Leaving the soil in the best shape possible has always been a goal for Chip Baker in Sussex County, Delaware. He’s been farming for 40 years. He grew up in farming, learning the ropes from those generations before him. “In my generation, the tradition was to not plant in the fall to give the soil a rest to improve it—that’s just the way it was and that’s what I did,” said Baker. He left the ground uncovered during the winter months. And ‘keeping the land pretty,’ which was also tradition for his generation, meant tilling up the crops and leaving no residue.
What Baker didn’t realize until much later is fields that are covered in crops year-round, even during the winter season, provide a tremendous amount of benefits compared to a rested field.
“If we had known 25 years ago what we know now, then that’s what we would’ve been doing,” said Baker. “This has changed the way I farm for good.”
Cover crops are crops that are planted in late summer or fall around harvest and left to cover the ground before spring planting of the following year. In the last couple of years, Baker has planted cover crops on his 1,000-acre corn and soybean operation—keeping his ground covered all year around.
Growers who are implementing cover crops are increasing organic matter by keeping in a living root; they’re improving water infiltration with deep-rooted crops; they’re protecting the soil against erosive heavy rains and winds; and they’re providing winter food and cover for birds and other wildlife, among other benefits.
Soils need our help to be healthy
While managing for improved soil health doesn’t have to be expensive, it does require resources and some instruction. According to Sally Kepfer, NRCS State Resource Conservationist in Delaware, she encourages farmers to use a suite of conservation practices, like no-till and diverse cover crops. “The practices we’re encouraging farmers to implement are keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible and keeping the soil surface covered with residue year round.”
Backyard and large-scale production growers who are rotating their crops are multiplying the benefits of soil health. Crop diversity prevents disease and pest problems associated with monocultures; it also increases the choices of insects for wildlife and their diet as different insects harbor in different crops.
Everyone with even a small plot can do their part to improve and protect their soil by not disturbing it and allowing dead vegetation to decompose. Using native plants can aid in controlling pests by attracting pollinators that feed on harmful insects. Adding compost, especially worm compost, can help by making soil ecosystems more robust.
Healthy soil is the connector from the ground into our daily lives. While the growing population depends on healthy soil for sustainability, so does the plant life, wildlife, water quality and more.
Managing for soil health affects us all. Franklin Roosevelt said, “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.” The same is true 75 years ago, as it is today.