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USDA: Reverse Soil Health Degradation

Improving soil health globally is the key to solving water quantity and quality challenges, plus feed a growing global population, the director of USDA-NRCS's Soil Health Division told a Kansas audience November 13.

"We as agriculturalists have win-win opportunities to solve issues of water quality and quantity, and feed a growing population. Soil health is at the core. If we can manage for healthy soils, we can solve a lot of problems," Bianca Moebius-Clune said during the Kansas Rural Center's Farm and Food Conference in Manhattan. 

Healthy soils, defined as "the continued capacity of the soil to function," have resilience to weather extremes. They contain aggregates with large pore spaces, which are like roads and aqueducts in a city. Using that same analogy, the living organisms in the soil like the people who build houses and office buildings. 

"Healthy soil is like a sponge. We want the water to recharge the deeper root zone and recharge ground water," she explains. "When the soil profile is full of water, a healthy soil with large pores drains water, and helps pull air into the soil profile."  

All of this activity she adds, builds resilience to drought, heat, and compaction. 

Moebius-Clune worked for a time in Madagascar, where soils had degraded dramatically after years of cultivation and weathering. Degradation occurs from intensive tillage, where organic matter decomposes and soils become compacted and crusted. Farmers there continue to till to break up compaction and crusting, which exacerbates the problem. 

"It's a dismal cycle. But how do we get out of the tillage addiction? It's like being addicted to coffee. You can't just quit. It's too painful," she says. "You try to get off tillage, and soils crust or pond. And you need to till to fix that." 

What's the solution? Apply the four principles of soil health: minimize soil disturbance, maximize crop diversity, keep soil covered, and maximize live roots. It will be a slow process to improve soils, admittedly. "But soils didn't degrade overnight, and we won't rebuild them overnight," she says.

The goal of the new NRCS Soil Health Division is to provide resources for landowners and farmers to boost productivity via soil health. The agency, which is in its infancy, aims to provide training for producers, plus provide standardized soil-health assessment tests; planning and recommendations; and boots on the ground to help producers manage their own soils. 

"We know it's not going to be a perfect process, but we will adapt and revise the system," Moebius-Clune says.

The Soil Health Division plans to pilot test soil-health assessments for at least a year, and producers are invited to consult the local NRCS office to participate in the pilot tests. The division is funded through NRCS and has support from the USDA secretary and the White House, she adds. That support is critical, as boosting soil health is a long-term process.

"It takes time, and it's tricky," she says. "We don't know how long it takes to rebuild these soils, but we know it will happen."

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