While bountiful harvests make any farmer proud, growing them consistently is an even bigger win. As most seasoned farmers can attest, reliable yields start with healthy soil. In fact, the importance of soil is hard to overstate, since it sustains every plant, and in turn every animal, on our planet. Farmers and agronomists are constantly reevaluating the best approaches to maintaining healthy soil. Whether they use practices that have been implemented for hundreds of years or adopt innovative new approaches, more farmers are being incentivized to adopt soil-sustaining strategies. These practices aim to boost soil organic matter and contribute to soil life. Such strategies are even being legally mandated in some parts of the world.
Whether cultivating a small plot of rice in Asia or thousands of acres of corn in North America, every farmer must tend to the soil in addition to the crops that grow in it. The soil requires three types of attention: structural, chemical, and biological. Supporting these three components of health is a balancing act that’s constantly evolving, depending on crops, location, scale, and available tools and technology.
Growing with the soil in mind
Ohio soy and corn farmer, David Brandt, educates the public on the subject throughout the American Midwest. In 1969, Brandt stopped tilling a portion of his land. By doing so, he wanted to support its structural health by creating better drainage and maintaining its colonies of beneficial microbes and worms. At the time, this no-till approach was unfamiliar to many, Brandt says. “Some people looked at us like we were crazy!” But it worked so well, Brandt adds, that “by 1971 we were 100 percent no-till.” In the following years, Brandt also adopted the use of cover crops and reduced his use of soil additives, all to the benefit of his crops—and his bottom line.
Across the Atlantic, many farmers at the time had already implemented several of the soil-health practices that Brandt advocates for. Gerard Korthals of the Netherlands Institute for Ecology studies soil health and echoes Brandt’s teachings. He stresses that, “without good soil health, we cannot live as humans, since all ecosystem actions—food production, oxygen production, purification of water—depend on a good soil/food web.” This interconnected web is protected by law in the Netherlands.