Each new year brings an opportunity to set goals and intentions for the months ahead.
There are the old standbys: live healthier, save money, consume less, and serve others – but what if there were goals we could set collectively to help us achieve all of those things?
Improving soil health might seem like a niche objective. However, in reality, it’s the best way to cut costs, do more with less, build resilience against extreme weather, grow healthier food and profits, and pull carbon out of the atmosphere for a healthier planet.
Healthy soil not only builds farm resilience, productivity and profits, but is also linked to climate regulation, biodiversity, and air and water quality as well. Yet the health and well-being of our soil have been on a dramatic decline for decades. It is estimated that a third of the planet’s topsoil has been depleted.
For 2023, here are five soil health resolutions that are transforming farms across the US and beyond.
1. Measure what Matters: Test and track your soil
You wouldn’t know you’d achieved your weight loss goal without a scale, and you’d have to check your account statements to track your money. The same is true for soil health goals: we can’t track our progress without measurement.
Nature’s systems are complex, and in the soil, materials like carbon are hard to track, leading to disagreements about how much is in the ground, how much is being released and how much could be sequestered.
Until now, there hasn’t been a set of tools good enough and cheap enough to reliably measure the carbon in soil at scale in real-time. Thanks to new technology, it’s easier than ever to measure soil fertility, minerals, carbon and overall soil health.
Farmers and agronomists can now effectively measure and analyze soil, lower fertilizer costs, and ultimately boost the health and productivity of their agricultural land. Measurement will also drive the adoption of regenerative agriculture – a big win for soil.
2. Adopt no-till practices
Misguided beliefs that “more is more” and the “rise and grind” mantra of hustle culture have tricked us into thinking that achieving what we want requires more effort. Just as we benefit from rest and letting go, the soil is better left un-tilled and undisturbed as well.
There is a growing consensus that regenerative agriculture is the most viable solution to the issue of soil degradation. It works by regenerating and building new soil, and improving its ability to store carbon, which in turn holds more water and nutrients, and can help farmers to increase their productivity – and profits – by as much as 78%.
One big regenerative principle is moving to no-till. When we turn over the soil, we destroy the soil structure that’s essential to hold and store water. It also exposes the soil to air and sun which kills the rich networks of microorganisms required for healthy soil.
3. Diversify what you grow
How many of us have resolved to try something new in the year ahead? There’s good logic behind this goal – changing it up has brain benefits. Neurologists say the best way to produce new brain cells and form new neural pathways is through learning. It turns out that diversifying what we plant from year to year can have huge rewards too.
Planting the same crop is called monocropping. Plants draw nutrients from the soil in order to grow and thrive. Different plants use different levels of different nutrients. Monocrops use all the same nutrients. So, when you plant the same thing, then year after year it drains the soil of the same nutrients. Corn, for example, needs nitrogen, potassium, calcium and phosphorus along with other secondary nutrients. But growing corn crops and nothing else depletes the soil, which then requires more and more fertilizer, and deprives future crops of what they need to grow as healthy as possible.
Instead, consider mixed and companion crops, cover crops or rotating which crops you plant that help cycle nutrients – for example, planting corn after a potato harvest.
4. Look to green chemistry
Many people strive to be more mindful of what they’re putting into their bodies. Whether you’re cutting out junk food, trying meatless Mondays or prioritizing organic or non-toxic cosmetics, what we consume matters. The same applies to our food, farms, and our Earth.
Fertilizers and pesticides are essential to growing the food to feed our world. Today, much of the pesticides and fertilizers we put onto crops are washed away into the soil and water, releasing synthetic chemicals into our waterways and environment.
But due to breakthroughs in science, today, greener chemistries, including ones that are plant-based and organic, can outperform conventional synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers.
Now farmers don’t have to choose between producing food as clean and as natural as possible and getting the quantity and quality of yields they need. Lowering the chemical load also benefits soil health.
5. Protect soil with crop residue and cover crops
If you’ve vowed to do a better job of keeping your home or office clean in 2023, you might think the same principle applies to farm fields. But in fact, keeping the ground covered is one big way to keep soil healthy.
Without plants, soil is exposed to the elements and stripped of its nutrients. Residue from previous crops can be like armor, protecting soil from erosion.
Cover crops go one step further, protecting soil from erosion while also restoring soil carbon with photosynthesis achieved through living plant roots. In fact, even urban gardeners can benefit from this practice.
Over time, this practice makes the soil more resilient to climate variances, improves its water-holding capacity, and traps excess nitrogen – potentially saving growers thousands of dollars on precious resources like water and fertilizer.
Healthier, carbon-rich soil means more resilient and valuable lands and crops, and more nutrient-rich plants and food for everyone.
There’s perhaps no other time of year when our collective energy is so focused on making change for the better. Soil degradation has already put the lives of more than three billion people in danger, and costs our global economy an estimated $10.6 trillion per year.
Together, we can call on governments and policy-makers to help provide the resources farmers need to ensure the vitality of our soil. This way, we can achieve healthier soils, more resilient farms, more nutritious plants, healthier humans, and regenerate our planet.