Building Healthy Soil on the Plains

The prospect of building healthy soil depends first on the elimination of chemical fertilizers so often used in conventional agriculture.

| March 14, 2014

  • “Once chemical agriculture came along, you didn’t need any skill, you didn’t even have to know how to be a farmer,” says Abe Collins. But without building healthy soil full of microorganisms to provide nutrients, something has to be added.
    Photo by Fotolia/Cecilia Lim
  • In “The Soil Will Save Us” Kristin Ohlson introduces leading visionaries who are paving the way to building healthy soil, both in the lab and on the farm.
    Cover courtesy Ten Speed Press

Through vivid storytelling Kristin Ohlson lays out discoveries that will change how humans interact with the land. The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale, 2013) sheds light on the importance of the world’s dirt. After millennia of poor farming practices, especially conventional agriculture, soil health has been depleted. Ohlson argues passionately for building healthy soil as a potential means for reversing global warming, improving food quality, as well as lessening air and water pollution. The following excerpt from Chapter Four discusses the risks involved with using chemical fertilizers and what happens to the soil when they are implemented.

Building Healthy Soil on the Plains

A fleet of dusty pickups and SUVs bumped across the North Dakota prairie, the summer grasses and wildflowers and wiry forbs susurrant against their undersides. From my seat in Jay Fuhrer’s SUV, it sounded as if we were in a boat cresting a river of chop. We finally pulled up next to one of Mike and Becky Small’s cornfields, jumped out into the lemony air — the vehicles had crushed a lot of wildflowers called lemon scurfpea — and formed a ragged circle of plaid shirts. At the center stood Fuhrer, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service conservationist for Burleigh County, the county seat of which is Bismarck. The sun was blinding, and I was the only foolishly hatless person in the group. I hunkered in a tall guy’s shadow, mindful of the tobacco juice he kept spitting to the side.

Fuhrer is a compact man with some silver in his hair and a wryly self-deprecating habit of referring to himself as “the old German.” On that July morning, he could have doubled as the genial host of a cooking show. He bent down and carved up a brownie-size chunk of soil from the Smalls’s cornfield, broke it apart and waved it in front of his nose as if savoring the complexity of its ingredients. He passed dark chunks around for everyone else to sniff and appreciate. Then he wrenched up a cornstalk and shook it until most of the soil fell away from its roots. Even with all his shaking, the tangled strands were still coated in a thick, dark layer of sticky soil. They looked like dreadlocks.

“Why doesn’t the soil fall all the way off?” Fuhrer asked the crowd, touching the roots. “The glues in the soil hold it there. There are aggregates being formed right now.”

He broke off one of the larger roots and asked someone to pour their bottled water over it. When it finally washed clean, he sliced it into pieces and passed them around the crowd, like hors d’oeuvres. I popped a piece in my mouth, and it was — perhaps unsurprisingly — cornlike, sweet and crisp and cool. “Can you taste those sugars?” Fuhrer asked. “Those are the soil exudates! That’s what the plants use to attract the biology.”

People from around the United States and beyond visit Burleigh County to see how soil health can be built in land that is actively cropped. A renegade band of 40 farmers and ranchers there — I’m not sure what they should be called, as most of them both plant crops and raise meat animals — with enthusiastic backup from Fuhrer and USDA scientist Kristine Nichols have done what nearly everyone believes is impossible: They are building healthy, carbon-rich soil and healing their landscapes while increasing yields and making greater profits. And, as Mike Small told me and the crowd of farmers and Natural Resources Conservation Service employees from Missouri who toured that week, they also enjoy more time with their families.


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