Getting to the Roots of Soil Health

It’s the end of September and temperatures in the Monadnock Region have been hotter over the past few days than what we experienced for most of this past summer.  Honeybees continue to forage, stopping off at the spigot for a quick drink on their way back to the hive.  The winter squash is still in the field, basking in the sun.  Tomatoes are ripening on the vines and there is now a bumper crop of Alpine strawberries.  It’s hard to imagine that winter is just around the corner.

While it is tempting to take advantage of these “extreme weather conditions” (to be politically sensitive) for more of a bountiful harvest, I quietly admit that it is time for planting cover crops, mulching, transitioning the high tunnel for the winter harvest, and preparing the field for planting garlic. 

At the core of the changing seasons is soil health, encompassed by conservation practices that not only support current soil conditions, but more importantly, those that are regenerative for the future.  And whether you are using a broadfork on a garden bed or a no-till seeder in the field, all of us can embrace techniques that build soil health.

I have always been fascinated by the design aspect of biological systems, with a passion for small-scale intensive farming and gardening.  I am intrigued by the historical perspectives that focus on intensive plant spacing’s, crop successions, and season extension, all of which depend upon building rich soils.  There are amazing accounts of how small-scale intensive agriculture was utilized in numerous parts of the world for centuries, taking root in France in the 1600’s, and then eventually finding its way across the Atlantic to New England.  The role of policy and socioeconomics cannot be overlooked in discussing soil health, especially during the 1970’s where U.S. food production policy focused on a “get big or get out” model that was being promoted by the USDA’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz.  Countering this paradigm, was the culture of Small is Beautiful, sparked by the economist E.F. Schumacher. 

Schumacher’s work focused on systems and technologies that were environmentally, culturally, and economically appropriate to individual communities.  While both Butz and Schumacher strived to make systems more efficient and profitable, their strategies have had vast differences impacting soil health.  Today, we know that no matter what scale food is produced on or how it is grown (i.e. conventionally or organically), there are key principals to improving soil health.  They include:

  • Minimizing Soil Disturbance
  • Keeping a Living Root in the Soil
  • Diversification of Crops
  • Keeping Cover on the Ground

Soil health is the focus of the upcoming NH Association of Conservation Districts (NHACD) Annual Meeting and Working Lands Conference, Nov. 2-3, in Keene. The Cheshire County Conservation District is pleased to host the event(s) and to welcome Dr. David Montgomery to deliver the keynote address. Dr. Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow, professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington, and author of several books that focus on soil health.  He will share with us his research on the history and future of soil. I look forward to seeing you at the NHACD Annual Meeting & Working Lands Conference and for all of us to continue learning and working together to build healthy soils here in NH.  

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex… It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.”  E.F. Schumacher

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Two hands holding a pile of soil