Farm soil health – if you eat food, it matters to you

I had the opportunity to attend a farm tour hosted by Illinois Farm Families to learn more about farm soil health. You may think its “just dirt,” but it’s actually where the root (get it?!) of our food’s nutrition begins.

farm soil health

I buy food at the grocery store, take it home, cook it, eat it and only sometimes think about how it started from a seed or a plant in the ground. You too? It’s definitely a topic that should garner more attention than it gets and something that is relevant to all of us as eaters of food.

Farm soil health: What’s the big deal?

We started the day by learning about the history of Paul Taylor’s farm in Esmond, Illinois. It’s a farm that has been in his family for many generations and has evolved over the years. There is a lot of rich history there, and it was obvious he took a lot of pride in what his family has done for years and what he does today.

Dietitians learn where our food comes from

This year, farmers across the U.S. have faced less-than-ideal conditions trying to get their crops planted due to all of the rain this spring. However, we could see in Paul’s eyes that he wasn’t just concerned about the impact the weather will have on his farm financially. He takes pride in his land. He cares about it, wants to do right by it and wants consumers to get delicious and nutritious food from it. He needs healthy soil in order to grow healthy crops. In fact, Paul grows vegetables for Del Monte, so even our canned sweet corn and peas could be affected by the weather this year.

How farmers care for the soil

We were able to see some different types of farm soil health practices (i.e., using cover crops, tilling, no-till and no cover crops) and learn about what they mean for the soil, the farm and the environment as a whole. Farming is still evolving, adapting and expanding after all of these years, and it was so interesting to learn about the newest approaches and technologies aimed at sustainability for the ecosystem. Cover crops are one example.

Each farmer’s reason for using cover crops could be different, and they need to determine what is right for each piece of their farm. Whether aiming to reduce erosion, reduce compaction, trying to get better yields, reducing inputs or improving overall agronomic management systems, I learned that a cover crop can be part of the solution.

Cereal rye is a very common cover crop and can be planted without too many management concerns. Each type of cover crop carries its own benefits and drawbacks that vary across soil types. Certain soils with a lower organic matter and that are drought prone will see some advantages much faster than heavier, highly productive soils. Generally, short-term risks of using cover crops include cooler, wet soils in springtime, resulting in delayed planting or emergence and increased insect pressure.

All of this goes to show that there are many factors that go into farming. It’s easy for us (living in the city, somewhat removed from farming areas) to think of planting and harvesting, but farmers are concerned with the farm soil health way beyond that. They’re playing the long game to ensure their farm can produce a healthy yield and that they are being efficient about it.

Supporting local farmers and their practices

We also learned about something that was super interesting to me: Food companies support farmers and farming initiatives. For example, PepsiCo and Walmart are members of Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture along with small farmer associations and even farmers themselves. Field to Market aims to define, measure, and advance the sustainability of food, feed, fiber, and fuel production in the United States.

Brands we recognize and purchase have a vested interest in the success of the farmers who grow for them. Another example is the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a collaboration among many organizations along the supply chain who are dedicated to agricultural solutions that protect air and water quality and enhance farm soil health. Midwest Row Crop Collaborative is supported by companies like Kellogg’s, PepsiCo, Walmart and McDonald’s.

This farm tour experience made me want to support my local farmers here in Illinois even more, and I hope you will too! Farmers markets are abundant this time of year, so make sure you check them out in your area! And don’t forget, you can also support farmers like Paul by making a trip to your local grocery store. Every vegetable, potato chip and piece of meat started out on a farm like this one and was grown by a farmer who cares.

farm soil health tour

Read takeaways from other dietitians on the farm tour here:

Where our food comes from – farming is everyone’s business

We want a sustainable food system, but what does that mean?

The 3 pillars of farm sustainability and soil health

Maggie Michalczyk


About Maggie

Maggie is a Chicago-based registered dietitian, recipe developer, and author of the Once a Upon a Pumpkin cookbook.

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