Sustainability grows in healthy soil

By Christine Clarke, Massachusetts State Conservationist

Thank you Mr. Elmer O. Fippin. Who is Elmer O. Fippin? He was the soil scientist who mapped and wrote the 1903 publication entitled The Soil Survey of the Connecticut River Valley. Thanks to his groundbreaking work more than a century ago, we have the tools today to reduce the effects of drought and increase our ability to feed the world.

In 1899, Congress appropriated $16,000 to the USDA Bureau of Soils to conduct four soil surveys in the Nation. One of the four was the Soil Survey of the Connecticut River Valley published in 1903. Charged with mapping the existing farmland and land suitable for future agricultural production, this effort speaks volumes to both the historic importance of farming in the region and the highly productive and unique soils found in the Pioneer Valley a century ago.

Now collected, managed and distributed by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), soils information is the backbone of resource management and conservation planning activities that support agriculture sustainability in the Commonwealth. The soils data for the Nation, including all counties in Massachusetts, can be found on-line through the NRCS Web Soil Survey and the Soil Data Mart.

Unlock the Secrets in the SoilA viable and productive agricultural system is one that is sustainable in the face of a changing environment. Soil is the primary medium from which our food is derived and though it is often taken for granted, there are steps we can take to enhance both the health and sustainability of the Earth’s skin.

What is considered a healthy soil? Generally a healthy agricultural soil is one that contains organic matter, retains water and nutrients while also allowing air and water to filter through the profile while providing a habitat for living organisms. If all soils possessed these basic qualities, there would be fewer starving people in the world. How can this be?

Simply by managing soils in a way that increases organic matter – dead and decaying plants and animals – we as the stewards of the soil can have a dramatic and positive impact. Soils with high organic matter content hold more water, much like a sponge. The organic matter holds the water for use by plants and as a result, vegetation grows and thereby reduces drought hazard. Vegetation in turn stabilizes the soil to prevent run off of particles into streams and water bodies.

Conversely, as soil and natural vegetation is increasingly covered by parking lots and buildings, less water percolates into the ground and runs across the landscape. This water generally contains a higher degree of manmade chemicals and sediments which eventually deposit in streams, water bodies and coastal areas. The impact of Tropical Storm Irene offers a recent example of the destructive force of flood waters and the need to protect our fragile landscapes with the tools at our disposal.

Maintaining soil health also enhances water quality, cycles organic wastes, detoxifies noxious chemicals, increases soil carbon, removes C02 from the air, saves energy from reduced fertilizer use, increases drought tolerance, improves plant health and reduces disease and pests.

NRCS and its conservation partners in Massachusetts work locally to identify and address natural resource concerns on private lands. We provide technical assistance and financial incentives through the Farm Bill focusing on resource issues, including soil health. By contacting the local NRCS Field office, Massachusetts farmers can explore the potential benefits of implementing a Soil Health Management System and help feed the world.

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