5 Signs of Healthy Soil in Honor of World Soil Day

There’s so much to celebrate during this time of year.  But have you stopped to think about where your holiday dinner comes from?  Today, December 5, let’s take a moment to celebrate the amazing resource that makes all of our holiday feasts possible-- soil.  Happy World Soil Day!

In honor of World Soil Day, here are five signs of healthy soil

  1. You can’t see healthy soil.  One of the surest signs of healthy soil is that it’s hidden from plain sight, protected from the elements by natural armor.  “No-till” farmers build healthy soil by planting directly into the stubble from the previous year’s crop instead of plowing up the soil.  The stubble acts like an armor, protecting soil from erosion and preserving soil structure. 
  2. Healthy soil has living roots growing in it.  During the spring and summer, the Midwest is blanketed with lush growing fields.  The roots from the growing crops take certain components out of the soil, and exude others, adding to the dynamic soil ecosystem.  But for about nine months each year, most fields in the heart of farm country have nothing growing on them.   To keep the system dynamic and alive throughout the year, farmers can use cover crops, which are crops that are grown between commodity crop seasons specifically to improve soil health.
  3. Healthy soil is teeming with life.  There are more organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the planet!  Each of these organisms, including earthworms, bacteria and fungi, have a special role to play in building a healthy, resilient soil community that is pest- and disease-resistant, soaks up water like a sponge, and provides nutrients to growing crops.  No-till farming protects the life within the soil and cover crops feed it, generating a vibrant community beneath our feet.
  4. Healthy soil produces high yielding crops, even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.  For each 1% increase in soil organic matter, soil can store an additional 20,000 gallons of water.  That water can come in handy for growing crops if there’s a drought, and probably explains why farmers who used cover crops to improve their soil weathered the historic 2012 drought better than those who did not use cover crops.
  5. Healthy soil is surrounded by healthy water, ecosystems, and people.  When soil thrives, so do the ecosystems, water, and people around it.  Because healthy soil can soak up so much water and is protected from erosion, it helps prevent polluted runoff from contaminating water.  That means cleaner water for people to fish in, swim in, and drink!

Unfortunately, these signs of healthy soil are missing on many acres of our farmland.  Only about a third of U.S. farmland is no-till, and less than 2% of acres in the upper Mississippi River Basin use cover crops.  As a result, we’ve allowed much of our soil to become degraded, sick, and unproductive.  Fortunately, soils can be regenerated.  Programs like a “good driver” crop insurance discount for farmers who invest in regenerating their soil can help give our soils, and the farmers who care for them, the respect they deserve.


(NRDC Infographic: click for full size)

About the Authors

Claire O'Connor

Staff Attorney and Policy Analyst, Water program

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