November 18, 2015
Modern farmers won’t be going back to draft animals and manual labor to plant and harvest crops, but many of them are reverting to some old techniques to improve or rebuild soil.
“Today’s producers are still pioneers when it comes to soil health,” says Jeff Moen, director of business development for the Noble Foundation at Ardmore, Okla., who spoke at the recent Oklahoma State University Rural Economic Outlook Conference in Stillwater.
The evolution to modern machinery and chemistry-based agriculture improved efficiency, he says, but it also took a toll on soil health.
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Westward expansion of pioneers into the Southwest opened up new ground for agriculture. “Vast expanses of ground were plowed for the first time,” he says. Those new fields provided fertile soils — which often were a significant improvement over land the settlers had worn out and left behind in the East.
“But their new soils were left vulnerable by over-production and drought,” Moen says. Years of poor farming practices finally caught up with farmers when persistent drought hit in the early 1930s. “The Dust Bowl decimated the topsoil. Erosion was rampant.”
Those dire conditions prompted Lloyd Noble, an Oklahoma oil man, to create the Noble Foundation, a research center dedicated to finding ways to restore and maintain soil health. The foundation identified a production system in need of evolution.
TECHNOLOGY IMPACTS SOILS
“With the advancements in production agriculture, technology has had a significant impact on soil health,” Moen says. Draft animals were replaced by tractors. “Soil testing focused on chemicals, and breeding programs reduced the diversity of crops. Synthetic fertilizer use increased, and the use and cost of nitrogen fertilization went up.”
Modern agriculture and soil health are not incompatible, he says, but producers need to pay closer attention to soil health. Practices such as rotating cattle back into enterprise mixes will improve soil health.
“Cover crops also can provide many benefits,” Moen says. “This used to be a common practice, but with increased use of synthetic fertilizers cover crops became less popular.”
Farmers are seeing a need to get back to some of these basic production practices, he says. Technology, such as Global Positioning System-based agriculture, allows farmers to use inputs more carefully. “Equipment advances allow better management of the land.”
A new initiative, the “Soil Renaissance — a strategic plan to advance soil health” — is being championed by the Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation. “This initiative will work to insure the health of Earth’s most valuable resource,” Moen says. “Healthy soil is critical to the sustainability and economic success of farmers and ranchers, large and small, conventional and organic.” Soil health also contributes to air and water quality. “It affects the environment and the quality of life.”
The basic tenets of the Soil Renaissance include a vision for improving soil health and making that the cornerstone of land use and management decisions.
EIGHT GUIDING PRINCIPLES
“The Soil Renaissance mission is to reawaken the public to the importance of soil health for enhancing healthy, profitable, and sustainable natural resource systems,” he says, citing eight guiding principles for the program: Integrated systems approach; science-based; partnership driven; inclusive and representative; transparent and open source; communication at all levels; purposeful outcomes with measurable impacts; and continuing evaluation and improvement.
Soil health is defined within the Soil Renaissance as “the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.” The program includes four points of focus:
Measurement that uses standardized, readily available, affordable, and commercially viable soil testing.
Economics that quantify the effects of soil health on economic risks and returns.
Education to reawaken the public to the importance of soil health.
Research efforts across the research community to advance the Soil Renaissance.
Global awareness and interest in soil health is developing, he says, as evidenced by proclaiming 2015 the International Year of the Soil. A Texas A&M Soil Security Summit also shows the enhanced awareness of soil health issues.
“Other nationwide initiatives/organizations are looking for umbrella support and collaboration,” he says. They include the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the National Coalition for Cover Crops and Soil Health, and the Soil Health Partnership. Other organizations, including Field to Market, are also looking for opportunities.
Lloyd Noble was a disciple of soil stewardship and saw soil health as a national imperative, Moen says.
As Noble said in 1948, “When the soil is gone, so is the nation. A nation can never outlive the usefulness of the soil.”
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