Editor's Note: This guest blog is based on comments originally left by No-Till Farmer reader John Meyer, a no-tiller with 400 acres just west of Stewartville, Minn. His comments were in response to Frank Lessiter’s May 2018 No-Till Farmer column titled, “Same Old Conservation Ideas, Just New Words to Describe Them.”
I agree that reducing soil erosion is incredibly important, but some farmers that attempt "soil health" seem to think that it's all just about planting a cover crop mostly to help minimize erosion. Then they till it in, turn it black and watch their valuable soil wash and blow away.
But those who choose this route are missing the point and haven't yet gained a good understanding of what soil health is all about. Health invariably has to do with LIFE. Dead soil has no life in it. It's then called "dirt."
There is a difference and the difference is a matter of degrees. How "alive" are your soils, compared to the undisturbed soils of a virgin forest or prairie?
The more biologically diverse and active, the more life they have in them. The healthier they are, the better they function naturally. We may be able to control the erosion of dirt (control its movement from one place to another), but it is still absent of biological life.
Conventionally farmed soils have a reduced amount of biological activity in them. That's because of our influence on them. Soil health is about avoiding our negative influence on that life and potentially enhancing the conditions to encourage it.
In my opinion, the number one enemy of regenerating the life of the soil is tillage, period. Yes, cover crops, manure, green manure and even composting and "compost tea" all benefit the life of the soil in any farming program. However, those potential gains are often offset most dramatically by the use of tillage, which destroys the house that the biology has built and lives in.
You can't destroy the soil life's home very many times without seriously impacting the diversity and density of the life in soils. Get away from the tillage and, for the most part, you've eliminated most of the erosion problems, too. Plant a cover crop and you've improved the erosion situation even more.
Add to that keeping a green plant growing on the soil 100% of the time and I think you'd have a hard time making a field wash or blow away under normal circumstances. Now, go to keeping a diversity of plant life growing on the field 100% of the time and you're never going to have that field eroding. These are all the principles, the steps, in the soil health — life — movement.
No-till as an erosion control measure is only one small part of it.
Soil health is about so much more than erosion control, but you can't have soil health if your soil is leaving the farm. You can even potentially have erosion completely under control, be 100% no-till, but still have soil with very little life in it. This is why no-till, without any other soil health measures, often isn't very much better at regeneration of the life in the soil than a conventionally tilled field.
Soil health is not just about erosion control. It's about a whole new perspective and respect for what our soil ought to be as created by God, and what our own personal role is in relationship to it as "faithful stewards" of that great blessing.
I believe that we in agriculture have to own our share of responsibility in water quality and soil degradation issues (and it’s a big one). Further, I believe that we must be proactive in addressing them. If we don’t take the lead in this voluntarily, we will soon have top-down regulations crammed down our throats that we don’t want.
We can farm successfully, regeneratively and profitably, and we can become viewed as the heroes of the environment, rather than the villains that we are most often being portrayed as today. A lot of that portrayal is rightly earned.
It’s about time we pull our heads out of the sand, open our eyes objectively and stop calling our impacts someone else’s problem and once again become true stewards of the land we’ve been blessed with.