Definition: 1. land, ground, terra firma; floor. 2. soil, clay, loam; dirt, sod, turf; ground. 3. terrestrial.
Forty-five years ago, I participated in the first Earth Day Celebration held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Belmont Plateau. I continue to appreciate the enthusiasm, energy, and commitment to preserving our planet’s ecological well-being now as I did then. Up until this year, I’ve looked at Earth Day recognition through the perspective of Earth spelled with a capital E. The mantras of Recycle, Reduce, Reuse, Replant, Rethink… have been behind Earth-friendly actions I’ve taken over the years as an inhabitant, citizen, parent, teacher, and naturalist… viewing Earth as our planet.
This year, I step away from the capital E perspective: Earth as the planet.
Instead, I view from the lower case e perspective: earth as the soil beneath our feet.
Why the change in perspective?
I would predict that many folks tend to take earth (lower case e) for granted:
- we walk on it every day of our lives;
- build communities large and small;
- travel near and far;
- plant food on farms and in gardens;
- use earth-generated fuel and raw materials;
- play in parks and on sports’ fields…
- Do you ever stop to imagine that the ground, terra firma… floor beneath us is a finite resource?
- Have you ever considered that soil, once lost, is NOT recoverable within a human lifespan?
- Did you realize that one centimeter of soil can take hundreds to thousands of years to form from parent rock?
- Are you amazed to hear that 1/4 of our planet’s biodiversity is alive and at home in soil?
- Have you considered what you can do to help protect the planet’s soils… that’s earth (lower case e)?
My change in perspective is because of information I learned from the United Nations 2015 Year of the Soils website. I realize I am part of the public who can help to raise awareness about important soil concerns through this blog, and through actions I can take in my community to protect local soils. It’s also empowering to know that people with more science behind them than me are also making a paradigm shift in thinking about soils…
If you’re curious. Check out this video:
I am fortunate to live in a community where farming and connections with the soil are deeply rooted. The Willamette and Tualatin River valleys are home to some of the finest croplands and soils in our country. Over 200 years ago, emigrants endured travel over the Oregon Trail to settle here; some of our farm familys’ ancestry dates back to those times.
This week, our local Soil and Water Conservation District held a well-attended workshop. Representatives from the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), Oregon State University Small Farms, and the Tualatin Soil and Water District shared information and led hands-on demonstrations to promote sustainable soil management practices.
I’m glad I attended and can share highlights with you.
soil on the soles of their shoes…
I imagine the children from the Swallowtail School, here in Hillsboro, are very happy on the days their school studies take them out on the school’s farm campus to study Natural Sciences.
Must be fun to learn with soil on the soles of their shoes… like we did!
The open barn, dirt floor, hay bale media center, and unexpected “classmates” provided a perfect setting for the workshop. I appreciate that the school served as the host for this Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District’s event.
unlocking the secrets in the soil…
Cory Owens, Soil Scientist from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, is passionate about talking about soil health. She pointed out that we know more about the solar system than we do about the organisms in the soils beneath our feet. Consider the soil food web. Then imagine how it is possible that one-fourth of Earth’s biodiversity is below ground. Healthy soils depend on this abundant organic matter.
Cory described how the living, dead and decaying organisms are critical to soil because they:
- affect soil structure and therefore soil erosion and water availability;
- can protect crops from pests and diseases;
- are central to decomposition and nutrient cycling and therefore affect plant growth and pollution levels;
- improve the structure of and stability of the soil;
A healthy soil food web provides aggregate stability, nutrient cycling, and improved holding capacity for water. A feature Cory lamented could help California producers. Planting cover crops is a method that is proven successful in the protection of complex organic matter processes, and in the minimization of aggregate disturbance.
Demonstrations helped the class to visualize how soil aggregate stability is affected by disturbance;
and how uncovered soils are suseptable to erosion.
soil health practices
Once we understand that plant health depends on soils that are a living, dynamic media and are organic in nature, the question is…
What are the best practices to preserve and perpetuate soil health? Better living is not “through chemistry.” Farmers are discovering that dumping fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and other man-made amendments produce yields only to a limited extent. Once the organic underpinnings are damaged; soil productivity is depleted.
Nick Andrews, from Oregon State University Small Farms talked about practices to support soil health.
Effective soil testing regimes help producers know when to test soils for nutrient levels, and how to take samples that will yield valid data.
Nutrient Management that is done effectively will work with the organic processes that Cory explained. The optimal goal is to apply at correct time and in reduced amount when in sync with the organic matter cycles in the soil food web.
Cover crops provide protection and reduce erosion between crop seasons.
Reduced tillage in fields minimizes the harm that comes to soils’ organic matter when it is overly disturbed.
How to determine soil health…
Back outside to “play” in the soil! We broke into small groups to try our hand at several techniques producers use to determine the soil health in various field locations on their farms.
How does water infiltrate into soils with roots/cover vs soils without roots/ no cover? I was reminded more porosity = healthier soil.
Tubes were used to core a rooted and a non-rooted section of a garden area. We observed the rates water infiltrated the soil.
Having a soil map can be handy… and “there’s and app for that.” Dean likes the CA Soil Resource Lab application on his smart phone. Many folks had the app. uploaded faster that you could say “conservation.”
Is the soil primarily silt, sand, or clay? There was a fun procedure to learn to get the feel of the soil in a garden or farm field: wet, wad, squeeze, measure.
TAKE A SAMPLE
Select the best plug sampling tool, take multiple samples, combine, send to the lab. The better the integrity of the sample, the more valid the resultant data will be.
Healthy soils are 50%particles and 50% pores.
Use a compaction gauge to measure pounds per square inch as probe is slowly pushed through soil horizons.
Did you know soil horizons are designated by letters of the alphabet? O= uppermost, form on top of mineral horizons; A horizons= under O, usually dark in color, commonly referred to as topsoil; E horizons= alluvial layer in forested areas, usually white or lighter than horizons around them; B horizons= subsoil; C= substratum, partially weathered or disintegrated parent material; R horizons= bedrock, can be far below or just a few inches below the surface. The Tualatin River valley horizons are influenced by the Ancient Missoula floods.
What did I take away from this workshop?
In addition to the informative set of materials about soil (aka earth with a lower case e) and meeting a contact person for, Recology, a local compost producer… I went away from this class feeling excited about what I learned and experienced… about Soil Health and Soil Health management practices. Farming is a complex science. I’m encouraged to learn about how producers are working with nature, and respecting the intricacies of the Soil Food Web and organic matter. I also learned about some of the frustrations local farmers feel as the city encroaches on prime agricultural lands… a small dose of the tension that is predicted to increase as the world population grows, healthy soils become more scarce, and competition for food production land intensifies.
But, for the time being, I am grateful for the time spent “learning with soil on the soles of my shoes”. I’m going to walk some of that right back home… and find a way to share with my neighbors.