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The Earth Day Confessions of a soil health geek

By Ron Nichols

Soil Health image  Illustration by Catherine Ulitsky, NRCS

Illustration by Catherine Ulitsky, NRCS

I am a soil health geek.

I didn’t seek to become a geek, but the more I learned about our living and life-giving soil, the more I became convinced this miracle under our feet holds the promise of our future.

We are all connected to the soil. Without it, life as we know it would not exist. However, for years it was believed that the best hope for our precious soil was to slow its rate of erosion—to retard its inevitable decline.

Fortunately, a growing number of pioneering farmers, researchers and conservationists that work with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have shown us that we can actually build our soils—make them more productive, profitable and resilient to weather extremes like drought.

By farming using soil health principles and practices like no-till, cover cropping and diverse rotations, these farmers are actually increasing organic matter in their soil, increasing microbial activity, sequestering more carbon, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields. Off-the-farm, these practices are improving water and air quality, too.

And that’s good news for all of us on Earth Day 2015.

As I’ve worked on NRCS’ “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil” awareness and education campaign over the past couple of years, I’ve had the privilege of talking with dozens of our nation’s soil health farmers. What I’ve learned from them has been inspiring.

I’ve asked these farmers why they changed from “conventional farming” to “regenerative farming,” focusing on soil health. Their answers were essentially the same. Once they recognized that soil was alive, and that the microbes in the soil were critical “business partners,” they realized that it made sense protect that life. And so they now farm in ways to improve the health of their living soil.

Increasingly, farmers throughout the nation are adopting these soil health management systems. In so doing, they are growing a new hope in healthy soil.

Which makes for one proud and optimistic soil health geek this Earth Day.