By Matt Reese
In my nearly 14 years as a farm writer, I don’t know that I ever saw anything quite like it. The sun was out (at least some of the time), the fields were fit, and the temperatures were warm in early April and there was a large gathering of crop farmers NOT in their fields. Instead of scrambling to make last minute preparations for planting or doing any of the myriad of other farm activities so often addressed on a pleasant spring day, well over 200 farmers went to someone else’s farm. This somewhat baffling occurrence demonstrates the power of and interest in soil health at a field day on David Brandt’s Fairfield County farm.
Farmers are learning more about the massive armies at their disposal for improving farm profits and productivity by taking steps to work WITH Mother Nature instead of fighting her. These legions of productive and efficient laborers need no wages and they can be unbelievably productive. They simply require a bit more consideration and attention than agriculture has given them in the past, hence the extensive line up of farmer pick-ups at a farm that was not their own on a warm April day.
Most scientists agree that dedication to no-till (or at least minimizing tillage) and the use of cover crops are key components in taking steps to bolster the underground armies of earthworms, microbes, bacteria, fungi and gazillions of other earth dwellers into fighting form. Though he works with soil every day, USDA-NRCS resource soil scientist George Derringer cannot help but marvel at the incredible resources that often go unnoticed underfoot.
“There is too much harmony here for this to just happen,” he said. “There is an incredible natural balance of organisms in the soil.”
Plant roots leak materials that benefit the organisms around them in the soil that react with the surrounding organisms in what is nothing short of a miraculous ecosystem of productivity. The magnitude of this system of underground life has been at least partially understood for some time, but there are still volumes to learn. One thing that is certain, though, is that the disruption of tillage is not beneficial for this ecosystem and that plant root diversity is beneficial.
For he field day, Derringer slipped into his rubber boots and slogged into a soggy soil pit on Brandt’s farm that has been in long-term cover crops and no-till. While at first glance what may appear to be just a muddy hole in the ground is transformed into an impossible–to-comprehend ecosystem that serves as the basis for life as we know it through the trained eyes of Derringer. Signs of life in the soil of Brandt’s farm are everywhere, if you know where to look for them. Earthworm holes abound, the soil is rich and porous, and, maybe most intriguing, fine plant roots can be found nestled in the dirt 40 inches below the surface to capture water and nutrients. This reality is unfortunately absent in many of Ohio’s farm fields.
The impressive iron, technology and horsepower that is so prominent above the ground has always gotten quite a bit of press, but it simply cannot compare the massive power of the Creator Himself that is going on below the ground, whether we take the time to see it or not. Honestly, it is hard to wrap your mind around everything that is taking place in our soils, but Derringer suggests a sound and simple first step to unleashing Nature’s army for the benefit of your farm: “Dig a little, learn a lot.”