And God said, “Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear.” And it was so. God called the dry ground “land,” and the gathered waters he called “seas.” And God saw that it was good. Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day. (Genesis Chapter 1: vs.9, 10, 13, The Bible, NIV)
So when you say something is as old as dirt, that means it has been round since the beginning of the world. Yet, the soil that was around on day 3 of creation is not the same soil we have today. Environmental and geological forces have changed the location and composition of the earth’s soil. Agriculture, in its comparatively short existence, has also had an impact. The soil we farm today is much different than what the first farmers in Indiana worked. There is also much less of it.
While erosion caused by farming practices has resulted in a reduction of top soil, far more loss of productive farmland has occurred because of urban sprawl. As our society changed from an agrarian one to an industrial one, millions of acres of farmland were taken out of production for factories, houses, and, most recently, big box stores. Producing more food on less land and on less productive land is one of the biggest challenges agriculture has faced and will continue to face. Advances in plant and animal genetics, chemical fertilizers and crop protection, along with advances in mechanization have helped U.S. farmers increase their productivity 10-fold. Now there is a movement that has the potential to continue this advance in productivity while improving the environment. The soil health movement began in the Midwest, with many Indiana farmers being the first to explore not only what was happening above ground but under the ground. It started with new and reduced tillage methods and then moved on to the planting of cover crops. Now the focus is the biological activity in the soil. The goal is to not only increase the organic matter in soil but to understand and improve the biology of the soil.
A growing number of farmers are testing and monitoring their soil to find out how they can improve fertility and water management, as well as minimize runoff and erosion. State and federal agencies have begun providing technical and financial assistance to producers who are involved in this movement. Indiana State Conservationist Jane Hardisty told me this movement has the potential to change the way we farm in the future and is the keystone to agricultural sustainability worldwide.
That term “sustainability” is a hot button with consumers who want low-cost, abundant food, and also environmental responsibility. Improving the health of our soil is key to getting consumer support for modern agriculture. What I find especially exciting is that much of the research is not being done by Universities or companies, but rather by individual farmers on their farms who then share their results with other farmers. Pardon the pun, but this is truly a grass roots movement.
Farmers have always cared about their land and have a desire to leave it better then they found it. In the past, this has focused on above ground issues, but now also includes that is happening under the ground. The next revolution in agriculture may well be discovering the complexity, amazing productivity, and resiliency of the soil described in Genesis.
By Gary Truitt