Expert: Healthy soil is essential to sustainability

By Brian Buehler, USDA NRCS

When it comes to sustainability, nothing is more important to a farm than its soil.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is promoting soil health as the way to ensure the productivity of American agriculture while protecting our natural resources. By following four basic soil health principles, farmers can increase their soil’s fertility, improve water infiltration, sequester more carbon and improve wildlife and pollinator habitat. All of this can be accomplished while maintaining or improving yields.

The first soil health principle is to use plant diversity to increase diversity in the soil. Soil is teeming with life from bacteria to arthropods to earthworms. These organisms decompose and recycle the materials crops and other life depends on. Biodiversity helps to prevent disease and pest problems associated with monocultures, a diversity of plants supports the biological diversity of healthy soils. Landowners can support this diversity by establishing or maintaining a diverse crop rotation. Planting a mixture of cover crops is another way. Different cover crops provide different benefits, such as fixing nitrogen, scavenging nutrients and aerating the soil.

The next soil principle is to minimize soil disturbance by reducing tillage as much as possible. Tillage can destroy soil organic matter and structure along with the habitat that soil organisms need. Tillage, especially during warmer months, reduces water infiltration, increases runoff and can make the soil less productive. Reduced tillage, be it no-till, strip-till or other methods of conservation tillage will result in healthier soil, reduce soil erosion and save money on fuel, equipment and labor costs.

The final two soil health principles are closely related; keep plants growing throughout as much of the year as possible and keep the soil covered. Just as a barren field does not support life above the ground, it also does not support the soil organisms below the surface. Cover crops planted after harvest will feed soil organisms and greatly reduce soil erosion. Over time, cover crops will increase organic matter in the soil. Organic matter provides nutrients to crops and allows soil to retain more water, helping crops better withstand drought.

Soil health practices have many environmental benefits as well. Healthy soil practices reduce soil erosion and runoff. Runoff from agricultural land has a negative impact on water quality, such as algae blooms in Lake Erie. Healthy soils also store carbon instead of releasing it to the environment where it is linked to climate change. Cover crops provide food and cover for a variety of wildlife like native pollinators, upland birds and deer.

Conservationists with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service assist farmers in developing soil health management systems at no cost to the producer. In addition to technical assistance, farmers may be able to obtain USDA financial assistance for implementing some of the activities in their soil health management plan such as planting cover crops and adopting conservation tillage. To learn more about soil health, and to hear testimonials from farmers across the country who have adopted soil health principles, visit the USDA Natural Resources Conservation website at