Guest column: Soil health of dire consequence

Long-term soil health takes planning, education and willing growers, writes Wendy Pratt.

There’s a groundswell rising up in the world of agriculture, and Southeastern Idaho is ripe for the new “technology.” It’s actually an old practice that’s come back around in new ways – cover crops, defined as those grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil. And it’s not just farmers who will benefit, but everyone who’s concerned with soil health and making the best use of our precious water resources. In other words, all of us.

I’ve been reading “Dirt, The Erosion of Civilizations,” by David R. Montgomery, which chronicles the demise of societies throughout history due to a loss of soil fertility. It’s a disturbing treatise knowing that we rely on fertilizer which is a finite resource and considering the direct link between healthy soil, full of organic material, and the capacity of the earth to capture and hold moisture. Droughts and floods happen naturally but their severity is directly tied to how well the ground holds water.

Besides capturing water, cover crops anchor soil. Wind erosion in our area is a serious problem. We consider it a natural consequence of wind on exposed, bare soil. But must the ground be bare? For our ranch, sand drifting in to our fence lines and irrigation ditches means constant maintenance. What if road closures due to blowing dirt were a thing of the past? Some events you can see and feel with your own eyes. But for the most part erosion is a silent marauder. Montgomery’s line “It seems that the slower the emergency, the less motivated we are to do anything about it” is haunting.

My husband’s grandfather planted cover crops in our sandy soil, which he would then plow under to enhance soil fertility. This was a good start, but now we know to use no-till methods so as not to disturb the millions of microorganisms that live in the soil providing a web of life so critical to soil health. We know to leave plant litter on the soil to act as armor, and to leave living roots in the soil for as many days as possible throughout the year. To jump start the process, we’re relearning the old practice of using grazing animals to cycle plants and return 85 percent to 95 percent of the nutrients back to the soil through manure and urine. The savviest cover-crop farmers also know to sow a seed mix of different species, grasses and grains, root crops and leafy crops, etc. each with a specific attribute for increasing soil enrichment.

This winter, Soil Conservation Districts throughout Southern Idaho have hosted workshops to learn more about cover crops and no-till. These events are eagerly attended by young farmers ready to look at soil with fresh perspectives. The Natural Resources Conservation Service has funding help and good information to share. It’s not a quick fix for sure, sustainable enterprises rarely are. It will take foresight, new knowledge and willing growers, but the future is bright for innovative farmers to make a positive difference in our community.

Wendy Pratt is a fourth-generation cattle rancher in the Blackfoot area and advocates for conservation/stewardship of working lands.