In episode one of the Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton webinar series, Mr. David Lamm discusses the basics of soil health, including: an overview of the Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton project at the Soil Health Institute (SHI); the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol; a historical context for soil health; the definition of soil health and the soil food web; and the impact that healthy soil has on soil functions and resource management.
Soil health is trending as a topic, both in agricultural publications and in mainstream media, and within the government, academic, non-profit and private sectors. So why soil health now? In the face of a growing world population, we will have to grow more food at a time of increased energy demands and competing resources and landscapes.
Agriculture has a big impact on ecosystems. The U.S. cotton industry recently released their ‘Pathways to Progress’ sustainability goals that outlines strategies that they would like to see cotton producers adopt to show that the cotton industry is leading the way in sustainability. This has led to the development of the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, a self-evaluation tool for farmers to validate that the farm management systems used by cotton producers meet these sustainability goals. If a cotton producer adopts a soil health management system, they will help the cotton industry meet, and exceed, their key performance goals related to increased soil carbon and land use efficiency, and decreased greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss, water use, and energy use.
Our understanding of the chemical and physical components of soil has been the foundation of our agricultural systems. The soil health movement has placed more emphasis on the third component: the biology of soil. When farmers walk across their fields, we want them to realize that there is as much life below the ground as above, with 90% of soil functions mediated by soil microbes. If farmers act as habitat managers and provide the food, water and shelter that allows soil microbes to thrive, their soils will function better.
Soil health is the continued capacity of a soil to function as a vital, living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. The soil functions necessary to raise food and fiber on agricultural systems that will sustain over decades or centuries include nutrient cycling; water infiltration and availability; filtering and buffering; physical stability and support; and habitat for biodiversity.
Implementing a soil health management system does not take a long time to rejuvenate soils. Farm management activities either improve or degrade soils. A stable ecosystem will have low disturbance, high diversity, low human inputs, and high functioning ecosystem services, like nutrient and water cycling. Our agricultural soils can become more stable by adopting soil health management practices like no till, cover crops, crop rotation, and ecological pest and nutrient management to stop the downward spiral of soil degradation (Source: Building Soils for Better Crops, https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Building-Soils-for-Better-Crops-3rd-Edition). By managing for soil health, producers can minimize soil disturbance, maximize plant diversity, maximize living roots, and maximize soil cover in order to create the most favorable habitat possible for the soil food web and begin the upward spiral of soil regeneration.
Mr. Lamm is a Project Manager for the Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton project, a soil health training and education program that seeks to increase adoption of soil health management practices among cotton producers by building a network of farmer mentors and soil health technical specialists.
The Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton webinar series will allow viewership and participation in soil health training for cotton producers who were unable to attend the training field day workshops or advanced trainings. The goal of the project is to quantify, expand and verify the productivity and environmental benefits of the soil management systems used by cotton producers. Healthy Soils for Sustainable Cotton is supported through the generosity of the Wrangler® brand, the VF Corporation Foundation, and the Walmart Foundation.