By Travis Mead
I am amazed at how soil health and human health are so closely related, as far as the principles behind improving them. I have listed a few things I’ve written down over the years while working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service that I would like to share.
My overall comparison is between soil health and farming, and human health and taking care of ourselves.
• Exercise and eating right help keep a person healthy. Likewise, crop rotation and plant diversity within a field makes the soil healthier. It’s almost like an exercise program for the soil. In the gym, you do different reps and mix up your workout routine. Farmers select different cover crops.
• Wearing a jacket and hat during cold weather keeps a person warm and healthy. Cover crops keep soil protected in the same way while providing erosion control from harsh winter winds and heavy spring rains. Cover crops also provide a longer amount of time for living roots to grow below the ground and living green vegetation to grow above the ground, keeping the soil alive longer and feeding beneficial organisms.
• Humans take vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. Soils need vitamins and minerals as well. By going to specialists, we can discover what our bodies and our soils need to be fully efficient. A doctor will write a script just like an agronomist does for the soil, depending on the results of soil testing and what that year’s crop needs are. Agronomists also make sure the soil pH is adequate so nutrients can be taken up properly. That works for human health too. All of this is part of a nutrient management plan for the farm. This is just like a human’s annual checkup.
The same holds true for pest management. If you have fungus growing on your toenail, you go to the doctor, and he or she gives you a prescription and directions to apply a proper amount at the proper time in the proper place. In cropping situations, we have herbicides, insecticides and fungicides that are applied. We first scout for the need of these treatments. Then we get recommendations of how, when, where, and at what time and rate we should apply them. Why do we need prescriptions and plans? For example, you wouldn’t want to put rubbing alcohol in your eye when you meant to use eye drops.
• Building up strong immune systems is important for both people and the soil. Humans and soils are living systems that when healthy, have a better chance of growing stronger and more productive. When the system can fight off nonbeneficial forces through a strong immune system, both the body and the soil recover faster and continue to become stronger and more productive.
Mead is a district conservationist with NRCS. He is based in Starke County, Ind.