Our Turn At This Earth: Soil Health Movement

Jul 5, 2018

I had read something about a Montana farmer who was using sweet clover as a cover crop in his wheat. The details are long lost to me. He may have been inter-seeding the clover with the wheat, or establishing it over a season or two, then turning it under before he planted his cash crop. Whatever his method, the clover, being a legume, fixed nitrogen in the soil.

I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to use that nasty anhydrous ammonia fertilizer anymore? When applying it we had to wear goggles lest it burn our eyes. Breathing the acrid mist could be deadly. And farm magazines often ran stories about chemical fertilizer leaching into and polluting ground and surface water. I could hardly contain my excitement.

But when I suggested to my father that he let me experiment with clover and wheat in one of our fields, he pooh-poohed the idea. It wouldn’t work in our part of the country, he said. The clover would sap moisture from the soil and the wheat would fail. We needed to kill weeds, not grow them. Today I think I may have given up too easily. Rather than continuing to look for ways to farm more sustainably, I decided to go back to school and study writing. That was my true passion.

I soon discovered, however, that writing wasn’t my only passion. Over the next thirty years, I never stopped thinking about the soil and water of home. Meanwhile, U.S Geological Survey studies revealed that the widespread use of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer was causing more and more nitrates to show up in the Ogallala Aquifer and in the drinking water that it supplied to High Plains towns.

But, over those same three decades, a “soil health” movement began taking root in the minds of farmers all over the world. They began planting mixed cover crops that, in turn, sent roots down to varying depths into the earth. Now the practice is even spreading to our semi-arid plains. Recently, I watched several video talks and interviews with soil health advocate Ray Archuleta, also known as “The Soil Guy,” and North Dakota farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown, who has been employing cover crops and other regenerative techniques ever since the mid-1990s.

Misters Archuleta and Brown explain that cover crops, combined with now common no-till practices, do not deplete soil moisture the way my father feared. The additional biomass fosters earthworms, mycorrhizae fungi, and a host of microbes, which interact with the roots and break down the plentiful organic matter, making the soil porous and rich. Live, fertile soil like this can hold many times more water than tilled fields where there is no cover and where chemicals are used to fertilize and combat pests.

This is what these men are saying. I am as excited as I was in the 1980s when I first read about sweet clover as a cover crop. And I’m eager to find out more. I’ll keep you posted on what I learn.