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The past few months have been terrible for farmers across the globe, as crops have been exposed to one extreme weather event after the other.
Pakistan shouldered a climate catastrophe, with devastating flooding that submerged a third of the country. And hot and dry weather in the U.S., Europe, and China threatens yields and drives up food costs.
These are the realities of a changing climate. For farmers, the meteorological tumult has profound impacts. Sixty percent of the U.S. plains are seeing severe drought this year, and nearly three-quarters of U.S. farmers expect significant crop and income loss.
Many are inclined to look to the sky for relief. But there’s an overlooked tool at our disposal to mitigate the worst effects of weather we can’t control —and it’s right beneath our feet.
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The soil solution
From killing crops to selling livestock to disaster relief, governments and farmers have taken reactive measures to cope with extreme weather. But many believe in a more proactive approach, using soil to its greatest potential.
Healthy soil generally has a more robust structure and higher organic matter. These characteristics have water-storing benefits – for each 1% increase in soil organic matter, the soil can hold around 20,000 gallons more water per acre. Even beyond drought, in heavy rainfall or flooding, good soil structure allows for permeable, sponge-like soil, giving the water someplace to go.
The problem is we have degraded our soil over the last 200 years, killing 30% of the world’s topsoil and 70% of agricultural topsoil.
In the soil, carbon is an important indicator of soil health. But when farmers use destructive agricultural techniques such as tillage, carbon is released into the atmosphere, which contributes to –– and exacerbates –– the climate crisis.
But adopting methods that prioritize soil health can keep carbon in the soil where it contributes to a virtuous cycle: not only ensuring more resilient farms in extreme weather but radically improving farmer profits and mitigating the climate crisis.
A tale of two farms
This summer, my team witnessed a stark example of what healthy soil can do during a busy wheat harvest with farmers in Kansas and Nebraska. The temperatures were brutally hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and they hadn’t seen rain for weeks.
On one conventionally farmed field, the soil was exposed and uncovered. The top few inches were so compact it was tough to dig into, and the ground was like powder. When we measured the surface soil temperature, it was 138-140 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just 20 feet away was a field where the farmer had been trialing regenerative practices. The soil was covered with crop residue from the previous year, and beneath that armor, the soil was porous, moist, and measured just 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
There’s no quick fix to creating more resilient farms, but what we saw on that field demonstrates farmers can take steps to protect themselves from extreme weather.
First, we need to stop tilling. Wedestroy the essential structure to hold and direct water when we turn over the soil. It also exposes the soil to air and sun, which kills the rich network of microorganisms required for healthy soil.
Second, leaving the ground covered can help increase the carbon in the soil. Armor, like the crop residue on that midwestern wheat farm, can protect soil from the elements that strip it of nutrients. Cover crops protect soil from erosion while increasing photosynthesis by driving more carbon into the ground through living plant roots.
Lastly, growing a mix of crops is beneficial. Repeatedly planting the same crop drains the soil of the same nutrients. Instead, consider mixed and companion crops or rotating which crops you plant – for example, planting potatoes after harvesting corn is a common practice.
How to make soil a priority
These soil-regenerating techniques are widely known. But there are barriers to widespread adoption.
Education is lacking. Some people still till their soil, for example, because they believe it will help improve the soil’s ability to retain water. Now that we know it has the opposite effects, farmers see that regenerative practices can help them reap dividends.
We also lack access to affordable tools that provide accurate and reliable soil health measurements. Uncovering how much carbon there is in soil is an expensive process. It’s also slow, and the margin of error can be 40% to 90%.
The midwest farmer I mentioned earlier who was trialing regenerative practices was able to see the difference between healthy and depleted soil side-by-side— and what it could mean for his yields in a dry year. But he was taking a risk; not every farmer can or wants to undertake the time, effort, and planning of regenerative agriculture on the chance their investment will pay off.
To build farmers’ trust in soil-boosting regenerative practices, we need better tools to collect and measure soil health data. Our gap in soil data has dire consequences. Soil health is the most important metric correlating to a farm’s profitability and resiliency.
The world has always experienced weather extremes. But now, nature is out of balance. Climate conditions that challenge the resiliency of our food system aren’t going anywhere. Scientists agree these events will become increasingly frequent and severe.
Thankfully, it’s within our power to change our practices and prioritize better measurements and data. Ultimately, healthy soil benefits farmers and is our best tool to adapt and withstand whatever meteorological curveballs lie in wait.