Soil provides the structure for all living things. It sits at the bottom of the deepest oceans and the top of the grandest mountains, gritting through the most inhospitable climates, but regardless of where it is, if life is present, so is soil. You stand on it, you build on it, you breathe because of it, you eat from what it creates. The most important dirt, however, is in our farmlands. The soil in farmlands, through a chain of plants growing, animals grazing, and subsequent harvesting, is what feeds almost everyone, and without our ability to build agricultural industries, we wouldn’t be able to expand into sprawling towns and cities far away from where our food is born. So shouldn’t we treat it well? Should we not care for it like the most conscious, vibrant, benevolent creature we know, like a son or a daughter? But for some reason, our most important resource is in danger.
Regenerative agriculture is the a set of farming methods that focus on maintaining good topsoil,
increasing biodiversity, bettering the water cycle, holistic management of animals, and other practices. These practices all have the end goal of making the process of farming and getting food from farms easier and more effective in the long term.
To understand the importance of soil health, we must first look at exactly what it controls. In the beginning of the agricultural revolution roughly 12,000 years ago, farming practices relied upon the presence of a large body of often flowing water nearby to support large groups of people settling in one area. The most successful civilizations emerged in river valleys, and they relied upon massive floods to cover their crops in the spring in order to regain fresh and fertile soil; this allowed for planting in the summer and harvesting in the fall. The importance of fertile and healthy soil cannot be overstated. For crops to grow fully and in large numbers the soil needs to contain decayed plant residue, lots of organic material and minerals (clay, salt, etc.) for the plants to leach from and turn into its own matter.
Tilling is a method of preparing the soil for planting purposes; today it generally involves using large machines that plough the dirt by digging with large rotating blades and overturning it to the top side, creating what is called topsoil. This is where most of the nutrients are, and where the soil contains the most air pockets, and thus where it is the easiest for plants to grow, absorbing the nutrients and expanding easily through the fluffy dirt. Large CO2 deposits also tend to sit just below the surface of this topsoil, and high levels of tilling can make this CO2 resurface.
Large scale tilling is a detriment to the long term success of agriculture. Tilling is easy because large machines can get tons of topsoil quickly and without much effort. However, the downsides to this much outweigh the short-term efficiency. Tilling causes the lower levels of dirt to become more compact over time, and this hurts the future layers of topsoil, reducing healthy bio-matter and smaller organisms that tend to live in harmony with the plants. But there’s more to the bad.
The typical farm in the U.S. is a monoculture, meaning that only one type of crop grows (at least in a very large area). These farms do huge amounts of tilling and have a heavy reliance on often highly toxic chemical compounds to kill unwanted microbiology and organisms, better known as pesticides. These farms tend also to use massive amounts of external fertilizer that are not nearly as healthy or able to retain as much water as naturally formed topsoil. A paper posted in PeerJ reported, surprisingly, that pest populations were nearly ten times as common in insecticide-treated farms when compared to insecticide-free farms.
Using methods that rely on the natural resources and patterns of the environment tends to improve the effectiveness, health, and growth of crops and grazing animals in nearly every capacity. Increasing the amount of air in the soil helps the plants. By allowing for diverse microbiology and vastly different types of matter as well as using cover crops (crops that are planted solely to cover the soil rather than harvesting), the soil is less prone to erosion and can retain more water. Regenerative agriculture is not just a collection of shared knowledge, it is a worldview. Instead of obsessing over the end product by covering produce in pesticides, planting in poor soil for large crop yields, and reducing future ground health, use systems that make the foundation of everything better. Don’t try to fix the stem; perfect its root and the stem will be healthy .
The Northern African Deserts were created during the time of Roman Empire. The armies needed massive amounts of wood to build their boats for war and expand into new territory, and the lack of trees allowed them to plant giant fields of wheat. They cleared thousands of acres of lush, compact forest without hesitation, and in the wake of this they tilled and planted. But as the Empire died, so too did the fields of wheat. When no other plant filled its place, the topsoil blew away bit by bit in a slow but foreboding process known as desertification.
Deserts lay barren not because nature has failed, but because years of humans tilling in that area and chopping down trees led to the ultimate infertility of the dirt to harbor life. Even more time passed and the top soil became compacted and was ripped of its minerals in high winds, eventually creating hundreds of miles of devastatingly static land.
The Soil Health Academy is an institution that specializes in instructing producers, farmers, ranchers, and anyone else who may be interested in understanding regenerative agriculture. Shane New is an instructor and partner at the academy; he says, “being able to distinguish between micro and macro aggregates of soil is [very] important.” The main difference between these two concepts is that a micro aggregate is just the smallest part of a large amount of soil. “If you can have a really healthy soil with good microbiology and other inorganic material for the plants to feed from in a small aggregate, then you’ll have good soil on a large scale.”
Soil is vitally important in a way that cannot be understated. It supplies us with every fruit, vegetable, and healthy animal we enjoy. Robust, flourishing soil is like one unending life-form that only wishes to give to other life-forms, so treat it with respect—it deserves it. I strongly encourage you to continue reading and learning about this topic. If you can, try going outside, picking up a handful of dirt, and admire it.