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Soil = Life

Posted Nov. 10, 2014

Soil Renaissance movement reawakens focus on soil health
soil = life

"What's soil got to do, got to do with it? Everything."

Wayne Honeycutt, Ph.D.,

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  • The Soil Renaissance

The Mission:
The Soil Renaissance awakens the public to the importance of soil health for enhancing healthy, profitable and sustainable natural resource systems.

The Vision:
Improving soil health is the cornerstone of land use management decisions.

Definition of Soil Health:
The continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans.

To see the most precious resource on the planet, walk outside and look down.

Soil is the foundation of life. The top 6 to 8 inches of rich organic matter that cover a small fraction of Earth's surface serve as the genesis for food, which drives the world's economy and, in turn, gives rise to modern society.

Yet so often, soil is treated like dirt.

It's no wonder really. Environmental anxieties clog the public consciousness, stacking in interconnected blocks like an oversized game of Armageddon Jenga. Overpopulation drives urban sprawl and increases resource consumption. Demand for goods ramps up production, impacting pollution, air quality and water concerns. Dead zones, desertification and deforestation ensue. Pull on one issue too much and the whole stack threatens to topple over.

And there at the bottom of the pile under all the headlines and public fear is soil.

As vital to the life cycle as sunshine and water, soil remains undervalued and overlooked.

Most never imagine that healthy soil could disappear, but this exhaustible resource requires active management to remain productive. This isn't the first time in history that soil health has required immediate attention.

The Southern Great Plains witnessed firsthand the life-altering impact of soil health. In the early 1900s, generations of farmers unknowingly taxed the soil with poor land stewardship. These practices combined with 10 years of drought to produce the great Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

If soil equated to life, then Oklahoma was dead.

Oilman and philanthropist Lloyd Noble had a unique perspective on the Dust Bowl's devastation. Noble pioneered the use of personal aviation as a means of travel between his drilling rigs across North America. From the air, he saw his home state lying in ruin. He became an advocate for protecting the soil and safeguarding the land for future generations. "No civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soils," Noble said. "When the soil is destroyed, the nation is gone."

Noble endowed Noble Research Institute as a means to prevent another Dust Bowl by raising awareness about proper soil management and providing agricultural producers with land stewardship education.

Seven decades later, significant concerns surrounding soil health have become evident but on a global scale. The organization Noble established is once again reaching out to fulfill its mission. This time, though, it will take a renaissance.

A funny thing happened at the forum

Maybe it was chance. Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was a friendly president making small talk, but a national movement in soil health began with an unlikely conversation between Bill Buckner, Noble Research Institute's president and CEO, and an organic farmer from New York.

Every year, the Farm Foundation a non-advocacy public charity focused on agriculture hosts a series of public forums that engage the full range of stakeholders about food, agricultural issues and rural policies. In the spring of 2013, Buckner joined 130 other invested individuals for a discussion about the future needs of research within the industry.

Buckner led wide-ranging discussions on the role of science and technology in agriculture and the food system at the forum. During a break, Buckner and the farmer two men with radically different backgrounds delved deeper into soil health issues, finding common ground and agreement on its importance. The pair brought the conversation to the larger group, which determined this issue needed immediate action.

"Soil health is a key factor in any agricultural production system, whether conventional or organic, yet soil is too often ignored or overshadowed by other factors," Buckner said. "It is critical that producers the people working directly with the land be in close communication with researchers and policymakers to ensure that their challenges are recognized and our soils are protected and sustained for future generations."

By fall, the conversation had advanced into action. Twenty-five leaders representing conventional and organic agriculture, science and research, land managers, and policymakers convened at the Noble Research Institute's campus in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to develop a road map.

A mere 72 hours later and the Soil Renaissance was born, designed to bring recognition to the central role of soil in productive agricultural systems.

"In many cases, the people in that room have little in common," said Farm Foundation President Neil Conklin. "They have different backgrounds, unique perspectives and differing opinions, but the unifying factor was the common belief that action must be taken to conserve and build up our soil profile."

The first challenge facing the group was building a consensus on a definition of "soil health" a seemingly innocuous but necessary step to bring continuity to all future work. This was completed by December 2013 , and, by spring, a strategic plan had been authored around four key areas: education, economics, research and measurement.

The latter of these as it turns out is both the impediment and the catalyst for the rest of the Soil Renaissance.

More than just car parts

To conduct research, to educate the masses, to understand the economics of soil, researchers must first agree on how to measure its health. It's the starting point, the baseline from which everything else will spring.

