The heart of regenerative farming starts in the soil. Soil health is human health.
Not only is soil health crucial for the fight against climate change but its crucial for our own nutrition as well. If what we put into our bodies comes out of the soil why would we not want that soil to be as healthy as possible? The post will dig into the aspects of nutrition in the soil and how that relates to plant nutrition as well as digging into practices that will help increase soil health. Here at The Glen Road Organics our focus is on healthy soils, not just to mitigate climate change but to increase soil, plant and human health.
Our soils are home to one of the largest organisms out there, they can filter contaminants, hold water, store nutrients, sequester carbon, and increase the health of both plants and humans. So let's dig in.
The Soil Science
Years of heavy tillage, mono cropping , pesticide and fertilizer use have left our soils depleted. But in the last few years there has been an increased push to get into regenerative and sustainable farming. Healthy and thriving soils are home to millions of microorganisms. These microorganisms work hard to build structure, create aggregates and cycle nutrients. So we should be working hard to create an environment where they can thrive, why should we be doing the work that microorganisms naturally do?
Heavy tillage practice created a double edged sword for soil degradation. Tillage practices create a compaction layer in the soil where the equipment runs through. That compaction decreases the oxygen getting into the soils and decreases the water infiltration. The second edge of that sword is the destruction of microorganisms. Each time soil is tilled the fungi, nematodes, microarthropods and earthworms are destroyed and all that is left is bacteria. Bacteria is the fastest reproducing microorganism and blows off carbon dioxide as a result, creating an even bigger problem. Plowing was used to kill off weeds, and work up new land as a result to increase demands for food in a growing population. Tilling started to kill off the soil biology so fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides were needed to combat the
weeds and pests. With the growing awareness of the effects of tilling; precision agriculture, no till, and drill seeding have helped with slowing down tillage practices. No till agriculture protects the soil by leaving roots intact and leaves the plant residue on the surface. Not only are the microorganisms protected they have more food to break down as well. On the surface less water is lost via runoff and less soil is lost in the wind. Residue improves water infiltration and slows evaporation off the surface, more water is kept in the soil which leads to better drought resistance. All good right? The main problem still remains with the weeds. Once the soil biology starts to balance weeds become less of a problem. In the meantime interrow cover cropping, crop rotations, in-row subsoiling and roller-crimping cover crops are all practices that can help deter weeds. The solutions are here it just takes some creativity and time.
Cover Cropping and Crop Diversity
Cover cropping plays a very essential role in soil regeneration. We have talked a lot about the downfalls of bare soils and now we will dive into how cover cropping fixes it. Cover cropping is used in both large scale agriculture and in market gardening as well. Winter kill cover crops are easy to start with because they are relatively cheap and easy to broadcast after the fall crops are harvested. Cover crops will keep the soil covered in the winter and
decompose through the winter providing more organic matter as they break down. As we have established keeping a cover on soil will prevent water run off, will keep topsoil from wind erosion, helps with water infiltration, increases soil biodiversity, suppresses weeds and builds soil structure. The more you build up the soil biology the better your cover crop will work! Not only will cover crops hold your soil, they promote nutrient cycling (OM feeds the fungi and bacteria), and there are certain crops that have more beneficial aspects. Tillage radish is a great crop for loosening compaction. Legumes will fix nitrogen and leave it in the soil. Rye and buckwheat are great for weed suppression and breaking compaction layers. A Cover Crop Decision Tool will help farmers select which crops to use. A good mix of cover crops is recommended, not all the crops will germinate in the first year but they will germinate later when the conditions are just right. Crop diversity will attract different pollinators and predatory insects, they will also attract different microorganisms in the soil as well. Increasing diversity of microorganisms ensures better nutrient cycling, which is better for your plants.
Building Organic Matter
Building organic matter in the soil can be a long process. Organic matter (OM) is plant and animal matter that was alive but is now decomposed in the soil and turned into humus. Humus is high in nutrients and is what helps retain moisture. With the loss of agricultural topsoil we have lost a lot of our organic matter as well. With low-till or no till practices, cover cropping and crop rotations organic matter will start to increase. Introducing biology into your soils is one of the best ways to increase your organic matter. Adding a Biodiverse or Biocomplete compost to your soil will not only increase OM but it will introduce the bacteria and fungi that will aid in breaking down plant matter for more OM. Here in Canada most of our decomposition happens between the material on the ground and the snow layer. That thin area between is host to active microorganisms that thrive in that layer of warmth and oxygen. Fall compost applications with a cover crop creates a kickstart to building organic matter through the winter.
