A Journey concerning the Dirt below our Feet

posted in: Champions, Soil health principles | 0

By Andrew Hautzinger, District Director Valencia Soil & Water Conservation District

Today we embark on a journey concerning the dirt below our feet, peering into the soil, appreciating the tiny soil bugs as they build their essential-for-plants soil microbial communities, while gaining insight into “What is healthy soil?”. We also will turn our gaze to work afoot in our community, across the state, and throughout our nation that is fostering healthy soils.

A microscopic view into healthy soils reveals a living ecosystem in which dead organic matter forms the base of a food web consisting of microscopic and larger organisms—all hard at work. Together, these organisms sustain other biological activities that promote plant, animal, and human health. In the natural environment, plants form relationships with soil microbes to obtain nutrients, water, and protection against pathogens. In return, plants provide the microbes—and us—with food. This is the wonder of healthy soils.

Viewed in relation to a farmer’s field, soil science and farmer experience provide lessons that we can use to make our own soils more healthy. This guidance can be summarized in the Five Soil Health Principles:

  1. keeping soil covered;
  2. minimizing soil disturbance on cropland and minimizing external inputs;
  3. maximizing biodiversity;
  4. maintaining a living root; and
  5. integrating animals into land management, including grazing animals, birds, beneficial insects or keystone species, such as earthworms.

As we gaze across farm fields in our state and country, we see encouraging movements that are fostering sustainable agriculture and healthy soils. One is the emerging Regenerative Agriculture movement. Regenerative Agriculture simply is the management of farms by using multiple on-farm species of plants and animals, like our ancestors did.

For a local example, check out the story of Sublime Pastures, a regenerative farm in Tomé, on NM Healthy Soil’s YouTube channel.

Sublime Pastures in Tomé produces pasture raised chicken, turkey, pork and beef. Photo by Isabelle Jenniches (CC BY 2.0).

What’s more, regenerative farming is a holistic way of managing farms and growing foods, customized to meet local conditions by applying many of the same healthy soil principles listed above, especially the promotion of biodiversity and integration of animals into land management.

Because Regenerative Agriculture cultivates beneficial soil microbes that have mutually- beneficial relationships with plants, it can increase crop yields, reduce water use, and help address climate change through the near miraculous sequestration of carbon in the soil. This movement is already improving food quality, protecting the livelihoods of farmers, and empowering stewardship of the land upon which we all depend.

With our gaze still focused on farms across the state and nation, we note a new soil collaboration: the Soil Health Champions Network. This nationwide movement is led by the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) to connect farmers, ranchers, and backyard conservationists who practice good soil health management on their lands and promote soil health in their communities. New Mexico has more Soil Health Champions than any other state! Our Valencia Soil and Water Conservation District is one of our state’s leaders, with over 20 local Soil Health Champs!

Learn more about New Mexico’s Soil Health Champion Network

Soil Health Champions Field Day at Sublime Pastures. Photo by Isabelle Jenniches (CC BY 2.0).

Another essential part of the recent healthy soil story in New Mexico is the Healthy Soil Act, passed by our legislature in 2019. This Act authorized the New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA) to establish the Healthy Soil Program, which includes financial assistance to help citizens implement conservation projects that focus on one or more of the five healthy soil principles.

In some big news:
NMDA will be accepting Healthy Soil Program grant applications for this year from March 18 until May 12, 2022see NMDA’s Healthy Soil Program website for details. Please contact VSWCD if you have a possible project in mind, and we can help you build a proposal!

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