Soils have a long memory and can tell us stories about their managers’ practices and habits for the past hundreds of years. During colonization, the agricultural focus was on subsistence farming and exporting valuable cash crops back to ruling colonial countries. Survival and short-term profit was a priority.
Historically, there was less knowledge about soil fertility and quality, so long-term soil management was less of an immediate concern. People could move on or clear more land.
Many soil managers disturbed and degraded the soil through tillage and bare fallow. Soil was left uncovered and unprotected from the sun and weather. Plants had a difficult time establishing deep roots in the degraded soil structure.
The consistent poor practices disrupted many of soil’s natural functions, that is, provide physical structure, habitat for soil and plant life, and be a source for air, carbon, and water cycling. This degradation of the soil led to erosion, nutrient loss, decreased water retention, and overall dysfunction.
We see these consequences of soil degradation and dysfunction throughout history. David Montgomery describes such consequences in his book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, looking at the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s and the collapse and forced migrations of different civilizations. We continue to see their effects in recent events like the dust storms in Iowa and South Dakota, the loss of topsoil in the midwest, and erosion on the eastern shoreline.
In the early 1900s, soil scientists Dr. Hugh Hammond Bennett and W. E. McLendon studied the massive soil loss in Louisa County, Virginia. Their work eventually led to the establishment of Soil and Water Conservation Districts across the country in the mid-1930s. Farmers, community partners, local offices, and various groups like the Virginia Soil Health Coalition continue to study the impacts of historical soil management while regenerating soil health.
Many soils are still recovering from previous degradation and misuse. While they are not completely functional and healthy, each type of soil has a chance to become healthier.
We all have the ability to help build soil health. Implementing the four core principles of soil health management is a great place to start. Even those of us who don’t come into direct contact with the soil can support healthy soil management practices through our shopping, conversations, and implementing more sustainable practices in our lives. Soil is where our food begins, waterways end, and our airways filter through.
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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.