How does farming practice impact soil health?
What Does Soil Health Mean?
We’ve talked a lot about healthy dirt over the years, but what does that actually mean? Well, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation:
“Soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a living system, with ecosystem and land use boundaries, to sustain plant and animal productivity, maintain or enhance water and air quality, and promote plant and animal health.”
Ways Farming Can Negatively Effect Soil Health
There are actually several ways that farming can affect soil health in a negative way. Some of these include:
ANNUAL CROPPING SYSTEMS
When farmers grow vegetables, they usually use an annual cropping system. This means that certain crops are planted and harvested, all within one year. This is an intensive process and can easily disturb the soil’s ecosystem.
BREEDING NEW CROPS/GMOS
Farmers are attempting to breed new varieties of crops that will give them a greater result. This is another process that uses unnatural seeds and disrupts the soil.
CROP FIRST PRACTICES
Many farming practices put crop yield first, rather than paying attention to soil health. Practices like tilling, using herbicides, and laying down plastic mulch decrease the organic matter of the soil, and have negative effects on its health.
How Does Unhealthy Soil Effect Vegetable Quality?
Just as much as growing vegetables can create unhealthy soil, unhealthy soil can create lower quality vegetables. Because of the intensity of our modern farming practices, nutrients are being taken out of the soil every year. So with fewer nutrients available in the soil, there are fewer nutrients being found in our vegetables too. In fact, a study from researchers at UT took a look at the nutritional data of 43 different vegetables from 1950 and 1999, and found a decrease in nutrients like protein and iron.
Positive Ways Farming Can Keep Soil Healthy
As we talked about in a previous article, there are some farmers who are using a soil-first approach on their farms. Here are some ways that farmers can help to keep the soil healthy:
USE CROP ROTATIONS
In a crop rotation system, a farmer will change the crop that’s planted in one field each year or season. Crop rotations can cut down on soil-borne diseases and help the soil maintain healthy characteristics.
INCREASE ORGANIC MATTER
Organic soil matter, also known as soil carbon, is highly recognised for its impact on soil health and quality. To increase the organic matter in your soil, you can use compost or manure. Compost or manure is added to crop fields to provide nutrients for plants and more organic material for the soil. Adding more organic matter also helps reduce the effects of heavy tillage.
USE COVER CROPS
Cover crops can make a serious impact on soil health. These are crops that are planted in fields when the cash crops aren’t being grown. Like compost/manure, they add soil organic matter, enhance the soil’s fertility and structure, suppress weeds, and lessen soil erosion. Cover crops can also help cut down on soil-borne diseases and weeds.
REDUCE TRAFFIC IN THE FIELDS
When you make multiple trips across a field with heavy equipment and trucks, the soil can become compacted and unhealthy. If traffic is limited to certain areas, you can prevent soil compaction and conserve its health. It’s also important to avoid taking trips across wet fields as much as possible, because passing through wet soil with heavy equipment can decrease the productivity of the field.