Soil is precious.
This reality often gets lost in translation, but in truth, it is the core message of regenerative farming. Still, many of our actions within the ag industry seem to act in opposition to this truth. Of course, this is always to our own detriment.
So how vital is soil exactly? Well, in some ways, it’s proving as vital as life itself.
“A third of Earth’s organisms live in the soil,” explains Miriam Horn, author of “Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland” and writer at the Environmental Defense Fund.
That makes up for quite the amount of life below our feet. Unfortunately, it’s generally easy to justify interfering with Mother Nature in the name of progress. What we’re starting to see in our lifetime, however, is that disturbing natural ecosystems (like that of soil) is beginning to disturb our own way of life.
“We still are losing in the U.S. close to 2 billion tons of topsoil every year,” says Horn. “In some parts of the country, that’s the equivalent of about a foot or more of topsoil gone.”
These are just some of the issues that we’re facing as a nation. Fortunately, where there is a problem there is also opportunity, and where there is opportunity, there is the chance to thrive. That is exactly the case in Glen Elder, Kansas, where producer Doug Palen has found a way to drastically increase his organic matter and crop performance – all while promoting sustainability.
ARMORING THE SOIL
Palen has been practicing no-till and crop rotation since the mid-90’s. Currently, he boasts an array of crops including wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghums as well as oats and sunflowers.
“What we’re constantly trying to do is mimic the native system,” Palen says. “The natural system where there’s always something growing. Always trying to ‘armor’ the soil, (as) we often talk about, is to protect it with the residues on the surface.”
The notion of “armoring soil” may seem a bit radical, but be careful not to get caught up in the terminology. What the notion of this “armor” actually does for the farmer is protect his top soil against erosion. THIS is what valuing soil is all about.
Fortunately for producers, according to Palen’s results, valuing our soil not only seems to lead to more sustainable practices, but also has many other benefits (as anyone who has watched our three-part series with Dr. Randy Anderson is aware).
PALEN’S SOIL BENEFITS
Water Irrigation: Counter to what traditional ag has believed, tilled soil actually seems to be much worse at capturing water than untilled soil. As Miriam Horn voices, “It (no-till soil) stays very porous, and so the water permeates very deep in the soil. There isn’t nearly as much evaporation or water loss, and so (no-till farmers) are much more resilient to these extremes of weather.”
Palen has seen the evidence of this play out in his Kansas fields. For more information on how no-till soils seem to retain water, check out our video with Dr. Tom Schumacher.
Time, Energy and Inputs: Adopting sustainable farming practices works along with Mother Nature. Because of this, we seem to spend less time and energy fighting what Mother Nature wants to do. The end result is a lower workload, and, as we’ve covered before, an increase in quality of life for the farmer.
“They have to make many fewer tractor passes,” Horn explains of no-till farmers, “which saves a lot on time and diesel, but they also frequently add much less nitrogen, because the crop rotations are doing that work. Nature is providing the nitrogen that they need.”
Palen’s practices also address depleted carbon levels – a growing problem of American farmlands.
“If you farm well, if you leave the soil undisturbed, and you keep it protected in these ways and you care for your microbiome, you can start rebuilding that carbon back,” Horn says. “But this group of farmers that Doug is part of have seen the carbon levels in their soil building back up toward native prairie levels.”
And how does Doug Palen say he’s been able to do all of this?
“Everything I get is what Mother Nature gives me, and so that’s what we work with, and we get along well.”
Keep up with Doug Palen and family through his nonprofit, No-till on the Plains.
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