumer to alternative agriculture. These strategies have societal merit, but they haven’t yet inspired the large-scale changes necessary to repair the hostile relationship between agriculture and the environment. Agriculture needs a vision that improves the land.

That is what the concept of soil health promotes. It seeks to foster a regenerative approach to farming and ranching.

The mindset in conventional agriculture is all about simplification, and it has a singular focus on maximizing this year’s crop yields. It loses sight of the agricultural system as, well, a whole system. You mined your soil organic matter and there are no nutrients left? Buy some more fertilizer. Never mind that building organic matter will not only feed your plants, but also prevent erosion and store more water.

In contrast, soil health is inspired by the way native ecosystems function. It appreciates the whole system. Soil health is a philosophy that guides a farmer’s management, such that every action taken on the farm seeks to adequately feed and protect the living organisms in the soil, thus unlocking the enormous potential of soil microbes to release nutrients, create soil structure, build organic matter, and confer drought and disease resistance to plants. In practice, this mindset is realized through four simple principles: minimize soil disturbance, maximize diversity of plants, animals, and soil organisms, keep a living plant root growing as long as possible throughout the year, and maintain residue cover on the soil.

For Curt, these principles are transformational. He eliminated tillage so he doesn’t disturb the soil. By integrating livestock, crop rotation, and a diverse forage mix, he maximizes diversity. And by eliminating the fallow year, he extends the amount of time with a living root in the ground, and maintains residue cover on the soil.

But there is a reason he is only one of a handful of people farming this way in his region. Curt is taking a big risk.

“It’s like a fight all the time.”

Many of the practices associated with soil health have been more quickly adopted “out east,” as Colorado farmers refer to the Midwest, but their adoption has been slower in drier climates. Successfully eliminating fallow or growing a diverse forage mix is much trickier with less water, and no one has developed the recipe for success in eastern Colorado. As a soil health pioneer in this region, Curt realizes it’s not easy.

“Show me the book and formula and I’ll just go do that. Well, there is no book and there is no formula. We're trying to find things that work here. You know winter pea, does that work here or not? It's like a fight all the time. Nothing's easy.”

But without farmers like Curt pushing the limits of diversity, dryland agriculture would be forever confined to one or two crops and years of bare land. Without anyone willing to get rid of fallow, no one would ever know whether it is truly a necessity, or a relic from the years following the Dust Bowl. It would be an admission that there will always be erosion in agriculture, and that the soil is as good as it’s ever going to get.

But soil changes slowly, and it will take time to tell if Curt’s changes have worked. Now, more inspired than ever, Curt is worried he wont have enough time to complete all of his experiments.

“We’ve opened a whole new chapter. I have lots to learn. My biggest fear now is, I'm sitting here at 60. I maybe have 10 more harvests… That's all I've got left. I wish I'd known 20 years ago what I know today.”

Curt’s success with the soil health approach is more important to the Movement than he may realize. In one of the driest and most volatile climates in the country to be a non-irrigated farmer, the obstacles to Curt’s success are greater than just about any farmer in America. If he can make soil health work in Colorado, it will work anywhere.

But the pressure doesn’t rest solely on Curt’s shoulders. He has a close network of other farmers in his region who are undertaking a variety of creative and daring changes on their own farms. Many other farmers and ranchers throughout the US and beyond recognize that soil health may be the way of the future. Universities, government agencies, industry, non-profits, and international experts are responding to the farmers’ excitement to usher in an era of ecological experimentation in agriculture. The age of soil health is here.

 

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