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  • Writer's pictureLara Birkes

Quick and Dirty

The Exponential Benefits of Healthy Soil

Chaos theory is commonly explained by the butterfly effect, or the notion that small events can have widespread consequences.

The original question was posed by scientist Edward Lorez, who pondered, “does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” Of course it’s impossible to know the cause and effect of all actions with absolute certainty, but if we nurture the ground beneath our feet (literally), the long-term benefits are exponential.

This month I had the pleasure of joining a soil health workshop led by expert Nicole Masters, jointly hosted by the Western Sustainability Exchange, Namchak Retreat and sustainable bison ranch Roam Free in Hot Springs, Montana.

Many of the attendees were ranchers, participating to learn new skills to interpret the landscapes supporting their livelihoods and the food systems we depend upon. I was surly one of the least knowledgeable, and came away surprised by how much I’ve overlooked about what lies beneath.

Rather unexpectedly, for me, it hinged on the connection between soil health and human health. “Are we living longer, or just dying longer?” When Nicole posed this question it immediately took me off guard, but then it made perfect sense. Here’s why. Humans need microbes in their gut to be healthy. We get this through exposure to soils and the natural world, ideally as children. This establishes a good mix of bacteria in our systems and serves as an inoculant for life.

As we learned, however, since the 1940’s the diversity of input nutrients for agriculture soil in the U.S. has been declining, equating to what some estimate to be a 60% loss in nutritional value over the last 80 years. As we try to grow more with less, we’re creating monocultures. That means we have to eat more to get what we used to with far less. Alongside the decline is a positive correlation to an increase in autoimmune diseases, Type 1 diabetes, MS, arthritis, obesity, depression . . . the list goes on.

Over time as we’ve introduced fertilizers, antibiotics and synthetic pesticides into our landscapes and livestock, our environment has become more sterile making us more susceptible to disease. In short, as human separation from the natural world becomes greater, our health becomes poorer. Soil health must improve to build back this microbial bridge, reintroducing the nutrients our diets increasingly lack.

So how do we do this?

For farmers and ranchers, this means examining the fingerprints on a landscape to understand past or present practices. Establishing a baseline in three main areas is a good starting point: carbon soil levels, vegetation health and water penetration rates.

Carbon is the currency of life when stored in the ground, but becomes the opposite when released in our atmosphere. The good news is the regenerative practices we’re describing are intended to maximize pulling carbon from the air and putting it into our soils through sequestration. Doing so reverses the trend of constantly taking from the landscape, to giving back nutrients. Throughout the day we discussed how this is accomplished by using organic compost fertilizers, moving away from annual crops that require tilling (thus releasing carbon) and rotational grazing practices to prevent land desertification and compaction.

Beyond carbon soil analysis, I learned that the Brix test is a good assessment of vegetation or crop’s sugar levels. Essentially a gauge for photosynthesis, it’s a window into a landscape’s nutrient distribution. Hint: be sure the Brix reading for your weeds is not higher then the crop! If it is, manage to benefit the crop by adding the organic compost that fulfills the soils nutrient deficiency, thus ‘weeding-out’ the weeds. It’s estimated for every 1% increase in Brix, livestock gains .01lbs, so there’s a direct correlation between vegetation health, animal health and the bottom-line. Nicole’s TED Talk describes the science and application in-depth.

Water is another crucial input. Nicole made the obvious but commonly overlooked point that, without healthy soil, water cannot penetrate the ground. Compacted soils don’t absorb rainfall, leading to runoff. Increasing soil carbon by 1% equates to thousands of gallons of increased water absorption, which pencils-out to around $2,000/ acre in monetary gains due to crop yields. When it rains several inches, we want the land to get all of it!

In the end, attendees were invited to consider how best to work WITH nature, not against it. We were encouraged to shift away from a mindset of managing for what we DON’T want, to managing for what we DO want. This means not overusing synthetic pesticides and fertilizers to suppress weeds and stimulate growth, but instead test the soil for what’s needed and add those nutrients to optimize crop health.

Even if most of us aren’t farmers and ranchers, we as consumers have an important role too. Be informed and support those leading best practices in food system stewardship. With a few more dollars, we’re paying to nurture our natural environment and ourselves. Where would we be if everyone contributed to leaving our landscapes better then we found them? The workshop brought into focus the exponential benefits we would all garner, and the need for systemic investment in this natural resource. The butterfly effect . . .

Thanks to Nicole for taking soil from being merely underfoot, to top of mind.


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