Windbreaks and pollinator pathways are excellent ground covers that will build organic matter and keep it. Windbreaks are more important than ever to protect our soils. As the climate is changing and our oceans are warming our weather is changing more than ever. Wind erosion is a massive problem for soils. It is so evident in winter when we can watch topsoil leave fields with a windy snowy day. Windbreaks are natural snow fences, are biodiversity enhancers, pollinator habitats, shade creators, protect the soil and are a habitat for wildlife. They will also protect crops from wind damage, creating healthier yields. Pollinator pathways are breaks in fields and gardens that contain native plants that are home for pollinators, these are used in field crops and in small gardens. They protect the soil and increase crop productivity from increased pollination!
One of the key practices for regenerative farming is no chemicals. Soil health depends on biology, the microorganisms at work to regenerate the soil. Chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides all kill and damage your microorganisms. Chemical or inorganic fertilizers are salt based so they can be soluble in water and release to the crops. When the soil is compacted and water can not drain the salts sit in the surface of the soil and over time the soil is salinized and hard to use. Pesticides and herbicides kill what is on the surface of the soil but they will also kill what is underground. The leaching of the chemicals into the ground is harmful to the beneficial bacteria and fungi. Not only that, some pesticides will kill the nitrogen fixing bacteria in legumes, eliminating the benefit. When the soil biology builds up and the fungal bacteria ratio is correct for the desired plant succession, the pest and fertility problems will be eliminated.
A direct consequence of fertilizer and pesticide use has been the leaching into waterways. This causes major problems in our rivers and lakes, and while the environmental impact of fertilizers in water has been recognized and policies are in place to protect waterways we can eliminate the threat altogether. Compost and compost extract applications hold the nutrients in more stable forms that will not leach out.
The applications of compost, adding organic matter and practicing regenerative practices will help reduce and eliminate the use of synthetic fertilizers and will restore your soil. Applications of compost and building up microorganisms populations will also breakdown toxic compounds in the soil. These range from diesel fuel, to herbicides and insecticides. The microorganisms will break down these compounds into the smaller for organic forms making them less toxic and untraceable in the soil.
Soil Health and Human Health
How is soil health related to human health? Soil health and regenerative farming practices are better for the environment and for human health as well.
Agricultural pollution has major consequences for human health. This is not talking about the greenhouse gas effect of production, rather the use of tilling and persistent organic pollutants (pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers) and the presence of heavy metals stored in the soils. The build-up of these organic pollutants have many impacts on health, including increased risks for chronic illnesses and cancer. Dust pollution is a major factor due to current tillage practices. Chemical agriculture soils can hold more pathogens than biological soils, these put farmers and others at risk for respiratory illnesses. Fortunately by increasing organic matter and microorganisms in the soil we can not only avoid but fix these problems in the soil.
Regenerative practices puts more focus on holistic growing. By using the microorganisms in the soil to induce nutrient cycling the plants are taking up more nutrients and a wider variety of nutrients from the soil. The plants are more nutrient dense, leading for more flavourful fruits and vegetables. The introduction of large scale chemical agriculture has lead to decreases in the nutrition of the foods we eat. The reason that vegetables and fruits that are grown locally and by yourself taste so much better is because of the lack of chemicals in the growing process. Restoring the soil and using more holistic growing practices brings back the flavour and
nutrition to your food. The next time you are going out to get produce think about the flavour difference between a local tomato vs one from the grocery store. It is easy to reintroduce flavour and nutrition back into our foods by following the practices that are talked about above.
Microorganism populations and diversity in the soil is more closely linked to the human gut and microbiome than you may think. The gut microbiome is a thriving community that helps regulate a variety of functions in the body. Human health is closely linked to gut health. So how does microorganisms and the soil support that? The microbiome of the human gut has a few similarities to that of the plant rhizosphere. Both systems work to supply nutrients, protect against infections and suppress disease. It is suggested that we can increase the health of our gut microbe by eating whole organics foods that are rich with microbe themselves. Healthy soil that is productive produces productive and nutrient dense plants. The microorganisms that help support this are also creating metabolites, vitamins and minerals. Plants have the incredible ability to produce compounds that are used for anti-inflammatories, anti-viral, anti-cancer and immune supporting functions. We know that plants have a long history of medicinal uses but further research is needed to connect how the soil biology connects to our human biology.
Soil health is human health in terms of reduction of chemicals in agriculture, the increase of natural nutrient cycling, increased water filtration, decreased agricultural dust, and increases in nutrient dense food. The biggest aid for human health is the climate change mitigation that biological soils are a part of, but that is for the next blog post.
So this summer when the local farmers markets open up I encourage you to think about what type of food you would like to eat? Holistically grown local food that is nutritious and delicious or the alternative?
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