Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy world
Healthy soil is important to all of us. Think about your vegetable or flower garden. Plants get their nutrients from the soil and the healthier your soil is, the healthier your plants are. Here in Illinois, our soil is naturally rich and productive, but farmers must be good stewards of the land to ensure our soil health is sustained for years to come.
“Sustainable” has become a buzzword for better environmental practices. In reality, sustainability means a lot more than that. Sustainability on the farm means balancing environmental needs with economic realities, and it takes careful consideration to strike the right balance.
Research driven farming methods
Farmers aren’t alone in their work to improve their sustainability practices. Soil Health Partnership (SHP) works to measure the environmental realities and economic benefits of soil conservation methods. Farmers use the information they collect to make data-driven decisions that improve the productivity and sustainability of their farms.
Some of the soil conservation methods farmers can choose to use on their farm include:
- Reduced tillage – Less turning over of the soil, saves soil from wind and water erosion
- Cover crops – Crops grown over the winter as a blanket for the soil to keep soil in place
- Advanced nutrient management – Varying fertilizer application methods to reduce the amount of fertilizer used on each field
Each farm has different needs. The key is for farmers to identify and use what works best for their land.
Farmers like Stan Kuhns work with SHP by using these methods on pieces of their land where researchers can collect data. On his farm in southern Illinois, soil erosion was a problem, so he began researching conservation methods and eventually decided to partner with SHP.
Erosion causes soil loss
“When I partnered with SHP a few years ago, we were already no-till farming (farming without turning the soil over each year) because we were experiencing soil loss due to erosion on our hilly farmland. Eliminating tillage meant fewer passes through the field, reducing our input cost and helping our soil stay in the fields. Through our partnership with SHP, we’ve incorporated cover crops into our conservation strategy, too, which has helped increase the organic matter on our farm.”
Organic matter matters
You can’t talk about soil health without hearing the words “organic matter.” To put it simply, organic matter is any plant residue decomposing in the soil. It indicates good soil health and is essential for providing nutrients to grow plants, reduce compaction and retain moisture.
SHP analyzes the effect of conservation strategies on soil health
“I watched our organic matter increase over the years once we stopped tilling. Eventually, I started going to cover crop conferences to learn more about incorporating those on my farm. I found out that if I had been growing cover crops along with our no-till practice, I would have been increasing organic matter twice as fast,” says Stan.
“The thing about soil health is that you can’t improve it overnight. It takes five to seven years of using something like cover crops before you start seeing a notable return on that investment. Having said that, cover crops do have an immediate impact on soil erosion for farms like mine. When you have plants growing year-round, the root system and soil cover helps hold soil in place. Step one in improving soil health is keeping soil on the farm.”
Stan shares information from his farm during an SHP tour
The future of soil health
With the help of experts and continued research, farmers are learning more and more about what they can do to maintain and improve our rich Illinois soil. Experts are researching even more ways to positively impact soil health in the future while providing enough food, fiber and fuel to meet the demands of a growing population.