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Healthy soil means healthy people

Farmers, exhibitors and translators filled the University of Minnesota Continuing Education and Conference Center for the 9th Immigrant and Minority Farmers Conference held on Feb 1-2.

The first workshop I attended was titled, “Soil Health: Preventing Soil Loss on Hilly Land” and it was presented by John Crellin from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Ryan Browne from Rising Sun Farm.

Crellin and Brown gave the attendees valuable insights on farming on hilly land which requires different ways of farming to prevent loss of soil, plants, and income.

Crellin introduced the acronym SWAPAH+E which stands for : Soil, Water, Air, Plants, Animals, Humans, and Energy. With this, his intention was to emphasize the importance of being good observers. He expressed the need to be respectful of these entities. He further explained that, “when we lose our topsoil, we lose our productivity. We need to keep living roots in the soil as much as possible, and keep the soil covered.”

soil workshop 1

He also described the components of soil: “There are worms, bacteria, fungi. They help recycle nutrients that help the plants. The waste products, like the proteins and the sugars, act like a glue. The organic matter is like the muscles and joints of the human body. It’s like the glue that holds the particles together, it holds moisture, and it brings nutrients to the plants. Top soil is the most valuable part for agriculture.”

Crellin then continued with a hands-on demonstration using two soil samples. He described sample ‘A’ as being covered with mulch and/or a cover crop, and sample ‘B’ as having been disturbed often, with little cover, and having had minimal roots.

As he passed these samples around, he explained that although they may look similar, they act and function differently: “You might look good on the outside, but on the inside maybe you are sick. Maybe the soils are sick.” The only difference was how these soils were managed.

While the audience tried to figure out which soil type was better or stronger, the conversation shifted to issues of erosion and runoff. Crellin explained how contour farming slows runoff water. When there is heavy rain, soil that has organic matter and that has been maintained via addition of mulch or planting of cover crops, will withstand weather events that might otherwise deteriorate the land.

How and why does this matter to us here at Main Street Project?

Main Street Project has taken a great variety of steps to not only protect the land where we raise poultry, but also to enhance the quality of the soil by increasing its organic matter. We recently planted hazelnut trees on terraces on one of the chicken coop incubator sites. We planted them perpendicular to the direction of the water flow, and this coming spring we will add fencing around the young trees for protection from the chickens that will be raised there.

We also planted these perennial trees to physically protect the soils. We know that we must disturb the soil very minimally because of the organisms like the bacteria and fungi hard at work in the soil.

We follow the American Planning Association’s healthy, sustainable food systems model by integrating each component into our systems design. Much like what John Crellin emphasized, soil health is one of our priorities when it comes to designing food systems.

soil_ws2Ryan Browne from Rising Sun Farm emphasized the importance of utilizing chickens to fertilize the soil (Yay for chickens!). In our work with food systems, poultry is at the center of our design. The perennial and annual cropping systems allow us to have permanent cover of the space where the poultry is raised. In this manner we restore organic matter in the soil and provide shade, which is critical for managing and/or decreasing the temperature of the soil and surrounding air where the birds are raised. In essence, we design systems that resemble or mimic natural environments, for vegetables/plants and animals. So our natural product is raised in the closest original setting where these organisms evolved.

The audience in this workshop took away valuable ideas and methods for taking care of soil. We learned how to be good observers and understand the behavior of soil in relation to the application of water. In Minnesota, especially with the onset of floods, organic matter is even more crucial in keeping soil strong. You can learn more about the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s soil education program here.

For more information about Main Street Projects efforts in ecological conservation in the larger scheme of food systems click here (PDF).