More Than Dirt: World Soil Day

Soil health is a key component to renewable, organic agricultural practices, which is probably why I keep bringing it up. Farmers, organic or otherwise, instinctively understand at least the basic necessity of soil—without it crops could not grow and farms would more or less cease to exist. But in organic agriculture, we learn that soil is more than just “dirt” or something that holds a plant in place. So, in celebration of World Soil Day, I wanted to share some thoughts and facts about soil perhaps you didn’t know before. Whether you’re a farmer, gardener or just curious about the food you eat and where it comes from, understanding the necessity for healthy soil is a good place to start.

But first, maybe a quick introduction of the observance that inspired today’s post? World Soil Day is a relatively new commemoration to celebrate soil as well as educate folks about the importance of it. It’s certainly a great day for organic farmers to share and promote one of the factors that makes us different from conventional agriculture. But, in reality, we all eat and 95% of that food originates, directly or indirectly, from the soil, so appreciation of healthy soil should be important to everyone.

So, what are the benefits of healthy soil? Let’s start with healthier food! It then follows that healthier food produces healthier people. I believe that Hippocrates had the right of it: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” And healthy soil dramatically increases the nutritional value of the food we eat. I’ve mentioned this before and we have seen it here on our farm. While conventional agriculture focuses on quantity and cheap food, these higher yields do not have the same nutritional value as crops grown in healthy organic soil. Hence our “cheap” food really comes to us at a very high cost.

Another benefit of healthy soil is biodiversity. Diversity is also another key factor in organic agriculture. Nature has a very specific balance and soil plays a huge part. According to Kathy Merrifield, a retired nematologist at Oregon State University, a teaspoon of healthy soil can support “up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa and scores of nematodes.” Soil rich with biodiversity also has greater drought resilience because it’s better able to absorb and store water. And for dry-land farmers like me in the semi-arid climate of north-central Montana, water retention is very important. One main difference between organic and chemical agriculture is organic agriculture focuses on feeding and nourishing the soil which will then feed and nourish the plants grown in it. While chemical agriculture focuses on feeding the plant directly with things like chemically-compounded fertilizers.

These are really just a couple benefits of healthy soil and why I believe it is so important, not only for farmers, but for everyone. Our soil is a resource as essential as water or air. For more information on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FOA) work in sustainable soil management, be sure to check out the following video: