Cashing in on Soil Quality

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Talk of how agriculture can improve soil quality seems to be popping up more frequently these days. Perhaps the most exciting recent mention was in an issue of Successful Farming magazine, which has produced an impressive package of stories called The Good Earth. Most of what’s in this package won’t be news to anyone who’s followed sustainable agriculture in recent years. However, it’s worth the read because sprinkled throughout are several hard-nosed figures citing the economic value of high soil quality. Such talk of the financials related to healthier soil is key if more farmers are to adopt systems that provide better homes for all those billions of microbes, and in turn a more sustainable environment for all of us.

When mob grazier Greg Judy came to Minnesota last fall, he talked a lot about being a “microbe farmer.” To listen to someone like Greg Judy or Loretta Jaus or Duane Hager wax poetic about the joys of building organic matter in their soil can be pretty exhilarating, believe it or not. It’s fascinating to hear how farmers use livestock, intricate crop rotations, cover crops, green manures and nature itself to not just keep soil from blowing away, but to make that soil as full of life as possible.

It’s no surprise that the majority of farmers I’ve talked to about soil quality over the past few decades are organic or near organic. Since this method of farming can’t rely on applying petroleum-based products to boost fertility, its practitioners must focus on building the soil’s innate ability to produce healthy, high-yielding plants.

That’s why it’s so positive to see such a frank and open discussion about the importance of soil health in one of the most mainstream (and popular) farming publications in the country. This means an important message will reach an important group of farmers: those that are raising corn and soybeans conventionally, but who are looking for practical ways to reduce input costs.

A magazine like Successful Farming knows that it’s audience is very focused on the bottom line, and The Good Earth does the ag community a favor by showing that farm practices which improve soil quality aren’t just the right thing to do—they pay off.

A few nice numbers from the magazine:

  • The value of the services provided by soil organisms is estimated to be $1.5 trillion annually.
  • Organic matter makes up less than 6 percent of the soil, but it controls more than 90 percent of the soil’s function.
  • North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown estimates that soil with 1 percent organic matter contains 1,000 pounds of nitrogen and 100 pounds each of phosphorus, potassium and sulfur per acre. At today’s fertilizer prices, that makes those organic matter-fueled nutrients worth $650 per acre.
  • By improving soil health, Brown says he’s increased organic matter levels to around 4 percent in his soils. According to his calculations, that means those top six inches of soil are holding $2,600 worth of crop nutrients per acre.

These are important numbers, and more of them are out there. Talking about how wonderful healthy soil feels, smells and even looks is important. In fact, these are key ways to monitor soil quality. But to get the conventional ag crowd to take concrete, daily steps to stop treating the soil like dirt, we need to dig up as many of these financials as possible.


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