If you have spent any amount of time around a 3-year-old child, you know that their favorite question is, “Why?” A young child asks this question over and over in order to understand everything in the world around them because everything is new to them. As we mature, we begin to take a lot of things for granted and don’t question the world around us as deeply as we did when as children. But there seems to be an awakening of desire to question some very basic concepts in agriculture that have not been challenged for quite some time.
When we examine the source of wealth in agriculture, we often count the number of head of livestock or bushels of grain that come off of each acre of land. While these may be the products we sell in the marketplace, they are not the source of our wealth. Understanding the source of wealth is important so that we can maximize creation of wealth while minimizing input costs to generate a margin of profit. If we mistake bushels of grain as the source of our wealth we might erroneously believe that producing more bushels of grain per acre will make us wealthier.
In order to get back on track, we must ask ourselves, “Why did we allow a substitution of yield for wealth?”
Yield is much easier to measure and compare than profit per acre. Full bins and overflowing piles of grain certainly looks prosperous. But the source of wealth from agricultural land comes instead by managing the resources we are given in a profitable fashion. These resources may include a variety of things such as sunlight, water, air, soil, plant nutrients, livestock, seed, people, capital, etc. Some factors that distinguish agriculture from other industries is that several of the main resources used to produce agricultural products are free; namely sunlight, water, and air. Sunlight, water, and air intersect in the soil where they are transformed into agricultural products by green, living plants. In order to generate new wealth, we must shift our focus from yield per acre to instead look at how well we are leveraging sunlight, water, and air by using healthy, fully functioning soil and plants.
It is at this point, in our thought process, where it becomes critical to not take things for granted. This is where we must question deeply to discover the answers that will generate new wealth. Since soil and plants are the essential players in converting sunlight, water, and air into marketable products, we must examine how well the soil and plants in our system of production are functioning — in other words what is the health of our soil and plants?
Many of us might be able to distinguish a healthy plant from a non-healthy plant, but how skilled are we at recognizing healthy soil from non-healthy soil? Assessing soil health is a relatively new concept for most folks in agriculture, yet it is critical to profitable production. Many of the indicators of soil health are not particularly difficult or expensive to measure. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service has a great deal of information on soil health, including how to assess the health of your own soil.
In our quest for increasing yield per acre, there has been a large focus on purchased inputs — such as fertilizer, pesticides, and hybrid seed — while the sunlight, water, and air we receive for free has been somewhat overlooked. We have generally taken the soil for granted, often referring to soil as “dirt.” Soil is alive; an incredible biological system of mostly microscopic organisms. Dirt is what comes off of your clothes in the washing machine.
There is a new age of agriculture currently emerging where producers are questioning everything as they take a new look at the soil and appreciate it for the biological integrator of everything; converting sunlight, water, and air, into new wealth. Agricultural soils in many parts of the nation are presently not functioning very well at all. We must acknowledge that, and begin to use our new understanding of the soil to restore the capacity of the soil to function again. The renewed capacity of our soils to infiltrate water and cycle nutrients will harness the natural efficiency that was present in the past. The creation of wealth in agriculture will depend on how well we restore the health of our soils. Understanding soil health is not just a recent fad in agriculture; it is the key to the source of wealth in agriculture.
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.”