At the end of July, more than 130 soil health experts convened in Louisville, Kentucky to brainstorm about the future of soil health research. Of the many scientists, university specialists, farmers, experts, and NGO leaders in attendance, the WA State Soil Health Committee was the only state soil committee invited to attend!
Ultimately, the conference aimed to identify key areas of research and standards of measurement that could then form convincing, relevant, scientifically grounded recommendations for policy makers and agricultural producers.
The convention marked the first annual meeting of the Soil Health Institute, an organization headed by Dr. Wayne Honeycutt whose mission is “to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of the soil.”
WA State Soil Health Committee representative Gary Farrell was thrilled to be among the ranks of soil health advocates unifying behind basic soil health goals. Those goals include conducting a national assessment of soil health, identifying research gaps regarding the relationship between crop rotations and microbial soil health, creating a “digital decision support tool that enables growers to anticipate which soil amendments and crop rotations will have the greatest impact on a field’s annual return.”
For more information about the Soil Health Institute and their first annual meeting, check out their press release about the event, here.
There are animals under our feet. Billions of them. A miraculous, biodiverse jungle in the soil. Professor Diana Wall, soil ecologist at Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, is working to uncover the secrets of a wildly diverse animal kingdom in our soils. She has studied a group of soil animals, nematodes, in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica where she has been able to isolate the effects of drought on these soil organisms. She has shown that when soil ecosystems are devastated by erosion, pollution, pesticides, drought, and other climate change effects, the resulting soil degradation releases billions of tons of stored carbon, threatens global food production, and reduces water and air quality, Healthy soil is responsible for filtering our water and our air in ways few non-scientists appreciate. Professor Wall founded the new Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas, with more than 100 other scientists, to map the underground factories of terrestrial life across the globe.
“Forget Superman,” writes Lee Billings, physics and space editor for Scientific American. Our soils contain the most indestructible living being on Earth, a soil organism, the Tardigrade, or “Water Bear,” an eight-legged aquatic invertebrate found everywhere on our planet. Recent genome sequencing of the Tardigrade have uncovered a genetic protein that suppresses damage from radiation, dehydration, and other destructive natural forces. The damage suppressor, or “Dsup,” has been introduced to human kidney cells: “ When the researchers inserted Dsup into cultured human kidney cells, the protein boosted the cells’ tolerance to x-ray damage by about 40 percent.” Move over, Superman.
One of the WA State Soil Committee’s yearly grants this year went to the Underwood Conservation District for the purpose of quantifying the benefits of adding compost to vineyards and orchards, as well as determining the benefits of biological tillage on overgrazed and degraded pastureland. Now, we have a promising video update from Underwood! Take a look at their progress.
The NACD is seeking to create a Soil Health Champions Network of farmers, ranchers, woodland managers, and other landowners across the country doing their part to promote soil health in their communities. Through various outreach activities conducted jointly by NACD, State Associations, Local Districts and individual Soil Health Champions, the Soil Health Champions Network will raise awareness of, and increase the adoption of, soil health systems.
We at the Washington State Soil Health Committee want to make sure our own Soil Health Champions here in Washington are strongly represented! If you feel like you or someone you know might qualify for inclusion in the Soil Health Champions Network, please contact the WA State Soil Health Committee at email@example.com!
A revolution in “regenerative agriculture” has begun and is the focus of this article by Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune of USDA and Justin Adams, Global Director of Lands at the Nature Conservancy. They explain why improvements in soil health are the key to feeding our growing global population in our warming world.
One of the few bright spots in global climate change picture is the magical role of mushrooms. Not magic mushrooms, but every form of fungi. Fungi generate humus soils across the Earth. They carry nutrients between plants underground. They don’t like to rot, so they create antibiotics, which we use to cure human infections. In a cubic inch of soil, there can be more than eight miles of mushroom mycelium. Together, across the planet, mycelium is, as Paul Stamets identifies it, the Earth’s natural Internet.
The largest living organism on the planet is a mycelium, a mycelium mat 2,200 acres in size in Eastern Oregon. When other things die off, for example after the asteroid extinction of dinosaurs, the fungi survived. They can clean up our toxic waste sites, convert extra carbon into edible mushrooms, and basically remanufacture hydrocarbons into carbohydrates: fungal sugars.
Certain mushrooms act as insecticides. Others kill flu viruses. They may be able to produce an organic fuel, which could reduce our production of harmful greenhouses gases. More mushroom miracles are on the way as scientists around the world test their powers.
For more information on the magic and majesty of mushrooms, check out this TedTalk by mycologist Paul Statmets!
The final project awarded a Soil Health Committee grant is in the San Juan Conservation District, chosen to work on demonstrating the benefits of biochar in drylands as well as irrigated agriculture. Biochar holds many possibilities, from increased nutrient retention to carbon sequestration in soil and improvement of air quality. As biochar is made from woody biomass, the success of this project could incentivize forest restoration, providing a market for the woody biomass.
So far, a team of graduate students under the direction of University of Washington’s Dr. Tom DeLuca have been assembled to plan the project. Field sessions will begin soon, and additional funding is being sought to make the most of the opportunity.
The third and fourth grant projects are headed by the Underwood Conservation District, as it first attempts to quantify the benefits of adding compost to vineyards and orchards, and secondly determines the benefits of biological tillage on overgrazed and degraded pastureland. Soil monitors will be installed to a vineyard and an orchard to measure the effects of compost on water retention, organic matter and beneficial microbes. On the over-grazed pastureland, a deep-rooted cover crop will be planted then assessed for soil quality and cost savings on feed costs.
Thus far, compost and soil monitoring sensors have been applied to one vineyard, and an orchard site has been selected and mapped. The pasture project is progressing well, with two fields divided into control and treatment areas, baselines soil samples collected and no till drill and seeding scheduled.
The second of five WA Soil Health Committee grants was awarded to the Washington Environmental Council for the Nisqually Community Forest Pilot. The project would demonstrate and champion longer rotation and forest soil protection practices. Such practices should create a slew of benefits to local ecosystems; from improved water quality, quantity of endangered species and increased carbon sequestration to improved forest resistance to drought, fires and insects. As part of their project, the WEC also hopes to distribute the Visualization of Ecosystems for Land Management Assessment (VELMA) developed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Natural Resources.
The WEC is currently working with local partners to develop their forest management plan, which they hope to eventually share with other groups establishing sustainable forest projects, encouraging local landowners to sign on to the Nisqually Community Forest Plan. In light of the success and promise of VELMA plans, WEC is also working with the Department of Ecology to open up Clean Water Funds to landowners who employ sustainable forest practices.