The 3 Pillars of Farm Sustainability and Soil Health

“Sustainability is NOT a destination, rather it is a journey.” –

We can’t have food without farms, and farmers can’t grow/raise food without healthy soil. What does this actually mean for us individually? Think of the last time you drove past a farm field. Remember seeing those rows – the promise of future food. When is the last time you walked barefoot through the grass or dug in the dirt?

Close your eyes and imagine that you are seeing that field and feeling the earth beneath you. Even if the closest to this you have come is standing on a sidewalk waiting for your ride, take a moment to think about the ground beneath your feet.

You may have heard that only 2% of the population is connected to a farm or ranch these days. That means 98% of us are not. So when Illinois Farm Families offered the opportunity for some dietitians/health professionals (including me!) to visit a family farm and spend time with Illinois farmers Paul Taylor and Jim Isermann from Soil Health Partnership, it was an easy (and happy!) “yes.”

As a dietitian, I am not having lengthy conversations with people about farm sustainability and soil health. Nor should I by myself without engaging with experts like Paul and Jim to help dig into the complexities of this topic. What we all do need, though, to better understand our food and how much thought and care it takes to grow and raise it for us, is a basic understanding of what happens on a farm. This includes the overarching values of farmers as well as gaining an understanding of how each farm is unique – literally down to the soil.

This is where the word “sustainability” becomes incredibly important. There are many ways to define sustainability correctly. I’ve actually written about this. In this case, it’s about the “three legged stool”: social, environmental and economic relevance. An easy way to think about this is, what is the win-win-win? For individuals, businesses and the planet?

Kim Kirchherr, RDN learning farm sustainability and soil health

Sustainable – is it environmentally, socially and economically viable? Here is my take on some of what Paul shared:

Kim Kirchherr, RDN learning farm sustainability and soil health

Soil health and the environment

Soil is alive and needs care. You may see a field that looks messy, but it might be the best thing for the nutrients the crops need next year (and beyond). We got to see a rain simulation on different-looking “fields,” and it wasn’t just about how the fields looked. It was how the soil performed. Soil needs to stick together enough to hold the rain, but not so much that rain can’t get in, and not so loose that the soil leaves as rain washes away.

Kim Kirchherr, RDN learning farm sustainability and soil health

Measures to improve farm sustainability and soil health include crop rotation, consideration of what is going on in the “off season,” types of crops each year and how to replenish and get even better for the next planting season. Oh, and by the way, this is true for conventional and organic farms. Both have soil health programs, both use pesticides (different types) and both have weeds and pests to manage. Healthy soil helps manage rainwater, keeps nutrients where they are needed most and helps the future food supply have a place to grow, too.

The economics of soil health

The environmental piece of this puzzle makes total sense from the crop point of view. The same could be said for economics, because crops need to grow for the farmer to stay in business. Knowing how to keep soil in prime condition makes growing possible now and for years to come. While this leg of the stool is important for the success of the farm, it’s not possible without the other two legs.

Kim Kirchherr, RDN learning farm sustainability and soil health

Getting social with soil health

Family farmers are a part of their community as neighbors, friends and business owners. They have a vested interest in a healthy environment and good relationships with neighbors, just like the rest of us. The difference here is, the sense of community extends not only logistically to the people and farms they live near, but also to the additional experts and people involved in helping the farm thrive, like Jim, and with nature itself from a soil perspective. Having good relationships and caring for each other and shared natural resources unites a community in a special way, especially as we think about the end result: our food.

Kim Kirchherr, RDN learning farm sustainability and soil health

Learning from and collaborating with people who know things that I don’t is one of my favorite things personally and professionally, so I appreciated seeing this interaction tremendously. It was also amazing to get to hear from other Illinois family farmers from a neighboring farm who came to spend time with us on Paul’s farm to help answer all of our questions about farm sustainability and soil health.

Farmers are doing their part to be sustainable through things like crop rotation, cover crops and careful pest management, but those aren’t always an option for those of us in the city or suburbs. What can you do, besides learn more from farmers and other agriculture experts? Create your own three-legged stool! Here are some quick ways you can manage your own resources, even if you don’t have soil to tend to:

  1. Replace your lightbulbs with those that are more energy efficient.
  2. Turn off the water when brushing your teeth, washing dishes and performing other tasks.
  3. Make a plan. Learn about dates on packages, how to properly store food and how to manage your leftovers so you don’t waste any of the food farmers grow and raise for us. Bonus? This can help save you money and time in the long run, too!
  4. Contact your waste management service and your local health department to learn what you can recycle and/or compost to help manage what is sent to landfills.
  5. Keep learning about all the wonderful things that happen from the farm to our tables.

A sense of community brought together by the well-cared-for soil beneath our feet. That’s a good day.

Kim Kirchherr, RDN learning farm sustainability and soil health

Kim Kirchherr

Kim Kirchherr, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, FAND, ACSM-CPT

About Kim

I’m a Dietitian with expertise in agriculture, food, health, and people.

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