“The Earth belongs to the living … the soil is the gift of God to the living.”
– Thomas Jefferson
How often do you think about the soil? Is it with every step upon the land? When you plow for the summer garden? How about when you plant something? Do you ever think about soil?
Well, you probably should. Whether you’re a homeowner or a farmer, the importance of soil health cannot be overstated.
“As cliché as it sounds, everyone eats,” said Mary Sketch, Virginia Soil Health Coalition coordinator.
The coalition, in partnership with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Offices and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, launched a new initiative to emphasize the four main principles of soil health called “4 the Soil.”
“Soil is the foundation of not just our food production system, but the natural systems that keep us alive,” said Chris Lawrence, state cropland agronomist with the Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service. “The sole function doesn’t just include growing food, but filtering and purifying water, absorbing water—every drop of rain that hits the ground touches the soil first.”
Lawrence said there isn’t a special reason to focus on soil health now, but rather that it is continually necessary to ensure the resources are here for generations. When it comes to the Virginia Natural Resources Conservation Service, soil health “refers to the capacity of the soil to function.”
“There is probably at least five tons of soil to an acre of land and could be more,” said Eric Bendfeldt, associate director of the Virginia Tech Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation/Virginia Cooperative Extension in Harrisonburg. “In 2018, I remember we had really strong storms in a short period of time. Driving home, I saw the water running off and it was brown and it contained soil particles. And with that you’re losing a resource.”
To help explain how much soil can be lost quickly when it’s not covered, Bendfeldt said it would take at least 10 trips with a half-ton pickup truck filled with soil to replace the lost resource on just one acre of land after a strong storm.
“The soil should be covered; nature wants the soil to be covered with a blanket and then armored and then it should be a living sponge with lots of pores because it keeps the waterways clean,” Lawrence said. “Minimize disturbances. For folks who own horses or cattle, don’t graze your pasture land to the ground—maximize the living roots.”
Lawrence acknowledges that farmers give up a little bit of grass that could be used to feed the livestock when they rotate the animals before the land is fully grazed to the ground.
“We may give up something today to build the health of the system, but it’s a win-win,” he said.
Bendfeldt said it applies to the average landowner, too.
“4 the Soil is trying to help everyone realize that soil is not dirt—it’s alive,” he said. “It’s part of photosynthesis, the process for absorbing the carbon and giving off the oxygen that we breathe. We’re trying to get as many people as possible—from farmers to producers to homeowners to consumers—to take the pledge to be 4 the Soil.”
Bendfeldt, who lives in Rockingham County, said people in our region love the outdoors, whether fishing, canoeing, kayaking or swimming.
“Healthy soil helps keep the water as clean and clear as possible so that we can all enjoy,” he said.
Lawrence said for hundreds of years, European settlers degraded the soils in our area.
“That’s part of the reason folks wanted to move west, because we used up our soils here,” Lawrence said. “Things have gotten better, but soils can be restored and rebuilt. Also, one of the things we’re starting to better understand is how important living organisms in topsoil are. A lot of the foundation of regenerative agriculture is rebuilding soil life. As humans, we take, take, take. It makes sense because a lot of times our ancestors—and even some of us today—we just have to survive so we’re only thinking day to day. But, we should be in a position in Greene County—or all of Virginia—to think a little bit for the future.”
“We’re trying to raise awareness of the land—the soil below our feet—that is so, so instrumental for all of our lives; and yet we go about our days and it’s easy to take that for granted and not really see the connections,” Bendfeldt said.
Visit www.4thesoil.org to take the pledge and learn more about healthy soil.
Four principals of soil health:
- Keep the soil covered: It’s the first step in protecting it from erosion, but also buffers soil temperature, slows rainfall runoff and aids in rainfall infiltration.
- Minimize soil disturbance, both physical and chemical: This proactive measure can heal and protect properties of the soil and ultimately enhance the biological component of soil life.
- Maximize living roots: Doing this longer throughout the year fuels biological activity, aids nutrient cycling and contributes to improved soil structure.
- Energize with diversity: Use different crop species and integrate livestock where possible to enhance chemical, physical and/or biological aspects of the soil. It improves the whole system.