“You can’t have healthy soil if you don’t have soil at all," said Chris Lawrence, State Cropland Agronomist with Virginia Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in Episode 21-2 of the podcast 4 The Soil: A Conversation.
Soil loss is another name for soil erosion. If topsoil is constantly disturbed and left uncovered, then water, wind, and gravity can easily move it in large volumes in the field and off-site quantities. The subsequent particles and sediments can pollute our air and waterways.
Soil degradation, or the diminished capacity of the soil as an ecosystem, plays a major role in soil loss. When degraded, the physical, chemical, and biological qualities of the soil struggle to support the life within it and above it.
Degraded soil erodes more readily than healthy soil. Mike Phillips of Valley View Farms explains that if soil the thickness of a dime erodes off an acre of land, it equates to a loss of five tons (10,000 pounds) of soil per acre. Eric Bendfeldt, Community Viability Specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension, puts this into perspective, "It would take at least ten trips in my 1986 F250 half-ton big red truck for me to transport that amount of soil back to that acre and its original position on the landscape."
During the 1930s, dangerous winds moved massive amounts of soil across the country in an environmental disaster known as The Dust Bowl. Thousands of people and animals died and millions were displaced due to the impacts of unhealthy agricultural practices. Director Ken Burns' documentary about the Dust Bowl dives deeper into the causes of and stories behind the tragedy.
While the Dust Bowl stands out in our history, experts have warned about how current soil loss and degradation can contribute to future disasters unless we take action.
Massive soil loss around the globe is making headlines due to its ecological impacts and financial costs. In North America, the average annual erosion rates on cropland by water and wind are 3.1 tons/acre and 2.2 tons/acre. Based on the value of nutrients lost in sediment and runoff, the total annual on-site costs in the U.S. has been estimated at $10 and $50 billion. The annual off-site costs are estimated at $12 to $40 billion. Therefore, the total annual cost of erosion in the U.S. ranges from $22 to $90 billion. The midwest Corn Belt alone has lost a third of its carbon-rich topsoil and severe dust storms have darkened skies across the country.
Soil loss negatively impacts crop productivity, surrounding water quality, air quality, and biological activity. Even in 2022, these issues still threaten our food supply, medicine, and the climate.
Rebuilding the soil starts in our backyards, farms, grocery lists, and community spaces. Our collective local actions impact our region and world.
Lawrence describes the first two steps of rebuilding soil as keeping the soil covered and minimizing soil disturbance. Both principles help enhance soil's "ability to provide food with lower inputs [and] to grow healthy plants with a minimum of fertilizer."
"And then we move onto the idea that soil is not meant to be put through a blender," said Lawrence. "We have to give back [to it]."
Whether it's 1932 or 2022, we must care 4 The Soil. To give back to the soil, we can practice all four principles of soil health management: keep the soil covered, minimize disturbance, maximizing living roots, and energize with diversity. Join the movement and take the pledge to be "4 the Soil" today!
About the Blog
Join the movement! 4 The Soil is a campaign by the Virginia Soil Health Coalition to raise awareness of soil as an agricultural and natural resource. By caring for the soil, we can build healthier communities, stronger economies, and a more resilient landscape.