The Soil Sponge
If there is one thing that farmers everywhere are consistently concerned with, it is the weather. It seems that it is always too dry, too wet, too hot or too cold! But not many of us truly appreciate the value of healthy soil to mitigate weather extremes.
New research confirms that implementing some regenerative agriculture practices can help guard against crop loss due to weather and can also benefit the overall condition of the land, reduce costs, and potentially even create an additional source of revenue.
World Tree was fortunate to have Finian Makepeace join us for our first episode in our Empressive Farmer webinar series on the topic of soil health. In this article we share some of the highlights from our conversation with him.
Kiss the Ground
Fin is the co-founder of Kiss the Ground, a non-profit dedicated to creating global awareness about the role of soil in creating abundant, healthy and prosperous farmlands. They have a new movie on Netflix (called, Kiss the Ground) that is inspiring even the most skeptical to pay more attention to the soil.
Fin studied earth sciences as a student, but after 10 years as a professional musician and environmental activist, he saw a presentation on the powerful potential of regenerative agricultural practices, and made the decision to dedicate his life to inspiring participation in this growing global movement, starting with the soil.
Fin’s “ah-ha” moment inspired him to found Kiss the Ground with a friend who had similar passions. The two of them have gone on to develop trainings and programs for people around the world to become confident soil advocates.
Turns out that although many regenerative agriculture practices are simply a matter of getting in tune with nature, modern science until recently understood very little about how the soil food web actually works. It has taken us a while to completely understand why and how many of our current agricultural practices are in fact destroying land around the world, leading to financial stress for farmers, food shortages, and fueling global warming.
We now know beyond a doubt that adopting practices such as no or low-till farming, adding cover crops and blending crops with grazing animals (known as silvopasture), can have profound effects on the land. The results include drastically improved water infiltration rates, carbon storage and increases in biodiversity. These practices essentially “super-charge” regeneration with less and less inputs.
Dirt versus Soil – The Soil Sponge
Soil, by definition, must contain a significant percentage of organic living matter, plus air and water. Without these, soil is made up of mostly sand, silt and clay and is essentially dead, or “dirt”.
Fin shared the image below that shows an example of the breakdown in the essential components of unhealthy soil versus healthy soil:
Living photosynthesizing plants pump carbon into the ground through their roots, resulting in a net carbon gain. The roots create gooey substances that hold the soil together around the roots called “carbon aggregates”, also known as “carbon glued super-sponges”.
The more organic matter in the soil, the more carbon that is stored, and as a rule, water follows carbon. Nicely formed soil aggregate can hold 20 times its weight in water. This is nature’s way of retaining the water for plants to use. Here we have our soil sponge!
Increased soil organic matter also results in more air in the soil. And since air is primarily composted of nitrogen, this creates a natural nitrogen fertilizer for the soil.
Fin emphasizes, “We are building the super-matrix underground so that life can thrive, water can flow, and air can flow.”
Degeneration to Regeneration
But what happens when soil organic matter changes, for example during a time of drought or too much rainfall? These are issues World Tree farmers and farmers around the world face all the time, especially with climate change disrupting normal weather patterns.
Fin’s image below illustrates the difference between a degenerative water cycle with unhealthy, dried out soil, versus a regenerative water cycle with healthy soil containing a good percentage of soil organic matter:
The differences between the two scenarios can be astonishing. One scientist visited and tested hundreds of ranches across Texas where they had experienced major flooding a few years back. He found that on average it took a ½ inch of water an entire hour to soak into the ground! In a heavy rain, this results in excessive runoff and flooding.
However, after 3 years under regenerative grazing management on those same farms, the rate had changed to ½ inch of water being absorbed in under 10 seconds! When these practices get to scale in a region, it has a huge impact on the rates of flooding and runoff. The water table also rises, providing increase protection from drought in dry years. It can even impact local weather patterns and create a natural cooling effect, rather than the “heat islands” caused by dried out areas.
Regenerative Farming and World Tree Farmers
How does all this new information impact our World Tree farmers? Fin notes that, “Regenerative agriculture, combined with tree planting, is a huge piece of the puzzle.” We’ve got that one covered!
Elliott Winter heads up World Tree’s Farmer Success Team. He feels regenerative agriculture is the perfect intersection between being an activist AND a farmer. He commented, “Farmers are some of the most connected people to the land. They are on it every day and I really think the two things can really go together… The environmental benefits to the land are also good for the farmers.”
He believes that regenerative practices, in particular planting cover crops between the trees, will ultimately result in saving time and money for our farmers. The outcomes can mean having to use less fertilizers and pesticides, water less, and do less clean up after heavy rains. The right kinds of cover crops will also keep the soil cool and create more of a sponge to hold water.
In terms of which cover crops might work best for our World Tree farmers in the Southeastern USA, Elliott recommends native grasses, clover, and creeping vines. It is essential to understand the local conditions to determine the ideal cover crops.
As well, the simple fact we are planting trees that drop nitrogen rich leaves to ground every year, will naturally regenerate the soil. This combined with a diverse set of cover crops, is an ideal scenario.
After about year 3, it’s also possible to raise cattle or other grazing animals amongst the Empress trees. This practice is known as silvopasture. The grass would be nutrient rich and provide excellent, low or even no cost, feed for the animals. You can raise more animals, on less land, which makes a very strong economic argument.
Our wide spacing between the Empress trees is perfect for intercropping and silvopasture systems.
Find out more
Anyone interested in learning more about the power of regenerative agriculture should watch the movie, Kiss the Ground, available on Netflix.
Kiss the Ground is partnering with the Soil Health Academy to host to Ren 101, an online, self-paced course for farmers or anyone else who wants to move from current practices towards regenerative farming. There some are scholarships available through Kiss the Ground’s Farmland program.
People can also consider taking Kiss the Ground’s Soil Advocate training which is a great way to learn more about these practices and to help spread the word to more and more people in your community and beyond.
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