Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Importance of Healthy Soils

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the 2015 Food Tank Summit at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. Over the span of two days, the Summit included twelve panels covering themes such as food systems, food waste, family farmers, sustainable business models, food workers, agricultural research and international agreements. The Summit not only introduced me to the many organizations working towards a better food system but also provided me with a sense of hope and motivation in creating positive change at a local level. There were so many highlights throughout this conference that it’s impossible to address all of these in one blog post. In the spirit of brevity, I will discuss one theme that many panelists mentioned in their presentations: healthy soils.
 Photo of organic vegetable crops growing in healthy soils. To maintain this healthy soil the farm disturbs the soil less (till once per year), grows a diversity of vegetable crops, uses crop rotations and dedicates a portion of fields for long season cover crops.
Did you know that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has designated 2015 as the International Year of Soils? Last year, FAO celebrated family farmers (particularly small-scale farmers) worldwide and their significant contribution in feeding the world’s ever-growing population as well as their knowledge, innovation and the sustainable agricultural practices that many of them employ. Strongly connected to family farmers is the need for healthy soils, which are intimately tied to sustainable agrarian practices and biodiversity.

As one panelist aptly summarized in her discussion of food systems, “In order to have resilient food systems, we have to have healthy soils.” One of my favorite presentations was that of Jerry Glover of USAID who demonstrated the extensive root system of a perennial, native grass in the US. The audience was stunned to see the roots which looked to be 3-5 feet long. Glover explained that these roots serve as a safety net by providing a regulation of energy circuits. The roots micromanage nutrients and water, ensuring that these nutrients are recycled back into the system. Conversely, large-scale industrial agriculture which employ practices such as monocropping prevent the regulation of these energy circuits.

Photo of Organic Vegetable Crop

In the agricultural landscape, healthy soils are a result of sustainable land use and management practices and have an incredible variability of living organisms. FAO notes that soil biodiversity includes micro-organisms (i.e. bacteria, fungi, nematodes), meso-fauna (i.e. acara and springtails) as well as macro-fauna (i.e. earthworms and termites). Caring for soil health actually combats many of the challenges farmers face today such as climate change, scarce natural resources like water and a fluctuating market.

At City Green, we employ sustainable land use practices such as crop rotation, polyculture, composting and many other organic practices to boost the health of our soil. It is our objective to foster interest in our local communities to use similar practices and share this knowledge with their community. In the upcoming months, we will feature several blog posts on soils and welcome reader suggestions. 

by Claudia Urdanivia
Claudia is Program Operations Manager at City Green.

Photos by Todd Gustafson
Todd is Urban Farm Manager at City Green.