Crusade for Healthy Soil is Building Momentum On the Ground

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Farmers, ranchers, ecologists and community champions are spreading the word. Healthy soil produces more food, retains more water, reduces erosion, and provides better rangelands for animals. Soil is a crucial building block for all natural resources and we need to do a better job of taking care of it.

The idea for healthy soil has been brewing internationally and nationally for some time. In 2016 at the Climate Change Conference (COP22) in Marrakech, 32 nations agreed to the 4 per 1000 initiative calling to increase carbon content in the top 40 cm of their soils by 0.4% per year. Improving soil health would remove about 3.5 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere.

A framework for a federal strategic plan to improve soils was released in December 2016 to improve carbon sequestration of soils and forests. Similar initiatives have been approved in California, Oklahoma, Utah, and Vermont.

For the first time, New Mexico has introduced a healthy soil initiative. The idea took hold in Valencia Soil & Water Conservation District. The resolution was approved in Region One of New Mexico Association of Conservation Districts and is now making its way to the state level for approval this fall.

Conservation districts are sub-divisions of state governments that have responsibility for both soil and water. State conservation districts support and encourage management practices that increase soil health for farmers, ranchers and other natural resource users. After reviewing policies throughout New Mexico, Jeff Goebel and his cohorts realized that the state had five resolutions for water but none for soil.

Water scarcity is a real concern in New Mexico and other parts of the southwest. However, without healthy soil, there will be little water retention. “We need to be rethinking what we are doing to our primary base of existence, the thin layer of soil that feeds us, stores our water and builds organic matter,” said Goebel.

Goebel, who is on a local and state conservation board of directors in New Mexico, helped plant the seed of the healthy soil resolution. He is working with other scientists, farmers, and ranchers to solve soil, water, and land restoration issues.

healthy soil

Photo by USDA NRCS

An ongoing challenge in the southwest is how to get soils to hold more water. Improving soils of the Rio Puerco and the Rio Grande water catchment and riparian areas across the farmlands, grasslands and forests to the mountain tops – could make a big difference in water retention.

Goebel estimates if we could keep one inch of water from evaporating between the Rio Grande river basin at the mouth of the Rio Puerco in New Mexico on up to the headwaters in Colorado – we could put 800,000 acre feet of water back into the soil. “It all comes back to healthy soils. Soil ensures more water retention and soil also helps resolve climate change issues.”

Peter Donovan started an organization called Soil Carbon Coalition more than a decade ago. With a background in livestock herding and holistic management, Donovan has been collecting data to measure the uptake of carbon in soil plots across the U.S.

To support the work of conservation districts, Donovan is proposing a soil health postage stamp. The purpose of this semipostal stamp is to create awareness about the need for soil health, and expand outreach and educational efforts across the U.S. The soil health semipostal stamp would create a consistent funding stream to ensure that the local conservation districts can do this work.

Donovan and Goebel are beginning to circulate the semipostal stamp proposal and hope it will take hold at the federal level. They also envision a national K-12 school competition to help design the soil health stamp.

The crusade for healthy soil is taking shape at the state policy level and on the ground with local community networking.

A couple years ago, the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) received a grant to implement the Soil Health Champions Network. The initiative, led by NACD representative Beth Mason and an all-star cast of researchers, promotes soil health education and outreach among American farmers, ranchers and forestland owners.

Currently there are more than 160 champions who are implementing conservation practices to improve soil health in their communities. Champions promise to use methods that improve soil health such as cover crops, crop rotation, no-till and other minimum till systems.

healthy soil

Soil champions conduct farming tours, field demonstrations, and speak at community events, conferences and workshops. One of the biggest benefits of the network is an opportunity for participants to talk with each other and share experiences.

“Relationships are important. If you don’t have a relationship or connection you’ll never try something new,” said Whitney Forman-Cook, communications director for NACD.

This is precisely why the Valencia Soil & Water Conservation District will be sponsoring an innovative farming conference in December. The conference will host nationally recognized soil health experts in a participatory one-day workshop focused on soil health for agricultural producers. Goebel will facilitate the workshop using a community consensus process.

The community consensus process ensures that natural resource users in the local community are able to engage in an adaptive learning process through participatory speaking, listening, and problem solving.

It’s important to listen to the experts past and present. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said: “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” Let’s stop punishing our soils, and continue the good work of restoring natural resources – our nation’s true wealth.

Author: Kathryn Thomsen

Founder of Hundredgivers, a nonprofit supporting and accelerating sustainability initiatives benefiting local and global communities. In addition to social entrepreneur, Kathryn is a consultant, researcher, writer, communicator and urban farmer. She collaborates with individuals, organizations, and businesses to evaluate and develop climate change, clean energy, and sustainability strategies and programs.


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