A new renaissance

CEW-MR-1-Soil renaissanceby Tamara Scully

Neil Conklin, President of Farm Foundation, NFP, introduced a new movement in today’s agriculture, one which is inclusive of all types of production systems, philosophies, farm sizes, and crops. It’s a movement with one key component — soil.

This movement is called the Soil Renaissance, and it is coming soon to a farm near you. According to Conklin, the movement began to take root after Klaas Martens, a New York state organic farmer, and Bill Buckner, formerly CEO of Bayer CropScience LP and now the President and CEO of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, had a discussion about their passion for soil health. No matter that they had disparate backgrounds. They agreed that soil health is key to a sustainable agriculture, one which can feed the world as the population rapidly grows, climate changes cause havoc, the agricultural landbase decreases, and decimated soils can no longer support food production.

Whether farming conventionally or organically, soil health is what produces healthy crops. This is the message of the Soil Renaissance.

Starting with soil

C. Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D, Deputy Chief for Science and Technology at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, is a key participant in the Soil Renaissance. Honeycutt explained the reasons why food production and farm viability are grounded in the soil.

As organic matter in the soil increases, the soil structure and aggregation increases. In turn, the soil can hold on to and better utilize water, decreasing runoff and increasing the water recharge capacity. Erosion is decreased. Nutrient availability to plants increases, as does the diverse microbial population of the soil. These microbes feed on the carbon captured in the soil, which increases as the soil organic matter increases. They detoxify the chemicals used in food production, as well as increase plant health through decreasing pathogen pressures and increasing plant nutrient uptake.

“We can do all this while maintaining or increasing production,” Honeycutt said. “As farmers are more profitable, the whole rural economy can benefit.”

Dust Bowl lessons

The Soil Renaissance, said John Larsen, CEO of the National Association of Conservation Districts, provides the opportunity to really reflect on the lessons of the Dust Bowl of the ‘30s — the “worst ecological disaster that has ever occurred,” and “to think about what DID we learn back then.”

“The Renaissance…. it never left western Oklahoma,” farmer Jimmy Kinder, of Kinder Farms in Oklahoma, said. “It’s been grounded in our culture since the ‘30s. It changed the way they farmed. It changed the way they thought.”

The Dust Bowl was a catalyst for a national emphasis on soil health. The Soil Renaissance is giving new energy to that initiative, which has weakened since then, Kinder said.

Kinder Farms has constantly strived to improve soil health, and has recently gone from no-till to never-till, a necessity due to the recent years long lack of rainfall. There are cacti growing in the wheat fields, and rainfall has been well below the normal for several years now.

“We haven’t plowed in 15 years,” Kinder said. “My children, I’m proud to say, don’t know how to plow.”

Wheat is typically a dual-purpose crop in Oklahoma, and is grazed in winter. Kinder noticed that the areas in the field where manure was dropped looked greener come spring. But a standard soil test showed no measurable differences in soil nutrients, much to his surprise.

“There’s got to be something else going on. I believe it’s something biological going on,” Kinder said. The Soil Renaissance movement, by addressing these issues, can help to uncover factors of soil health that might not yet be fully understood, he said.

Research and education

“If farmers can understand what a healthy soil looks like, we can do production practices that can jump start our soils,” he said. “I need healthy soil, to be supportive and profitable to my family. It matters because the nation needs healthy soils, to be socially secure.”

Martens has been involved in many research trials with Cornell University, and is on the board of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. In today’s farming community, with many young people with no farming background opting to farm, soil health research and education is “an important piece in bringing this next generation onboard,” he said.

“The tools of biotechnology, so far, have been used on transgenic crops, but these tools, I believe, can be used to study soil microbiology,” Martens said. “The knowledge that these tools give us can prescribe better biological treatments, and catch things early.”

Asking the right question is the first step, Martens said. Asking why things are occurring, instead of simply asking how to control them, is important. Taking this slightly different approach to resolving common farming issues will be an important factor in increasing soil health, he said, and not just keeping it alive.

Taking root locally, nationwide

Kinder Farms has begun to experiment with a cover crop mix containing a combination of deep and shallow-rooted plants, to provide a “cafeteria plan” for soil microbes. Cover cropping is not widely practiced in Oklahoma, due to the dry conditions and a concern about taking resources from the soil to grow a non-cash crop. Cover cropping is promoted widely in some regions as a way to enhance the soil, and is gaining popularity as a dual-purpose practice by providing a grazing crop as well. Cover cropping, no till practices and crop rotations are some of the primary production strategies used to enhance soil health.

“How can we best identify which particular conservation practices can enhance soil health within the context of different cropping systems?” is one question the Soil Renaissance will be challenged to answer, Honeycutt said. “All biology is local.”

In 2013, Kinder combined mob grazing of cattle with the cover crops, with a stocking density of 10 cows/acre. Unfortunately, grazing the cover crops did not give good results in this case, and Kinder will skip the mob grazing in 2014, and terminate the cover crop by knocking it down with the tractor, and “keep trying and tweaking the system.”

“We need local solutions to a national issue,” Larsen said.

The Soil Renaissance aims to “build a community, with a consistent source of funding, to look at soil health GAPS,” Buckner said. It strives to be a science-based movement, led by a diverse array of all parties involved in food production, and “evolving together in the ag community, recognizing that we’ve ignored soil health for too long.”

The Soil Renaissance is being led by farmers, educators and researchers from many segments of agriculture. They don’t agree on everything, but have found common ground which allows for differences in cropping systems, farming systems and climates. They are building a four-pronged system which promotes soil health — from the ground up — and is based on scientific principles, embraces ongoing research and improvement, has a strong educational component, and is economically sound.

For more information on the Soil Renaissance, visit: www.farmfoundation.org . The recorded presentation can be viewed at www.webcaster4.com/Webcast/Page/219/5044 .

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