Mastering Soil Health Elevates Farm Productivity, Sustainability (part 1)

by Dennis Pollock– Western Farm Press

It seems in recent years it has become all the rage to make sure that the dirt under our feet – and plants or trees – is healthy in order to sustain farming.

Soil health was the chief topic at a University of California soil health field day held at Five Points, attended by about 200 people including boots-on-the-ground farmers and researchers.

Jeff Mitchell,  University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension cropping systems specialist at Fresno County, has been toiling in the trenches – literally – for some 20 years, seeking to illustrate the value of cover crops, and no or low-till agriculture.

At the workshop held at the UC West Side Field Station, Mitchell had trenches to showcase, pits that showed differences between conventional and no-till farming. Speakers on hand discussed some of those differences.

Improved soil health

Mitchell, the growers, and others emphasized that managing for better soil health was best achieved by minimizing soil disturbance, maximizing the diversity of plants in rotation or used as cover crops, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and keeping the soil covered with plants and plant residue at all times.

“I have something growing in the ground 365 days a year,” said Scott Park with Park Farming in Meridian in the Sacramento Valley. “Having roots in the ground is 10,000 times better than adding biomass.”

Making money while saving the Earth

Park, a highly diversified farmer, says he moved to a no-till, cover crop approach about 30 years ago after realizing that his tillage efforts were costly. He subsequently became “sensitive to the soil” and adapted no-till and cover crops, not because he was driven to be environmentally sensitive but because his newfound way of farming “was making me a lot of money.”

His approach means using few if any nutritional inputs, he said, and he uses less water. Moreover, he shared that his insect pest problems – notably from leafhoppers in processing tomatoes – are significantly lower.

Just as Mitchell stresses that there is a learning curve to making the switch to no-till and cover crops, Park has learned he needs to “be thoughtful” in cover crop selection. “Cereals don’t break down easily,” he said.

Jesse Sanchez with Sano Farms in Firebaugh said, “Soil health is the way to go, but it takes time to learn. Cover crops benefitted our operation 100 percent.”