Crops Insights

Knowing the living ecosystem of soil is the future for farmers

jon stika


Stewardship is a term that has been used by folks in agriculture for a long time to describe how they care for the land. Stewardship has been defined as “an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources” or “the activity or job of protecting and being responsible for something.” Many folks in agriculture — judged by the yield or appearance of a crop — have been told they are good stewards of the land because they are good farmers or ranchers. Regardless of the methods of production, a good farmer does not necessarily equate to being a good steward.

Current observations of the state of many agricultural soils and the water that runs off of them indicates that the number of good farmers outpaces the number of good stewards.

First and foremost, farming and ranching requires that the farmer or rancher is profitable, or at least able to service any debt he or she may have accumulated from the purchase of land, livestock and equipment. Profitability must then be balanced with stewardship to not only make a living from the land, but leave it in a condition whereby someone else can do the same after the current landowner is gone. Though many production practices of the past and present degrade the soil, a change in thinking about the soil can restore it rather than degrade it, while profitably producing crops.

What is needed is a better understanding of how the soil functions.

The capacity of the soil to function, that I am speaking of, is referred to as “soil health.” It may surprise you to think that most farmers, ranchers, agronomists, and soil scientists don’t understand how the soil functions. It is not because these folks are not astute, but because during the last ten thousand years of practicing agriculture we have not taken pause to examine how the soil is supposed to function. To date, universities have focused on how to classify, test, amend, drain, and manipulate the soil, but are only now beginning to understand and instruct on how the soil functions as the biological system that it was designed to be.

We need to take a closer look at how our soils are functioning to determine if our present systems of production are restoring, or continuing to degrade, the soil.

Yield trends for corn, soybeans, and wheat over the past few decades are all positive, but we also need to look at the trend of soil health to be sure that the increased yields are not just a reflection of the changing technology from input, but of an improving trend in soil health as well. A clearer understanding of how soil is supposed to function can help us make this assessment.

You would likely not seek advice from a medical practitioner whose only knowledge of the human body was that it consisted of certain proportions of oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, etc. with no knowledge of how all the bodily systems were supposed to function. Such a situation would amount to medical quackery. The same could be said if we had not educated ourselves on soil health and the capacity of the soil to function. Overlooking soil health is perhaps why we have not been successful in creating a lasting positive change in many of our agricultural soils and watersheds.

But don’t despair, soils can be restored while actually improving profitability of our farmers and ranchers. It only requires a paradigm shift in the way we think about soil from that of “dirt” to that of a living ecosystem; an underground herd, if you will, that must be tended just as we would tend a herd of any other livestock above ground. We must become students of how the soil functions.

Though the soil health movement is still in its infancy, there are some excellent resources available to help you learn more about assessing and restoring soil health. The USDA’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) has developed videos and publications about soil health and now has a soil health division of specialists ready to teach folks how to restore soil health. Ohio State University along with Cornell University, also offer information about soil health.

I hope this piques your interest to continue to look deeper into soil health. I look forward to introducing more aspects of soil health in the future so you can examine and restore the soil in your field or garden to its full ability to function. Once the potential of the soil to perform its many functions is restored, the symptoms of water runoff, erosion, and plant nutrient deficiencies will no longer present themselves. Understanding soil health can economically and effectively assure that good farmers can also be good stewards of the land.

Jon Stika is a soil scientist who has worked with the North Dakota Soil Conservation Committee and NDSU’s Dickinson Research and Extension Center. He is also the author of “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.”

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