Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Soil Health Class: Can we meet in the middle?

Several months ago, my former junior college, LLCC ag teacher (Dick Lyons), nominated me for a second round of “soil health training”.  A month later, I received the email saying, “Thank you for applying to participate in the upcoming Advanced Soil Health Training, sponsored by IL Corn Growers, Ag Conservation Solutions, and The Nature Conservancy.  We are excited to welcome you to join us this year! Your application showed dedication to advancing soil health systems in Illinois, and we look forward to having your unique expertise and perspective in the group.” 

Everywhere I turn, “soil health” seems to be the new buzz word.  When I arrived to my first classroom experience, I did not know what to expect, but I soon learned that the agenda was packed full of positives of no-till and cover crops for the soil and ecosystem.  There is nothing wrong with this, but the training took on what I would call a “sales approach” and with my University Extension background, I was hoping for more of an unbiased training.  Our room was filled with instructors from the USDA, NRCS and American Farmland Trust as well as farmers, agronomists, ecologists, biologists, and conservationists.  There were video cameras everywhere!

It did not take long until I got this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach.  It was the same feeling I got a long time ago when I was in graduate school.  I was studying plant pathology (study of plant diseases).  Back then, I loved microbiology and my microscope, so I was really excited to take Mycology (study of fungi) with some of the other Crop Science students.  A few days into the mycology course, I realized 2 things: our professor was brilliant and the mycology students shunned the crop science students.  They labeled us as “fungi killers.”  I had never really thought of myself as a killer before.  Heck, I was just trying to feed the world.  But, it did give me a whole new fungal perspective, which was good.

Barry Fisher, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) taught us some visual ways to show the positive aspects of long-term no-tilled soil (left) showing no sediment compared to conventional tilled soil (right), which produced sediment after a "big rain." No-till is one tool to help keep our soil (and some nutrients) in place.
 Barry Fisher, NRCS shows us by pouring water (heavy rain event) and letting it infiltrate conventionally tilled soil, it creates cloudy water in the glass on the right.  This is erosion or sediment is what can change our landscape.  Soil health is the continued capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.   

A positive perspective on cover crops and how they relate to soil health is just what I needed after being called out on many “negative” field calls last year. It is obvious more farmers than ever are trying their hand at cover crops.  Many have been successful but others have given up too easily when things don’t go their way.  The truth of the matter is that not every farmer manages their farm in the same way.  Many farmers may not be utilizing cover crops, but are implementing many other different strategies to improve soil health and reduce nutrient loss.  So far, I have learned a lot, especially from actual farmers, and continue to keep an open mind.  I hope to share with you my thoughts on what I would label as “farmer, pesticide, and nutrient misconceptions” as well as some agronomic red flags. And yes, my hope, after much thought, is that we can meet in the middle.

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