A Soil Story

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Introducing a two-part story from Jim VanDerPol, who owns Pastures A Plenty together with his wife, LeeAnn, and children, Josh and Cindy VanDerPol. Seward Co-op has purchased pork from Jim and his family for 18 years, and our staff is grateful to build our knowledge of soil health thanks to him! Look for part two from Jim in our spring Sprout!.

The impact of soil biology upon its chemistry has guided recent thinking in farming circles about soil. Since the end of World War II, we have learned to associate increased production of field crops with proper amounts and balances of three main elements in soil: N(nitrogen), P(phosphorus) and K(potassium). In the last several decades, we’ve begun to pay attention to other minor elements in soil such as sulfur, copper, iron, magnesium and manganese. These were all thought to exist in measurable quantities in the soil, and for years it was thought that fertilizers containing these elements could be added as needed without paying a great deal of attention to factors such as tillage, tractor traffic, diversity of plant life, internal and external drainage, and weather.

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There were always difficulties with this view, and those difficulties have been adding up. Applying fertilizer rarely appears to be tightly correlated with harvesting successful crops. Some soils produce good crops without tests showing a great amount of the main nutrients in the soil. Other times the elements could be in surplus, and yet the yields are mediocre, as other factors were evidently in play. Considering soil biology brings some of this into better focus.

There are quite probably thousands or tens of thousands of tiny species in the soil, many of which have not yet been recognized or completely categorized (which is hard to believe in this time of detailed information about so much!). It is these tiny critters whose activities provide some of the answers to the gaps in our understanding of our soils and our farms. Some are visible and others not, they are predator and/ or prey, and they need to be in some kind of balance to best do the work we would like them to do. We don’t entirely understand what that balance should be because we don’t know what these tiny plants and animals are, or what they all do.

Pastures A Plenty tries to operate now with these five general soil health practices:

1. Keep the soil covered;

2. Minimize soil disturbance (tillage);

3. Increase crop diversity;

4. Keep living roots in the soil; and

5. Integrate livestock.

I believe these general practices enable us to foster our farm’s biological health without yet completely understanding what we are doing. We think that enhanced soil life serves as an intermediary between chemical nutrients and plant growth. We talk much about carbon movement now, both out and particularly into the soil, and about the movement of water. It is exciting, and the learning will extend well into the future. Soil health is a hot topic, especially in grazing circles. We’ll be studying at several workshops and meetings each winter. In the next part of this story (be sure to read the spring issue of Seward Co-op’s newsletter), I’ll share details about Pastures A Plenty’s evolution from a conventional farm focused on mainly on corn and soybeans to pasture-based livestock farming.