By: Woody Woodruff
Illinois Stewardship Alliance is celebrating with the whole world as the “International Year of Soil” kicks off this year. This is truly something big to celebrate. It’s the earth on which we live. It’s the ground that to which we are rooted. It’s the dirt from which we grow our food. But that just scratches the surface of soil. Soil seems to surpass the limits of any other medium in its ability to cooperate with all the organisms contained in the diverse ecosystems that stem from it. Soil’s vital function is to organize growth from the sum of all the natural parts that make up its form. Nearly all life on earth stems from soil. Humans breath air, drink water, take in nourishment, and digest waste. Our organs have some ability to filter these things in order to keep us healthy, but soils can do the cleaning and filtering a lot easier and more efficiently than we can. Soils breath oxygen, take in water, cycle and direct nutrients, and utilize decaying waste. When the soil is healthy and it does these things naturally, the results are cleaner air to breath, clearer water to drink, and more abundant nutrients to grow.
The health of soils is a vital aspect that affects the overall health of the ecosystems that they support. Soils communicate to those ecosystems living off of their structure, and everything on the planet is living off that soil structure. Unfortunately, the nature of our soils has been changed in the last century. We have been gutting the natural resources of the soil in the name of prosperity. We humans have replaced an extremely diverse, evolved, and adaptive grassland, wetland, and woodland ecosystem with acres of mono-cultured fields and less diverse ecosystems. Because of this, top soils are eroding, soil structures are compacting & breaking down, and diversity of flora and fauna are at an all-time low. Those same soils can and are communicating to humans: wake up! Our birth as humans was linked to the soil, our health as humans is linked to the soil, and in death we will be given back to the soil. We need to better respect the critical role soil plays in our very existence or extinction.
What are some of the principle changes that we need to focus on? Farms and gardens can no longer be worked up in the fall. We can’t have loose, bare soil exposed for the largest percentage of the year. Active roots, growing for as many months as possible, can increase soil biological activity and soil carbon. Planting cover crops, rotating crops, and diversifying the rotation are all ways to grow more roots. We also need to reduce soil compaction. Doing less tillage minimizes the destruction of soil structure, which supports the continuity of soil pores for air and water movement. We should also use alternatives to oil based fertilizers when possible. Properly applied green or livestock manure or grazing animals will increase soil microbial activity and nutrient cycling. These are some things you can do now to boost soil health fast, but to make a true impact we will need to have a large percentage of people on board. So spread the word, get your hands dirty, and let’s make a lasting change to our soils during the International Year of Soils celebration.