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Why is soil so important? Here's how it sustains all life.

written by

Michelle Sroka

posted on

March 30, 2023

Do you ever wonder why regenerative farmers refer to themselves as “soil farmers”?

Although you may not know it, soil is the heartbeat of a community. Its presence determines whether food can be grown, and thus if the community can survive. But the health and quality of that soil also determines the nutritional content in our food – in other words, if there’s actually anything in it to fuel our bodies.

At a time when everything we can buy comes from “out there” – some mystical, far-away place where food is produced – the importance of soil can be undervalued. If 90% of our food is grown in California, for example, why does it matter if soil across the country is healthy? Shouldn’t we just focus on those small pockets where food is grown?

One argument, of course, is in favor of local food economies. We’re more resilient if we have sources of food close to us. And often, that food tastes better, and offers better benefits, than just shopping from a supermarket.
 
Soil health can also play a role in natural disaster and climate management. Large swaths of land and soil that are capable of absorbing water can help counteract flooding.

Productive soil also acts as a carbon sink, or as a way of capturing carbon emissions from the atmosphere and storing it in the soil, where it belongs. In fact, there’s growing research that grasslands can be as important as trees when it comes to sequestering carbon.
 
But soil health also influences the nutrient density of our food across the country. More and more, I’m seeing conversations around focusing on nutrient-dense food that ignore the way that food was raised. But the problem is that in the long term, we can’t get nutrition from food that’s farmed in extractive ways.
 
Animals, plants, and soil work together in a continuous cycle. When animals graze, they deposit manure that fertilizes the land, providing nutrients to the soil and the millions of microbial lives within it. In turn, that fuels the growth of plants with essential minerals that animals need. And when we eat that food, we receive those essential minerals and vitamins that our bodies need as well.

But this cycle also relies upon rest. Taking care of the soil means leaving it undisturbed for periods of time for growth above and beneath. It's why we rotate our animals. It's why we measure how many animals our land can handle, rather than packing it full.

When we don’t take care of the soil, we disrupt this process. When animals are confined, they can't fertilize the soil naturally. When they stand on overgrazed land, it doesn't provide adequate nutrition. And when we grow feed for animals that relies on monoculture practices or chemicals like glyphosate, we harm the soil -- and the life beneath it.

And so we find ourselves with topsoil eroding and being stripped away, and more and more places where food can’t be grown, or where there isn’t sufficient nutrition to support it. Even if it grows, it doesn’t contain the minerals and vitamins that it should. And if there’s nothing there to nourish it, eventually there’s nothing in it to nourish us. 
 
These are complex problems. There are big systems that actively fight against growing food this way. And even when people like us do, the cost can be prohibitive – for farmers and consumers alike.
 
I don’t think there are easy answers. But I think where I’ve landed is that we have to have this conversation. Our future depends on holding both together – high quality, nutrient-dense food and regenerative farming practices. But more importantly, our future depends on making growing food this way affordable – for everyone.
 
We do this in our farm education. Start small, even if you can only afford eggs or milk. Switch out what you can.

But also, learn more about the process of how food is grown. Farmers right now are advocating for the farm bill, and for creating provisions and funding within it that support such endeavors. How might those who are invested in buying local food help, too?

soil

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