“Nature can heal if we give her the chance,” Mr. Brown said.
Farmers are recognizing the need to develop new farming techniques that help restore soil health. An article in the New York Times tells the story of Gabe Brown, a North Dakota farmer who became a convert to no-till, soil-conservation farming. Mr. Brown has become an evangelist of sorts, spreading the word about the benefits of soil health.
Improving the soil can revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth, and increase farmers’ profits, even during difficult times such as droughts and floods. Traditional farming relies on tilling the fields to get them ready for planting and by turning over the weeds and crop residues. Tilling also loosens the top layer of soil and mixes in fertilizers and manure.
The problem with tilling is that it can degrade soil, breaking up the structure and leaving it prone to run-off an erosion. Tilling can also harm the complex biology in the soil, damaging earthworms and beneficial fungi. Soil run off washes nitrogen and other chemicals into streams and waterways leading to other problems such as algae blooms and dead zones in water. The more degraded the soil becomes the more chemical fertilizers are needed to maintain yields, which leads to more soil compaction, and more tilling in a vicious cycle.
In No-Till farming methods that focus on soil health as a priority fields are left unplowed and cover crops are used to store nitrogen and other nutrients, organic matter is encouraged to build up which absorbs water and helps retain it. It is said that each 1 percent increase in soil organic matter holds 20,000 gallons of water per acre.
The more absorbent the soil is the more resistant it is to droughts and floods. Cover crops also suppress weeds and protect water ways. Soil is also an ideal way to sequester carbon dioxide, while plowing releases greenhouse gasses.