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Seeing is Believing: Soil Health Practices and No-Till Farming Transform Landscapes and Produce Nutritious Food

This month, we’re highlighting 12 important gifts given to us when we conserve natural resources: soil, food, plants, wildlife, people, health, protection, recreation, air, water, technology and the future. NRCS’ mission is to conserve the full range of natural resources, but soil health is our foundation. And it’s the first conservation gift that we’re going to highlight. And without soil, we couldn’t celebrate with food. We encourage you to give the gift of conservation this season!

Curbing Soil Erosion

Soil is the foundation for a healthy environment. If you need proof that no-till farming works, look no further than the rolling hills of north-central Oregon.

For decades, this region was dominated by winter wheat farms that used extensive tillage to control weeds during fallow years. It was the conventional way of farming in the area, from the early 1900’s through the 1980’s.

World Soil Day - A Time to Celebrate the Foundation of Agriculture

Last year during the International Year of Soils (IYS), I had the incredible opportunity to help the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) spread the word about the many life-giving functions of soil. As part of this effort, I traveled to New York City to attend the kickoff ceremony for IYS at the United Nations, which was held on World Soil Day.

In 2014, the United Nations General Assembly designated December 5 as World Soil Day. It is observed this day each year to honor the birthday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, the world’s longest reigning monarch, who passed away in October. He played a pivotal role in the promotion of soil science and conservation, and was a leader in sustainable land resource management.

'Soil and Air' - Where Crops Meet the Environment

You probably know that climate change affects how we grow food, but you might not know that how food is grown also affects our climate. This interplay is at the heart of an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) project called “Soil and Air,” a concerted effort to feed the Earth’s 7.5 billion people while protecting the planet.

Farmers and ranchers produce food at the intersection of soil and air, which in turn impacts soil and air quality. For instance, warmer air creates warmer soil, leading to different compositions of bacteria and other microbes in the ecosystem and to increased moisture loss through evaporation.

Farming Nature's Way

No-till farming used to be only about reducing soil erosion. Today, continuous no-till is the preferred tillage system in some areas. Why? It’s all about soil health.

The loss of organic matter in soil, which is the lightest soil component and the first to wash away, is the healthiest portion of our topsoil. It is the house where the biological systems in our soils live and includes everything from the tiniest organisms like bacteria, algae, fungi, and protozoa to the more complex nematodes, micro-arthropods (think tiny spiders), and the more visible earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants. They are all part of healthy soil.

Soils in the Classroom: Celebrating the Discovery and Donation of a Historic Soils Collection

Thanks to the efforts of a dedicated science teacher from New Jersey, a valuable piece of soil science history is now available for viewing and research among the special collections at USDA’s National Agricultural Library (NAL) in Beltsville, Maryland.

Jill Guenther, who has taught Earth and space science for 29 years, discovered the antique soils collection tucked away in a classroom cabinet. “I knew it was something special, and I wanted to use it as a display when teaching erosion and conservation issues,” she explained.

Southeast Regional Climate Hub Celebrates Agriculture Champions of Change

The White House recently recognized 12 Champions of Change for their leadership in sustainable and climate-smart agriculture. This week we will meet them through their USDA Regional Climate Hub, today featuring the Southeast’s William “Buddy” Allen and Donald Tyler.

Farmers, ranchers, and forest land managers across the Southeast are at the forefront of climate change and its various effects on their operations, yields, and profits. Many of these producers know that adaptive agriculture practices can benefit soil, air, and water quality and at the same time increase resilience to climate change and other environmental threats. Communities and businesses that support climate-smart agriculture in turn are creating jobs and growing the rural economy.

USDA’s Southeast Regional Climate Hub works to bring land managers in the Southeast the science and other tools that can help them adapt to changing weather/climate conditions. Many farmers, ranchers and land managers are already leading efforts to develop and demonstrate the value of sustainable agricultural practices that benefit soil, air, and water quality while helping to mitigate climate change by reducing emissions.  Educators and advisors have also been crucial in bringing science-based, sustainable, and climate-informed agricultural practices to the agricultural community.

Restoring Appalachian Soils to Restore the Forests

The land of forest-covered hills, mountain music and coal has a lesson for restoration: healthy forests require healthy soils.

The forests of Appalachia, a region that extends from southern New York to Georgia, are considered to be among the most diverse temperate deciduous forests in the world, with as many as 30 different tree species growing together.  Coal has played an important role in the development of Appalachian culture, but mining for coal has also created a need for restoration in extensive areas of the 13 states that make up the Appalachian region.

Healthy Soils Provide Foundation for a Healthy Life on National Forests and Grasslands

Soils sustain life. Without soils there would be no life as we know it. Consider what healthy soils mean for the 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 44 states and Puerto Rico. Soils provide the fertility needed to grow the plants, forests and grasslands that support and shelter humans and animals; they store water and carbon; they recycle and purify water, air and nutrients; and healthy soils can reduce nutrient loading, sediment production and runoff.

Healthy productive soils are critical to the Forest Service mission to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nations’ forests and grasslands to meet the needs of future and present generations. Many of the forests and grasslands we manage today were created as part of a national effort to protect soil and water resource degradation and restore forests and ecosystems. The original forest reserves were identified to protect and secure favorable flows of water and timber (Organic Act). This included the means to reduce or minimize soil erosion.

4 Innovations You Must Read to Believe from USDA's Tech Transfer Report

The release of the USDA’s 2014 Technology Transfer Report highlights the groundbreaking discoveries made by USDA researchers, who continue to push the envelope and come up with new and exciting innovations. The scientific advancements in knowledge and the creation of new technologies directly impact Americans in that they create safer environments and provide efficient solutions for a wide range of issues. Here are just four of the transformative innovations that can be found in the USDA Tech Transfer Report:

A Hedge against Drought: Why Healthy Soil is 'Water in the Bank'

While most look to the sky for drought relief, an increasing number of farmers are looking to the soil. And for good reason: Healthy soils capture and store much more water – which can come in handy during dry spells.

Through its “Unlock the Secrets in the Soil” campaign, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is leading the effort to get more farmers and ranchers to adopt soil health management systems for a wide range of on- and off-farm benefits – including drought resiliency.

So what’s the water-banking secret in healthy soil?