Enriching the Land and Enriching our Lives

In our previous article we talked about how important it is to keep our topsoil enriched, so that it has the vitality to maintain itself. We mentioned that erosion – the manmade variety, not the natural type – has become one of the most severe environmental problems today.

Here, we’ll discuss how to keep your topsoil at the ‘top of its game’.

One of the keys to modern sustainable farming is crop rotation.

We mentioned in the last article how there is a long history of crop rotation, which includes resting the soil for a year, periodically. But, sadly, knowledge of crop rotation seems to have wilted away among modern agriculturalists.

Interest in crop rotation is growing, though, along with other methods to enrich the topsoil.

The concept and practice of crop rotation is not so difficult.

A farmer will keep crops in rotation for a period of years and then allow fields to lie fallow for a year, or a planting season.

This works best if the farmer knows to plant nitrogen fixing plants. These do a tremendous job to revitalize the soil.

By far the majority of nitrogen-fixing plants are in the legume family Fabaceae.

However, there are a few non-leguminous plants that can also fix nitrogen. These plants, referred to as actinorhizal plants, consist of 22 genera of woody shrubs or trees scattered in 8 plant families.

An example of crop rotation, which includes nitrogen fixing plants would be alternating soybeans and maize (corn). Soybeans put nitrogen into the soil, and cereals such as maize need the nitrogen.

Another advantage to crop rotation is that it can eliminate pests. A pest that preys on one crop may be eliminated when the field is rotated to a new crop.

Many farmers also plow plant material into the topsoil to enrich the humus and spread compost. The advantages of humus are many. For example, humus feeds the soil population of micro-organisms and other creatures, thus maintaining high and healthy levels of soil life.

It can hold the equivalent of 80-90% of its weight in moisture, and therefore increases the soil's capacity to withstand drought conditions.

The biochemical structure of humus enables it to moderate excessive acid or alkaline soil conditions. And the dark color of humus (usually black or dark brown) helps to warm up cold soils in the spring.

Adding manure to the topsoil will make it more nutritious and rich.

You can have an idea of the health of your soil just by looking at it, the way a doctor may see from your skin how your health is. Healthy topsoil is dark brown, moist, and crumbly, with chunks of plant material and rich earth. Unhealthy topsoil is pale gray, thin, and uniform in texture.

So, if your soil is unhealthy, it may mean that you are not using environmentally sensitive practices, and thus are slowly killing off your topsoil.

In Africa, Australia, and the Midwest USA, many farmers only have a few inches of topsoil. By adding more and more artificial fertilizers their topsoil becomes more and more degraded.

In such a situation, more complex formulations are needed in an attempt to restore the balance of nutrients to the soil.

Exhausted soil can take years to repair with organic practices after it's abandoned by conventional farmers. This long process can no doubt be discouraging (and economically risky), as one nurses the land back to health.

But if this ‘healing’ process is not done, then the final result is desertification, a process already seen in Africa and Australia.

So it is imperative that we work to revitalize our topsoil. Biologists are watching and studying the health and amount of topsoil worldwide and are looking at ways to solve the present problems. Plants, as well as food crops, are an important part of this process of saving our topsoil. Ironically, while plants need healthy topsoil to survive they are also important in helping to make healthy topsoil.

There are numerous methods for helping the soil and the plants to help each other.

The general principle is that plants hold the topsoil to the earth and water nourishes the plants. But if there is too much erosion, then the soil can’t hold the water and the plants then cannot survive.

A solution would include an assortment of plants, combined with natural cycles of fire and water help to maintain the topsoil.

Plants die or are burned in fires to restore nutrients to the topsoil. This is nature. But if the cycle is disrupted by farming or clear cutting the results can be disastrous.

Topsoil can also be lost through heavy water run off. Water runoff over clear-cut land complicates matters, because there are no trees and plants to hold the precious topsoil down.

Major storms in heavily logged areas drag tons of topsoil off the Earth into the watershed. As well, it clogs rivers and makes them uninhabitable for fish.

In this condition, when the river reaches the ocean, the sudden excess of nutrients causes fish to die off and these results can stretch for miles out to sea beyond the mouth of the river.

So, your efforts to save topsoil can have phenomenal effects in saving and revitalizing and increasing the amount of topsoil. Of course only one farmer doing this will not change the situation overnight.

There are many ways to connect with other farmers who have the same interests and this can help you learn from the experience of others and learn the techniques that are best for your situation.

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