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Soil is alive!
That’s the central message Jon Stika hopes will grab the attention of everyone who reads his book, A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health (available through Amazon).
Written in his retirement, the 80-page paperback is the culmination of Stika’s 30-year career as a soil conservationist and soil health educator for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service at Dickinson, North Dakota.
“I wrote the book out of both compassion and frustration,” he says. “I had compassion for people trying to make a living from the soil who didn’t know how to make it function. Yet, I was frustrated because so many farmers and ranchers are locked into agriculture’s status quo paradigm. They focus on the level of inputs they think they need to apply to broken – dysfunctional – soil in order to get the yields they want.”
What is really needed, says Stika, is an understanding of what soil is, of how it works, and what it needs in order to be restored to its vibrant, living self. In this state, he contends, soil needs few inputs, produces robust crops, and improves producers’ profitability.
That healthy soil is a living, breathing body of life not unlike the human body, is an understanding that comes to each person somewhat like an awakening. It doesn’t necessarily coexist with farmers’, ranchers’, and agronomists’ daily round of work with crops and livestock. Yet, with its arrival comes an intuitive sense that enriches farmers’ and ranchers’ work with the earth.
Despite being raised on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, getting a bachelor’s degree in soil science, and working for nearly a decade as a soil conservationist, this understanding of soil came to Stika only after listening to a soil microbiologist explain the biology of soil.
“Everything I had learned to that point didn’t mean much then,” he says. “I began to read everything I could find about how soil functions, and I finally started to gain an understanding of soil.
“I learned that soil is, in fact, a biological system run by billions of microscopic and macroscopic organisms,” he says. “These organisms do their best to make the soil their home; they collaborate with each other and with their partners – green plants, which live in the soil with them. The green plants take energy from the sun and feed the soil organisms, who, in turn, build the soil and feed the plants.
“If you focus on these relationships, you start asking, ‘What do I need to do to foster this life in the soil?’ Because that’s what runs everything,” he says. “By understanding what the soil needs in order to function like it should, farmers and ranchers can be more profitable because they don’t have to add much in the way of inputs to the soil.”
Nationally recognized for his work in writing and teaching about soil health, Stika wrote A Soil Owner’s Manual in a nontechnical, user-friendly format. The book is designed to be a manual guiding the restorative management of soil so that it might better serve as habitat for soil organisms.
He writes, “The fundamental principles for improving soil health and profitability include: disturb the soil less, provide for a greater diversity of plants, maintain living roots in the soil as much of the time as possible, and keep the soil covered with plants and their residues at all times. . . The most potent tool with which to build healthy soil is a live plant.”