Back to our Roots: Perennial Roots and Soil Health

By: Woody Woodruff

Have you ever had one of those moments when you did something, and after you had time to reflect, the lesson about what you just did hits you over the head?  I had one of those “ah ha” moments earlier this month. The experience started with a call from a friend, Jack Erisman of Goldmine Farms, wanting to know if I had any old photos of his soil pit from a last year. A soil pit is a 4 foot deep, by 2 foot wide, by 6 feet long hole dug into the soil and Jack had dug this pit for a field day that I had attended. The purpose of the soil pit was to show the soil layering as well as the root system in a field of Kernza. For those who have not seen any of my past articles of Kenza, it is a type of perennial wheat that was a cross between annual wheat and its cousin, intermittent wheat grass. Jack’s field of Kernza has been growing as a perennial crop for five years now. The problem with the photos though, was that I took them on my old cell phone camera….which I dropped into a pond….rendering the phone useless, so I no longer had the photos he was looking for.

However, I told Jack that I was free that morning, and that I could drive over and we could just dig up some plants of kernza with my hand tree spade and knock off the soil to expose the roots. This way he would have a good visual of the plant’s roots to use. I told him I could make it to the field by 9:00am, and he said he had a meeting in town at 10:00am. I said no problem.  Well, there was a problem. We started on time, but kernza is a plant with a massive root mass that is easily eight feet long and tillers out as it grows. With two spades we were able to break away maybe three and a-half feet of roots into a large block. It was all that we could do to just flip the large block of roots and sod over. Neither of us is as young as we once were.

Kernza root mass at Jack Erisman’s farm in Pana.

Once we had it flipped over, we began to carefully pick away the soil from the roots in order to be showcase the root system. Soon it was 10:00am, so I told Jack to just take my truck and go to his meeting, and I would have the soil cleaned out of the roots by the time he got back to the field. Well, it did not take me much longer to know that was not going to be the case. After getting about 15 inches of soil removed from the roots, the root mass just kept getting thicker and thicker. Soon, I just could not pick away any of the soil from the plant’s root mass.

 

I tried shaking the large ball but nothing would even fall off.  At 11:15 my truck pulls back into the field, and we discuss the situation and decide to just put the massive ball of sod back into the hole and give up on ever getting soil out of such a tight mass of roots.

Praire soil sample on the left, conservation tillage sample in the middle, no-till and and cover crop sample on the right.

When I got back home, I started working on a presentation for a conference that was coming soon.  One of the slides that I was using had three core soil samples that I had pulled and put on trays to sit outside for three months of continuous weather.  One sample was conservation tillage, one sample was no-till with three years cover crops, and the last sample was from a restored prairie on my farm that has been growing for the past 25 years. That was when the “ah ha” moment hit me. Five years of that perennial kernza compared closer to the prairie sample than any annual cropland core sample I have ever seen.  From my experience of just showing up to help a friend, it became clear to me that if we want to regenerate our soils and bring them back to the original level of soil health that existed in the prairie days, perennial crops like Kernza will be key. Illinois Stewardship Alliance is working with the Land Institute and Green Lands Blue waters to promote perennial cropping systems in Illinois. If you want to learn more about some of the other perennial crops that are being developed check out the Land Institute.