My local library had its annual book sale this past September. I love going and searching for books about the basics. Timeless ideas and concepts that just don’t go out of style.
I found “Soil Science Simplified, 3rd Edition” by Helmut Kohnke, Purdue University, Waveland Press, Prospect Heights, IL. Printed in 1966 and now celebrating 50 years, this 78-page paperback does a wonderful job at touching on the concepts of soil science and soil stewardship and helps someone like me walk away with a much better appreciation for the dynamics of soil and all it contains. Packed with timeless principles of soil stewardship, it helped me come back to the reality the keys to protecting soil and all that it includes.
“Many intermediate conditions of soil cover exist. Some of these are enumerated in the order of increasing protection for the soil: Fallow, row crops, large seeded legumes, small grains, small seeded legumes, grass-legume meadows, permanent vegetation”
We have always looked to make our farms more efficient. It’s only a natural thing to do when one is focused on productivity. Since 1966, we have taken the road of consolidation in our agricultural production systems, consolidating the number of farms, the size of farms, knocking down fence rows to consolidate fields, and consolidate the types of crops we grow. We have somewhat lowered our overall field inputs while greatly raising field productivity as shown in the chart from a USDA study on farm productivity.
“Get big or get out” was the natural progression from our advances in technology in the 1960’s and the promotion of mono-cropping began at a national policy level. In this process, we began to tap into the assets inherently stored in the soil while applying the adage that “if a little is good then more is better”. In an effort to meet the demands of a growing world population, the farmer became more efficient and more made field more productive. According to the report mentioned above, the past 50 years have been times of abundance and the farmer has done a great job of meeting the opportunity. As is normally the case, we learn from prior experiences and we are now entering a time of review and reflection as to the farming techniques we have used in obtaining these levels of production.
And so the words of this 1966 publication come back into play. While we have done a great job at meeting the demand of the season, have we lost sight of the long-term practices that truly make farming sustainable? While our farming policies of the 1960’s & 70’s promoted massive amounts of row crops, we have gradually shifted away from the practice of keeping some ground in permanent vegetation (like in the headline picture) or the use of legumes and long-term crop rotations. The exciting thing is that our tools and technology are much more advanced than even 25 years ago and we are coming back to realizing just how complex and equally important are the populations of bacteria, fungi, and other soil critters.
We give a tremendous amount of credit to earthworms to making soil “alive” with the creation of castings and all the aeration they perform. However, in reality, it is the massive populations of native bacteria, fungal and a host of other living organisms that is the primary provider of all the things that create what we call “tilth”. Click here to go to the USDA Soil Health Website to learn more about all the benefits of healthy soil.
Here’s to happy and healthy soils in 2016!