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Diversity Builds Soil Health and Community Health

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

Youths planting a garden.
Photo by Children Nature Network on

"It takes a village, it takes diversity," said Karen Washington. "It's not one voice, one race, one color, it's the [multitudes] of all of us coming together to make sure that this planet, the elements of this planet, is here for everybody." Karen Washington, a farmer of Rise and Root Farm, activist, and James Beard Leadership award winner joined us for Episode 22-5 of our podcast, 4 the Soil: A Conversation. Along with food justice, we talk with her about the importance of diversity in agriculture. ​Energizing with diversity is one of the four core principles of building soil health. From farms to community gardens, we can create spaces for different people, plants, animals, ideas, and innovations to thrive. In fact, diversity helps build both healthy soil and healthy communities.

Diversity Under the Soil

​Biodiversity is the "the mix of living organisms in the soil." Building soil biodiversity improves rainfall infiltration, water quality, erosion control, and nutrient cycling. Diversity enhances the other three core principles. For instance, growing cover crops keeps the soil covered and maximizes living roots, but now energize the soil with diversity by growing multiple cover crops or rotating crops. Diverse roots utilize different water levels, leading to less runoff. In addition, the soil can become even more resilient to pests and harmful bacteria by building up different nutrients and improving soil structure. With healthy soil structure, we inherently minimize disturbance. Another example of maximizing diversity is companion planting. For instance, the Three Sisters Garden of Native Nations plant corn, squash, and beans together because of their complementary nutrients and growing methods.

Diversity Strengthens Communities

Diversity also enhances community health, social connections, and cultural celebrations. Researchers found healthy soil benefits and has similarities to the human gut’s microbiome. Studies also show how community gardening improves social, mental, and emotional health. "Getting your fingers into that soil and taking that soil and smelling it and putting it through your fingers – I had to do that," Washington said with a laugh. "I myself had to do that so I could find my connection and sense of belonging to the soil." According to USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, "In general, soils with a high degree of biological diversity, good soil structure and continual cover with living plants will be healthier for people as well as the plants growing in them." Washington describe a similar idea for the agricultural community. "As farmers we embrace diversity, but [we were] sitting in a pool of whiteness and not being able to see [our] participation in agriculture," said Washington. She did not see Black and brown people attending farming conferences, and it motivated her to help start the Black Urban Growers. "We started to have this conversation so that young Black and brown people could see farmers that look like them." Through more representation, Washington believes communities of color will better understand that "we were part of the agricultural system, the building of soil, the building of food." Intergenerational knowledge is key to diversifying agriculture, building soil health and learning from others’ experiences and wisdom, Washington explains. "We're starting to see…the youth and the elders are sitting down and cross pollinating, so to speak, the language and the knowledge that they have." Diversity in race, age, gender, culture, experiences, production methods, philosophies, and expertise will all enrich our community health and soil health.


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.

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