Free Shipping on Orders Over $100*

5 Principles of Soil Health

soil

Soil is all around us. We walk on it every day. We dig and play and plant in it. We harvest from it and nourish ourselves thanks to it. And yet, many of us aren’t aware just how critical a resource it is for our future. It’s the basis for healthy food production, is a crucial tool in maintaining resilience to floods and droughts, and is host to a quarter of our planet’s total biodiversity. So, when Gabe Brown puts out a call to protect soil health, we would all do well to heed his advice.

The following excerpt is from Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown. It has been adapted for the web.


Our lives depend on soil. This knowledge is so ingrained in me now that it’s hard for me to believe how many soil-destroying practices I followed when I first started farming. I didn’t know any better. In college I was taught all about the current industrial production model, which is a model based on reductionist science, not on how natural ecosystems function. The story of my farm is how I took a severely degraded, low-profit operation that had been managed using the industrial production model and regenerated it into a healthy, profitable one. The journey included many trials and constant experimentation, along with many failures and some successes. I’ve had many teachers, including other farmers and ranchers, researchers, ecologists, and my family. But the best teacher of all is nature herself.

In the everyday work of my farm, most of the decisions I make, in one way or another, are driven by the goal of continuing to grow and protect soil. I follow five principles that were developed by nature, over eons of time. They are the same any place in the world where the sun shines and plants grow. Gardeners, farmers, and ranchers around the world are using these principles to grow nutrient-rich, deep topsoil with healthy watersheds.

The five principles of soil health are:

  1. Limited disturbance. Limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil. Tillage destroys soil structure.It is constantly tearing apart the “house” that nature builds to protect the living organisms in the soil that create natural soil fertility. Soil structure includes aggregates and pore spaces (openings that allow water to infiltrate the soil). The result of tillage is soil erosion, the wasting of a precious natural resource. Synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides all have negative impacts on life in the soil as well.
  2. armoring soil

    Armoring the soil is one way to be resilient. The armor is the residue from a previous cover crop and a cash grain crop is growing through the armor.

    Armor. Keep soil covered at all times. This is a critical step toward rebuilding soil health. Bare soil is an anomaly—nature always works to cover soil. Providing a natural “coat of armor” protects soil from wind and water erosion while providing food and habitat for macro- and microorganisms. It will also prevent moisture evaporation and germination of weed seeds.

  3. Diversity. Strive for diversity of both plant and animal species. Where in nature does one find monocultures? Only where humans have put them! When I look out over a stretch of native prairie, one of the first things I notice is the incredible diversity. Grasses, forbs, legumes, and shrubs all live and thrive in harmony with each other. Think of what each of these species has to offer. Some have shallow roots, some deep, some fibrous, some tap. Some are high-carbon, some are low-carbon, some are legumes. Each of them plays a role in maintaining soil health. Diversity enhances ecosystem function.
  4. Living roots. Maintain a living root in soil as long as possible throughout the year. Take a walk in the spring and you will see green plants poking their way through the last of the snow. Follow the same path in late fall or early winter and you will still see green, growing plants, which is a sign of living roots. Those living roots are feeding soil biology by providing its basic food source: carbon. This biology, in turn, fuels the nutrient cycle that feeds plants. Where I live in central North Dakota, we typically get our last spring frost around mid-May and our first fall frost around mid-September. I used to think those 120 days were my whole growing season. How wrong I was. We now plant fall-seeded biennials that continue growing into early winter and break dormancy earlier in the spring, thus feeding soil organisms at a time when the cropland used to lie idle.
  5. Integrated animals. Nature does not function without animals. It is that simple. Integrating livestock onto an operation provides many benefits. The major benefit is that the grazing of plants stimulates the plants to pump more carbon into the soil. This drives nutrient cycling by feeding biology. Of course, it also has a major, positive impact on climate change by cycling more carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it into the soil. And if you want a healthy, functioning ecosystem on your farm or ranch, you must provide a home and habitat for not only farm animals but also pollinators, predator insects, earthworms, and all of the microbiology that drive ecosystem function.

 

Share This:

Read The Book

Dirt to Soil

One Family’s Journey into Regenerative Agriculture

$19.95

Recent Articles

droplets on spiderweb and plant

The Miracle of Farming: Toward a Bio-Abundant Future

Farmers have a close relationship with nature, seeing life cycles happen right in front of their eyes marvel in what the earth can produce. We wouldn’t survive without their help. Appreciating the natural world, giving what it needs in order to flourish and providing the essentials to survive is an important process. There’s beauty in…

Read More
The breeding program at the Lockwood, Connecticut, Agricultural Experi- ment Station run by Dr. Sandra Anagnostakis. This program includes species from all over the world and extends through many di erent plant- ings. This particular planting is a mix of American chestnut and Ozark chinquapin and also includes genetics of Japanese and Henry chestnut.

The Epic Saga of the American Chestnut

The American chestnut may well be the greatest and most useful forest tree to ever grow on this Earth. Its decline is considered by many ecologists to be one of the greatest ecological disasters to strike the US since European contact. But how did  it happen? And are we on track to bring back this…

Read More
A vast look at land, mountains, and nature with a tree in the corner.

Inheriting the Earth

“[Call of the Reed Warbler is] the single most important book on agriculture today.—Paul Hawken Charles Massy is a visionary Australian farmer and the author of Call of the Reed Warbler. He was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his service as chair and director of a number of research organizations and statutory wool boards.…

Read More
Leah Penniman ( left ) and Amani Olugbala ( right ) tend the beans during konbit at Soul Fire Farm

Learning the Power of African Farming Traditions

Far before the release of her book Farming While Black, Leah Penniman had been helping countless Black and Brown farmers reclaim their right to the land. For years, Leah has been educating, inspiring, and working alongside so many individuals to make sure they truly understand the customs and traditions of their ancestors and help them become…

Read More
Quaking aspen grove in upstate New York. Notice the thick under- growth of shrubs as well as the snags with woodpecker holes.

Trees of Power: Poplar – The Homemaker

Poplars are some of the fastest-growing trees in the world. They can tolerate the worst conditions and are heavily favored by wildlife. In places where land has been degraded or is falling apart, the poplars can rebuild. They produce tremendous amounts of biomass, feed unbelievable numbers of insects, birds, and mammals, and suck tons of…

Read More