Celebrating World Soil Day today – Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Conference in Memphis

December 4, 2015 – World Soil Day

Celebrating World Soil Day today – Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters Conference in Memphis

This week 200+ of the nation’s agricultural leaders assembled in Memphis, TN at the Healthy Soils for Healthy Waters (HSHW) symposium to advance sustainable practices and supportive policies for feeding a growing world population while protecting the fertile soils and surrounding water resources we depend upon.  The timing of our gathering was perfect given that today is World Soil Day with global events echoing our call for preservation of the planet’s envelop of productive soils that drape our globe.  You can find here the full agenda of the Nutrient Management conference that focused on the Great Lakes and Mississippi watersheds, which drain two thirds of the continental United States.  The day one HSHW symposium included presentations from across the business, policy, research, and environmental sectors and you can find summaries of their talks here. Days two and three saw a continuation of the HSHW themes with presentations from various regions.

But allow me to highlight just a few comments, especially from the producers (farmers) who know best what it takes to manage and protect their lands.

Dan DeSutter, a producer from Indiana, reminded us that ‘nature is our template’ … it is complex and we must study and mimic it in our actions as we work to effectively pump carbon back into plant roots to grow organic matter, while facilitating soil biology and increasing diversity which is a hallmark of healthy natural systems.  He reminds us there ‘is more living matter in a teaspoon of soil than people on the planet.’  Dan talks about fungi as ‘soil livestock’ that need to be fed air and water to breathe and multiply.  When the going gets tough, he says, the survivors diversify … so the lesson he takes away is to diversify his crops.

Mike Taylor, a producer from Arkansas, echoed this call for diversifying crops to retain nutrients.  He quoted Charles Kome, stating that “the quality of our air, water, and food is all dependent upon the quality of our soil!”  And David Brandt, a producer from Ohio, spoke of planting 8-12 different species in his diversification strategy to maximize productivity and maintain soil health.  David afterwards shared with me that his soil management strategies yield crops with a measured nutrient density double that of his neighbor’s crops – that means a given weight of grain from David’s fields sold to feed our cattle as well as the food products that feed ourselves contains double the micro and macro nutrient value coming off fields with poorer soil management.  Yet they get the same price in the markets when weighed at the grain elevator!  Healthy Soils for Healthy Foods and Healthy People is a priority of Greenleaf and its partners.

FAOAndrew Sharpley, Professor of Soil and Water Quality at the University of Arkansas, summed up the first day by putting up an image of medicine with a warning label; he said we should ‘treat conservation management like human health … get the diagnostics right first and then get the treatment right.’  His comments remind me of our approach to Health by Design which you can read about here.  Jim Moseley, past Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and co-Chair of AGree, reminded us that soil is not regulated and so it is through air and water regulations that government will gain its influence; though they will not lead, rather it will take individuals and all are candidates.  We had presentations by U.S. Government officials – Deputy Under Secretary for Research Education and Economics at USDA Ann Bartuska, and Senior Policy Advisor for the Office of Water at U.S. EPA, Ellen Gilinsky, who spoke on U.S. government priorities.  What I found especially refreshing in their comments was support for and emphasis on environmental markets (e.g. nutrient trading) and citizen science (e.g. water quality monitoring) in addition to support for partnerships to scale up field based work to watersheds and to engage global partnerships on nutrient management.  The commitment to innovation came from all sectors, which was the point of this conference.  And we enjoyed a global visual perspective on the importance of soil from Dennis Dimick, Executive Environmental Editor for National Geographic who writes on this subject frequently (link).

Let me close with a comment made to me in a sidebar by a scientist with whom I work regularly who is the past Chief Editor of  two of this nation’s preeminent national agricultural journals, Warren Dick from The Ohio State University. Warren was reflecting on news out of Paris where the Climate Talks are taking place.  While this meeting focused on soils effects on water quality, Warren commented on the importance of soil processes to climate.  This subject is the focus of work planned by Greenleaf with its partners, and perhaps the subject of a future symposium as well – Healthy Soils for Healthy Climate.

My best wishes to all for the advancement of ecosystem health.

John A. Andersen, Jr.