The 4 Core Principles
While soils are complex, taking care of it can be simple. We follow four core principles of soil health:
1. Keep Soil Covered
It's the first step in protecting it from erosion, but also buffers soil temperature, slows rainfall runoff, and aids rainfall infiltration.
2. Minimize Soil Disturbance
Both physical and chemical. This proactive measure can heal and protect properties of the soil and ultimately enhance the biological component of soil life.
3. Maximize Living Roots
Doing this longer throughout the year fuels biological activity and contributes to improved soil structure.
4. Energize with Diversity
Use different crop species and integrate livestock where possible for specific purposes to enhance chemical, physical and/or biological aspects of the soil. It improves the whole system.
Learn more about the four principles:
There are many ways to apply the four principles:
Eliminate erosionKeeping soil in place and preventing soil movement from the field and landscape is essential to building soil health and maintaining productivity. Soil that erodes from rain or wind results in nutrient loss, diminished growing potential, and other off-site environmental impacts such as soil in roads and sedimentation of local waterways. Keeping soil covered and armored can prevent and eliminate erosion.
Match land use to landscapeLand use should consider the potential for soil erosion based on soil type, land cover, crop rotation, potential fallow, and transitions in crop rotations, particularly as the slope of the landscape becomes steeper. Similarly, land use should consider distance to streams, creeks, and other sensitive environmental areas that would be impacted by soil erosion.
Enhance soil biologySoil biology is critical to how soil functions and microbes within soil mediate other chemical and physical processes needed to make nutrients available and give structure for water and air cycling.
Build soil organic matterSoil organic matter is a source of carbon and other essential nutrients. soil organic matter affects many soil properties and is made up of plant and animal residues and amendments added to the soil. Soil is a living ecosystem that experiences gains and losses of soil organic matter. Farmers, gardeners, and soil managers should minimize losses that can occur when soil is disturbed or left bare and build organic matter through management of plants, cropping rotations, integration of livestock, and the addition of plant nutrients, and soil amendments such as compost, manure, and fertilizers.
Think systems not shortcutsSoil is a living system with biological, chemical, and physical properties. Some properties are inherent to the soil type and how the soil was formed but all of the properties can be affected by management or neglect. Thinking of soil as an ecosystem with various parts and players can help soil managers understand all soil change processes are integrated and interactive and shortcuts in decision-making may be shortsighted and short-change the system in the long run.
What are we watching and learning about soil health?Adaptive Challenges - A Soil, Conservation, and Place Supplement A Grass-Roots Movement For Healthy Soil Spreads Among Farmers USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service – The Science of Soil Health video series Benefits of No-till Farming Changing The Way We Think About Soil Microbes Compaction Cycle, Re-cycle, Repeat Discover the Cover Dynamic Cropping Systems Fighting Plant Disease with Microbes Flail Mowing Cover Crops at Potomac Vegetable Farms Getting a Handle on Mineralizable N in Soils Growing Money and Soil at Potomac Vegetable Farms Hay Mulch for Vegetables and Soil at Potomac Vegetable Farms How Healthy Soil Should Look Intensive Composting at Potomac Vegetable Farms Natural Systems and Weeds Nature's Way of Extracting Minerals from Soil Nightcrawlers and Soil Water Flow Overseeding Cover Crops into Fall Vegetables at Potomac Vegetable Farms Soil Feeds Plants, and Vice Versa Soil Spading for Gentle Tillage at Potomac Vegetable Farms Soil Stability Test Systems in Agroecology Understanding the Value of Legumes and Nitrogen-Fixing Microbes Using Cover Crops to Soak up Nutrients for the Next Crop Using Insects to Manage Pests The “Vacation Year” Cover Crop Rotation at Potomac Vegetable Farms What Happens When You Till? Without Carrot or Stick USDA-NRCS East National Technology Support Team. 2012. Under Cover Farmers - Featured Length Brown, G. 2014. Grazing Cover Crops and Benefits for Livestock Operations. Presentation at the USDA-SARE National Conference on Cover Crops and Soil Health. Organic No-Till Farming - This video features Dr. Kathleen Delate of Iowa State University with funding from USDA-NIFA, USDA Agricultural Research Service, The Rodale Institute, The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, and CERES. USDA NRCS Webinar Portal Starting with Soil at Waterpenny Farm No-Till Vegetable Experiments at Fauquier Education Farm Fine-Tuning Fertility at Potomac Vegetable Farms Experiments with No-Till Cover Crops at Potomac Vegetable Farms
And don't forget the 5 priorities of soil health management
Visit our local technical assistance partners to learn more:
Depending on your needs and interest in technical and educational assistance, there are a number of Coalition partners at the federal, state, and local levels that can provide assistance and guidance on a wide range of agriculture, natural resources, land management, and conservation planning topics. The interactive map below provides addresses and contact information so you can learn more about their services and technical assistance.
Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) is a federal agency of the United States Department of Agriculture that provides technical assistance and conservation planning to farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners and managers wanting to improve and protect natural resources on their farms or land
Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCDs) are political subdivisions of the state and work closely with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) to develop comprehensive programs and plans to conserve soil resources, control and prevent soil erosion, prevent floods, and conserve, develop, utilize and dispose of water at a county or multi-county basis.
Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), a partnership of Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, provides resources and educational outreach to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s more than seven million residents in the areas of agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, community viability, and 4-H youth development.
Virginia Tech Agriculture Research and Extension Centers (ARECs), as part of Virginia's Agriculture Experiment Station system, conduct research on food and fiber systems, their impact on the environment, and their relation to the future needs of Virginia, the nation, and the world.