Author: Brian DeVore | Published: August 8, 2016
It’s been said that soil without biology is just geology—an accumulation of lifeless minerals unable to spawn healthy plant growth. And as intense monocropping production practices increasingly remove more life from the ground than they return, it sends that soil closer to fossilization via what conservationist Barry Fisher calls, “the spiral of degradation”: eroded, compacted and, eventually, dead.
But if a pair of Land Stewardship Project meetings held in southeastern Minnesota recently are any indication, a number of farmers don’t see such a downward plunge as written in stone. Fisher and other soil health experts at these meetings strongly encouraged the standing-room only crowds to return as much biology as possible to the ground beneath our feet. And in most cases, that means making it so living roots are present 365-days-a-year.
“So when in doubt, you plant,” said Fisher, who heads up the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Soil Health Division for the central part of the U.S. Until recently, he headed up a soil health partnershipin Indiana that has made that state the leader in cover crop establishment.
Indeed, through presentations, panel discussions and networking, farmers participating in the southeastern Minnesota meetings focused on a key soil health improvement strategy that is based on Fisher’s advice: cover crops. During the past five years, there’s been a lot of excitement generated around the growing of these non-cash crops on corn and soybean fields before and after the regular growing season. These crops, which are often small grains such as cereal rye or brassicas such as tillage radish, have proven to be very effective at not only building soil health, but also keeping it from washing and blowing away in the first place. In fact, erosion control is the number one reason farmers begin experimenting with cover crops, according to Sarah Carlson, Midwest Cover Crops Coordinator for Practical Farmers of Iowa.