By Oliver Berger —
We are slowly beginning to understand the value of treating the life under the surface of the ground we walk on with a bit more respect.
In late January, the Young Agrarians along with the Cattlemen’s Association held a seminar at Thompson’s River University, Williams Lake Campus with this exact topic in mind: soil health.
At a balmy -30 degrees C outside there was a great turnout. Farmers, ranchers, composters, and eager soil geeks from around the region gathered to soak up everything we could. Speakers came from across British Columbia, Manitoba, and even the United States to share with us.
I was expecting most of the talk to focus on general ranching practices and farming techniques; however, to my delight this seminar focused completely on its title subject—Building Soil Health—and explaining its direct connection to farming and ranching. By focusing more of our energy on what is beneath the surface as opposed to what we see growing above it, we can completely regenerate our soil and reap more benefits than we ever thought.
The main speaker, Dr. Kris Nichols, started us off explaining soil microbiology to provide deep descriptions of how to regenerate soils. Many interactions take place underground, especially with the assistance of mycorrhizal fungi, a key element in making soil. The fungi are a relationship builder, carrying nutrients and bacteria between plants, roots, and water. We have all heard how tree roots speak with each other through fungi.Well, it turns out all root systems can work the same way.
“The biggest thing lacking for farming and ranching is your soil,” said Nichols. “It determines your limitations.” He reminded us to get out of our heads and think of new approaches instead of relying on traditional styles. We learned to treat soil like we treat ourselves: if we only eat one type of food—like doughnuts, let’s say—how will our bodies react and grow? We learned it is important to feed our soil year round, supply it with a diverse diet, protect it from the extremes, and, just as we stress our bodies with exercise to build muscle, push some limits on our fields to build strength in our soils.
Simply put, all organic matter created on agricultural land should never leave the site. Living and breathing plants capture much of the carbon in our atmosphere. They use that carbon to build their plant structures while all the excess is pushed through their roots and stored in our soil. The more organic matter in the soil the easier it is for the carbon to be captured underground. Microbes thrive in this type of carbon-rich environment, which in turn makes nitrogen more readily available for your plants. Cha-ching!
Most often when nitrogen fertilizers are applied, the plant is not ready for that much uptake and may only absorb 30–50 percent. The excess runs off into our watersheds and evaporates into our atmosphere. Nitrous oxide is almost 300 times more potent than CO2 and has an atmosphere lifetime of ~121 years. Studies have shown that we use more synthetic nitrogen to produce a bushel of corn today than we did in 1960. Yes, yields have gone up; however, nitrogen-use efficiency has decreased. The soils need our help—it needs our carbon.
Every time we till the land, turn the soil, or cut down trees we expose the existing carbon in the ground to the air, releasing CO2. Carbon is the skeleton of what is beneath our feet, and we have been taking that skeleton apart, bone by bone, and putting it in the atmosphere. We must focus on carbon sequestration (aka: photosynthesis) in our gardens and our agricultural practices.
The term ‘brown revolution’ was noted during the seminar. The benefit of using carbon in our fields and sequestering it through our plants in the agricultural world is growing. Protecting the ground from exposure, reducing tillage, managing livestock effectively, reducing synthetic fertilizers, diversifying crops, and maximizing photosynthesis have all produced positive results in building soil health.
Regenerative farming, as it is also called, could offset a massive portion of our CO2 emissions. Almost 40 percent of the earth’s surface is used for farming—imagine if all that land sequestered carbon more efficiently. We can change the system while all together improving soil health, increasing soil porosity, protecting against flooding, creating more jobs, growing more nutritious food, and improving our relationship with the land.
Now I wonder if anyone else noticed all the potential carbon in this garbage can… -GG
Oliver Berger has a 37-year degree in life, starting out in the Spokin Lake area, spending adolescence in Williams Lake, and then venturing throughout the world on a quest of always learning new things. His priorities include dedication to and education about waste management.