This is not a simple task, however. Dr. Rick Haney, Ph.D., has spent two decades as a soil scientist at USDA's (United States Department of Agriculture) Agricultural Research Service and advocates for a true measurement that is practical and can be adopted around the world, independent of soil type.

"Soils are different, yes, but the fundamentals are the same," he explained. "Microbes break down matter and release nutrients. We need a standardized set of measurements that compares apples to apples."

To be clear, there are no technological gizmos capable of taking a tablespoon of soil and evaluating its content, a la Men in Black. In fact, the technology is not even the issue. The focus of the tests, based on antiquated approaches, has had lasting implications for today's researchers.

"Think about a car. If you want to know how a car works, you take it apart and look at the pieces. We have treated soil like it was a car," Haney said. "We took it apart and picked the most important items to use, primarily the inorganic nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus (NPK). We measured them and then added more to increase yield. By doing it this way, you ignore the biology, and we can't forget that soil is a living thing."

Haney's soil health test, which is nationally recognized as one of the leading methods, avoids the pitfalls of traditional tests that only examine the inorganic matter. The Haney test instead focuses on a robust screening that examines the natural mechanisms happening within the soil, such as how a plant produces natural acids to solubilize the nutrients around it. This knowledge, in turn, gives a better understanding of what is actually happening to the nutrients (NPK), which are the biggest input costs for producers.

"If you ignore the natural systems, you are adding NPK on poor analysis," he said. "We get reliable, more realistic measurement of NPK so you don't have to apply as much. Sometimes it can have a dramatic impact on outcome."

The Haney test takes three days instead of a few hours and costs about $50 (compared to $10), but the results are wildly more accurate and ultimately producers are more efficient. They save more money by using less nutrients and limit the environmental impact, all at the same time.

"The test tells them a story that they've never seen before," Haney explained. "They can see that field A is better than field B, but they don't know why. Now they have the numbers. We've got to get farmers to thinking about the soil again; thinking about what their soil is trying to tell them."

A second soil health test has been developed by researchers at Cornell University. While the Haney test focuses on the biological factors that drive NPK, Cornell University folds in other elements of physical and chemical drivers.

In December, Soil Renaissance leaders will reconvene and hammer out the guidelines that can be adopted as the soil measurement test. "We're dragging soil testing into the 21st century," Haney said. "Most testing methods were developed in the 1950s and '60s. What technology do you still use from that era? We have to remember, however, we are at the tip of the iceberg in understanding soil health. We must continually adapt. We can't cling to the old ways."

Of course, some classic Tina Turner never hurt.

What's soil got to do, got to do with it?

On an unusually mild July morning in Washington D.C., Wayne Honeycutt,Ph.D., took the podium at a Farm Foundation Forum less than a year after the birth of the Soil Renaissance, a movement he now advocated.

The deputy chief for science and technology at the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) summarized the case for soil health.

He presented the stark challenges facing agriculture, including the increase of global population from 7 to 9.5 billion in the next 50 years; loss of 23 million acres of active agriculture land from 1982 to 2006; and the present danger to pollinators, on which 30 percent of the United States food crop depend.

Then Honeycutt surprised his audience by warbling his way through a revised version of Turner's What's love got to do with it?, replacing the key word "love" with "soil."

"What's soil got to do, got to do with it?" he sang, before emphatically adding: "Everything."

Honeycutt then detailed how soil health impacts crop resiliency, water quality and quantity, environmental issues, plant health, and the necessity of coordinated research. "Fundamental research is very much needed," he explained. "When I was a researcher, I remember doing a literature review, and I found that only half of organic phosphorus had even been identified. How can you understand, much less manage, something if it hasn't even been identified? There is so much of that basic research that has to be done."

With the measurement piece soon in place, that research will have a baseline. Soil Renaissance scientists then will identify research objectives and collaborate with USDA agencies to integrate soil health priorities into the President's FY2016 Budget proposal. Individual researchers and institutions will be able to provide support through collaborative projects, but funding on the national and international levels will be pivotal for success. "It is difficult to get funding for soil research," Haney said. "It's not sexy. It's not hot. But it's critical."

Running parallel to the research efforts will be an education program for consumers and policymakers about the critical role of soil, as well as detailing the underlying economics of soil health.

Soil health advocates know the adoption of standards hinges on showing the underlying financial impact and the economic benefit of investing in soil health, as well as how it mitigates long-term risk.

"There are layers upon layers of issues to address surrounding soil health," Buckner said. "Soil Renaissance addresses them all with an interconnected strategy. Unlike other soil efforts, we will have no financial gain. We are doing this because this is our responsibility. This is our moment in history to make a change before we can no longer salvage the vitality of soil. We must act now."

Because soil is life.