We’ve all seen old Western movies with posters for wanted criminals. Many of the wanted posters stated that it did not matter if the wanted man was brought in dead or alive. While it may not have mattered if a lawman brought in a criminal dead or alive, it does matter with soil. I think it is important that every farmer and gardener consider to what extent their soil is dead or alive.
The reason it matters is that the soil is a biological system … it only functions as well as the things living within it. A functioning soil will properly infiltrate water and cycle nutrients so that both are supplied to the plants as needed. With the availability of fertilizers that contain everything from Boron to Zinc, respectable yields of almost any crop are produced each year across American farmland. But, if you ask farmers who grow crops on even the best soils in the country, they will admit that there is little point in them farming without fertilizer.
Now, before you conclude that this is a treatise denouncing the use of agricultural fertilizer, it is not. My argument is not against the use of fertilizer. My point is that even the best soils in this country have been stripped of their ability to produce a respectable yield without depending on the use of fertilizer. Fertilizer is neither good nor bad; it is a tool. The sad fact is, that our agricultural soils can no longer supply the needs of the plants we grow on them without reliance on considerable inputs, particularly fertilizer. A healthy, functioning soil does not require the addition of fertilizer to supply plants with what they need to produce a good crop. The dependence of modern agriculture on the addition of outside sources of fertility, in the form of fertilizer, is simply an indicator that our soils are no longer properly functioning.
A recent study by the United Nations points out that a great deal of the worlds’ agricultural soils are degraded, and that crop productivity is decreasing as a result. The study focused primarily on Africa, but the same is true of agricultural soils in this country. Since the soil is a biological system, the real question becomes: Do you spend most of your time and energy making things die, or helping things live? Soil without biology is geology.
Most of the time and energy spent in modern agricultural crop production is expended attempting to control the soil, plants, and any other organisms present in each field, to benefit the desired crop. Our quest for control of everything in our fields has led to the continued degradation of the soil. Instead of attempting to control everything, we need to shift our thinking to managing the soil as it was designed to function. Managing the soil as a biological system requires less time, energy, and money. Healthy plants supported by a robust community of soil microorganisms are able to absorb and convert more complex forms of nutrients from the soil. When they do so, they become less attractive to pests whose simple digestive systems can only handle plant nutrients in simple forms, i.e. nitrogen in the form of nitrate or ammonium, rather than more complex forms of nitrogen such as amino acids or proteins. Also, a greater diversity of plants and plant residues provides better habitat for a wider diversity of predatory insects that feed on insects that feed on plants.
We must recognize that fertilizer is a crutch, and that we have reached the point where many in agriculture can no longer walk without it. Just like physical rehabilitation has a goal of allowing you to walk again without crutches, so must we rehabilitate the soil so it can perform the functions it used to be able to perform before it was crippled by past agricultural practices. Restoring soil health is not particularly difficult or expensive, but it requires a major paradigm shift in both our thinking and our understanding of how the soil is supposed to function. We need to focus more on helping things live in the soil instead of identifying and destroying everything except our chosen crop. Plant diversity and soil cover are the key elements that will help bring about a balance in soil biology and total insect populations (including predators) in a given field that should reduce the need to control insects with pesticides.
I encourage you to take the time to explore and understand how to restore the health of the soil on your farm and garden so you can be productive and profitable for the long haul. Wanted: Soil, Alive!
Jon Stika is a retired Natural Resources Conservation Service soil health instructor and current part-time professional at the North Dakota State University Dickinson Research Extension Center. He is also the author of “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.”