All About Soil Health

As stewards of the land, farmers are responsible for maintaining fertile land for future generations. A big part of this is preserving rich, healthy soil, which is important not only for a sustainable future but also for the crops these farmers grow. Soil health is a science and can be tricky to master, but there are plenty of resources available to farmers to help.

Not sure how the quality of soil impacts you? The Rodale Institute created a Soil Biology webinar to explain why healthy soil is important to individuals and the ecosystem as a whole. “The soil is not, as many suppose, a dead, inert substance,” J.I. Rodale wrote in Pay Dirt: Farming and Gardening with Composts. “It is very much alive and dynamic. It teems with bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, molds, yeasts, protozoa, algae and other minute organisms.” The webinar goes on to explain what elements should be abundant in soil and how to maintain those levels.

A crucial aspect to preserving healthy soil is testing. Cooperative Extension offers soil testing resources and guides to help with this process. Click here to find an Extension agent near you. Many Cooperative Extensions provide online educational resources. University of Maine Extension offers this publication with a step-by-step guide to soil testing. Cornell University Cooperative Extension has an entire webpage for soil health, including the “Cornell Soil Health Assessment Training Manual,” a soil health management plan and informative videos dedicated to proper soil testing. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension also offers a soil health webpage with various publications, updated news on soil health science and a list of websites that can provide further help.

While these organizations provide an overview of how to sustain soil health, there are many outlets that offer information on the nitty-gritty of related topics. The Rodale Institute compiled reports and publications related to soil health research discussing specific issues the organization is working on. Many of these can be viewed online here. Rodale also provides an informative, focused webinar, “Impacts of Plastic and Cover Crop Mulches on Weeds, Soil Quality, Yields and Season Length for Tomatoes.”

ATTRA also compiled a list of publications the organization created that discuss specific topics surrounding soil health, ranging from “A Brief Overview of Nutrient Cycling in Pastures” to “Rye as a Cover Crop” to “Alternative Soil Amendments.” ATTRA also offers two educational webinars discussing soil health: “Organic Research and Needs: Cover Crops, Crop Rotation and Soil Health” and “Innovative No-Till: Using Multi-Species Cover Crops to Improve Soil Health.”

Organic/Sustainable Transition Resources

While organic or sustainable agriculture is not for everyone, many people are deciding to transition from conventional farming. Before deciding if this switch is for you, there are many factors that must be taken into consideration. Organic farming requires practices like rotating crops for soil health, distinguishing between pests and beneficial insects and spending a great deal of time in your fields in order to be fully acquainted with your crops, because you will have to learn to handle problems by working with nature to fix them. To look more into these factors and learn other things to consider, check out Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s page detailing the transition. The Organic and Non-GMO Report also released an informative question and answer on the topic. There’s more to organic production than growing, though, so the Small Business Bureau created an all-encompassing  overview on producing and selling organic produce.

If organic agriculture is something you are interested in, there can be many benefits for you and your farm. According to Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, the three goals of sustainable agriculture are what they call the Three Pillars of Sustainability: profit over the long term, stewardship of our nation’s land, air and water and quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities. The University of Nebraska provides a guide for transitioning to organic farming that not only has specifics related to farming in Nebraska, but also comprehensibly explains the process of transitioning and what it entails. Other great resources for transitioning are the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s helpful, step-by-step handbook and Local Food Hub’s breakdown of organic certification, suppliers and production to walk you through the process.

If you do decide to transition, check out the Rodale Institute’s online course to learn  about how to tackle each step of the transition.

Once a farmer transitions to organic agriculture, they will need to find a new market for their organic products and make sure they have all the certification required. For information on these topics, go to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service’s page on organic farming or Texas A&M Agrilife Extension’s page on marketing organic produce. If you are interested as selling at local farmers markets, check out Local Harvest’s website to find one near you.