Digging into the soil renaissance

By Lebo Moore

DES MOINES, Iowa­­­ – It can take hundreds of years to create just one inch of topsoil. And yet, due to development and erosion we have allowed half of the topsoil on the planet be lost in the last 150 years.

This staggering problem has not been lost on Bill Buckner, president and chief executive officer of The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation a non-profit institute based in Ardmore, Oklahoma that works to assist farmers and ranchers through plant science research and agricultural programs.

“We didn’t perceive the value of our soil like we should have over the years,” said Buckner.

Three years ago, Buckner, who has a background in crop inputs, began to change operations on his own conventional farm in Missouri in order to help the soil and address some of the climatic issues on the horizon.

Now Buckner is an ex-officio member of the Soil Renaissance – a collaboration between The Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation and the Farm Foundation, a non-advocacy public charity located in Oak Brook, Illinois, which aims to provide objective analysis and innovative ideas to address the critical future of agriculture.

The goal of the Soil Renaissance is to reawaken the public to the importance of soil health for enhancing healthy, profitable and sustainable resource systems.


Soil Fact Sheet courtesy of soilrenaissance.org

One way to illustrate the value of soil is through case study research, like that of Janice Theis, Cornell University soil ecologist. As a researcher Theis works with farmers around the world to establish better soil monitoring practices to be used as a tool for improving soil health.

“For so long we have focused on chemical aspects of (soil) evaluation. And I will submit to you that it is not adequate. There is a lot more going on with this.” Theis said.

In addition, Theis emphasized the importance of understanding the biological aspects of soil. Her work in South Africa with ZZ2 Farm, the largest tomato cultivator in the country, highlighted the importance of paying attention to every aspect of soil management.

ZZ2, which operates in many regions of South Africa, cultivates mammoth proportions of food—1600 hectares of tomatoes, 500 hectares of onions, 400 hectares of avocados and 60,000 hectares of livestock.

But ZZ2 had a problem. Despite an increase in fertilization, crops at ZZ2 were failing and the company came to the realization that they had virtually killed their soil.

Dead soil is not something that such a heavy weight in South African agriculture could afford. Their solution: a natural farming biological practice called the Natuurboerdery® System.

As part of the plan, ZZ2 moved toward integrated pest management and they switched from overhead sprinkler systems to drip irrigation. They also began to focus on crop rotation, minimal tillage and cover cropping in an attempt to increase carbon content in their soil.

In 2010, Theis and eight Cornell students travelled to ZZ2 as a multi-disciplinary applied research team to learn about the natural farming system.

Essentially ZZ2 had begun to practice conservation agriculture, Theis said. After evaluating the system, the research team aided ZZ2 in creating a systematic soil health rubric in order for the company to develop consistent measurements and evaluation of their soil health.

But soil health is important for small-scale farmers as well. Theis has also conducted research with small-scale farmers over four rainy seasons in Kenya. These smaller test plots were used to measure how different inputs of organic matter effect root development.

Experimenting with bio-char and worm composting showed great yield and overall increased plant growth. In addition Theis found that using hands-on tangible methods, while working with the farmers was an “extremely visual way to interact with these folks on the ground,” Theis said.

According to Theis, the research addressed delivering biological measurements that could be seen by the farmers. Having the ability to hold a healthy and a sick root in your hand and then connect back to the way you had managed your soil, strengthened the learning cycle by using visual examples.

Theis’ work is a prime example of soil renaissance. Her research recognizes the integral role soil has for small and large scale agriculture but also for human health and livelihood.

Through research and education, the Soil Renaissance works to encourage a public re-awakening on the importance of soil health, the base of the world’s nutrients.

As Theis flew into Iowa to attend the World Food Prize conference she could not help but notice the patchwork of farms out the airplane window. For Theis, soil health is an incredibly visible threat that needs to be addressed. “You can literally read the landscape and see these problems just right from the airplane window,” said Theis.

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