The media has given lots of attention to soils recently, with numerous news outlets talking about the role soil can play in making our entire planet more vibrant and resilient to weather extremes. But folks in the agricultural community already know that secret! Farmers know that soil often holds the key to success on their ranches and vineyards and that it can also often be the root of farming challenges.
Dedicating time to keeping soil healthy and vibrant will repay in the long-run by making the on-farm ecosystem (including the “cash crop”) more resilient to the factors that can often lead to setbacks. While there is currently no universally accepted measure of soil health, researchers are working on ways to evaluate soil characteristics to judge its condition and compare it between different locations.
To highlight just a few benefits of increased soil health reported in current research:
Increased forage productivity in rangelands amended with compost
Reduced fertilizer inputs from increases in soil health and productivity
Increased disease resistance, beneficial insect populations, and reduced herbicide inputs with higher soil productivity
Increased infiltration and water holding capacity from reduction in ground disturbance and more ground cover
Improved drought tolerance due to roots receiving support from soil microbes
Reduced erosion potential with less soil disturbance and increased ground cover
Long-term increases in soil carbon, removing it from the atmosphere and storing in soil organisms and woody plants
North Coast producers, in collaboration with local researchers, the Carbon Cycle Institute and Marin Carbon Project, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the RCDs have been closely collaborating to coordinate regional soil health efforts. Regional RCDs have begun developing Carbon Farm Plans and conducting Soil Health Assessments for producers interested in understanding what best management practices could assist them with increasing soil health and promote carbon uptake within the farm, potentially offsetting carbon emissions from their operations.
The Sonoma RCD is working with a handful of both vineyard and livestock producers to assess soil health through field demonstrations, collecting a total of 1,397 soil samples this spring to analyze for total carbon (organic matter), bulk density, and a variety of other soil health parameters. These field demonstrations complement the work of neighboring RCDs to carry out similar projects and develop a regional dataset to inform producer decision-making on soil management.
Over one year ago, the North Coast RCDs launched a regional hub to disseminate information about soil health and promote soil conversation among ranchers and winegrowers. The “Soil Hub” as it’s deemed, sets out to capture the goings on in soil health and to provide a platform for growers, researchers and other natural resource partners to engage in conversation. Together we’ve held numerous workshops and tailgates to increase collaboration and share on the ground experiences. To learn more, visit www.soilhub.org.
If you are curious to learn more about soil health best management practices for your farm or ranch, please contact your local RCD office.