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More Than Dirt by Serge Koenig

Serge Koenig More Than Dirt

While most of us think of life happening above ground, the soil beneath our feet is actually teeming with life and very complex. There are more organisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth! And like other living organisms, our soils need food, water, nutrients and protection. In my work with farmers, our goal is biomimicry: to emulate the natural system as much as possible and farm in Nature’s image.


So what’s the recipe for healthy soil and how do we keep it healthy?

1. Feed It

Plants exude 40-50% of the sugars from their roots into the soil to attract soil biology. In turn, those creatures make nutrients available to the plant. The real fertilizer in the soil is the sugar created through photosynthesis and stored by roots, actively growing around the clock.

2. Water It

Water is life, and without it, soil microbes can’t function properly. Soil compaction and increased evaporation due to improper plant cover robs those microbes of water. With rainfall across the Midwest becoming wildly unreliable, healthy soils give us a buffer by allowing for water storage during droughts and better drainage in wet fields.

3. Encourage Diversity

Just like our bodies don’t thrive when we eat the same foods everyday, the life in our soil needs a diversity of roots from a variety of plants. Diversifying crop rotations while utilizing cover crops helps with this— and integrating livestock with grazing animals at certain times of the year increases the resilience of the system even more.

4. Reduce Stress

Humans don’t respond well to chronic stress and our soil organisms are no different. When fields are tilled year after year, it places chronic physical stress on the soil, destroying its structure. But when farmers opt for low or no till practices, they prevent severe erosion and protect the nutrients that a healthy soil needs to thrive. An added bonus: naturally nutritious soils undercut the need for excessive chemical and fertilizer use.

Renowned soil health expert Ray Archuleta said, “Our soils are naked, hungry and running a fever.” That statement really changes when you consider that life in the soil is as important as our pets, our wildlife, and our own health. Following the principles of soil health will bring the soil back to life, leaving our farmers more profitable while also improving our water quality. It’s time we stop treating our soils like “dirt” and treat it like the life-giving organism that it is.

Serge Koenig is a conservation technician for Sauk County Land Resources and Environment where he helps farmers plan for and install rotational grazing systems and other conservation practices.