Sustainable Soil Economics™

I was recently talking with a friend about the idea of what sustainable soil economics™ means. She said to me,”Teresa why would a farmer take part of their land out of production to plant warm season grasses?” This is a great question and one I’ve heard often as my farmer friends have said to me, “Show me the money!” and I’ll consider doing some sustainable practices on my land. Fair enough. Here’s the deal, sustainability isn’t an instant cash return, it’s a long term investment with long term returns AND that’s the important part – there are returns with sustainable farming methods.   We all know that our society is engaged in instant gratification and if we don’t get something immediately we think something is wrong with the way we are living. I say, “slow down, you move too fast – gotta let the morning last.”

Ok, so back to sustainable soil economics™. If you have a piece of land and are growing corn, soybeans, or hay – your soils are used to that root system and in order for the soil to get nutrients, you have to buy them and add them into your soil every year. Now, the nutrients that you are adding do little for building soil organic matter and are only enough to feed that plant for the growing season – provided that you get soil tests each year.  No worries – we’ll discuss soil tests soon : )  So your economic plan is basically input cost of nutrients needed to feed the crop that you’re growing and management cost to maintain and harvest the crop – pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and petroleum to harvest. Then you get a return on your investment of the year’s crops. Now depending on prices, the year’s income could be high or low.  Yes, I understand there’s crop insurance but we’re talking about sustainable farming for you, on your land, with your knowledge.

So let’s say that you invest in some sustainable practices that build the soil organic matter. What I’m talking about is diversified roots which means diversified nutrient cycling in the soil profile. Hey, if I say the word “profile,” just think soils underground. I want to throw in some soil terms so we all learn. Let’s say that this year you decide to take out a strip of crops – say three rows of corn – on the edge of the field and either let it grow up or broadcast (throw) seeds of native plants, buckwheat, or maybe plant some trees – I know, radical!  Here are a couple of things that happen within five years: the soil nutrients in that area build, increasing the root systems that you’ve planted or allowed to grow up, feeding the adjacent crops. This area of growth (called a field border) also provides an area for predator insects to hang out (grasshoppers, ladybugs, black beetles, etc.), which are your live pest management. The field border builds soil organic matter, which is direct money into your soil while also building the organic matter of the crops growing next to it. This boosts yields and provides pest management, lessening your input costs of buying products to spray. Spraying products not only destroys your soil ecosystem, depletes your soil nutrients, and is a yearly cost, but spraying them is a cost in petroleum as well. You plant a field border and you knock the cost down within 3-5 years AND you boost your yields back up. Are you feeling my soil vibe here?

Be well my friends!

Teresa Morris, Soil Fanatic