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Principle 2: Minimize Soil Disturbance

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

A shovel standing in the dirt, and green sprouting plants pop out of the soil.
Photo courtesy of Pexels

"I think no-till has been a conservation practice that has stood the test of time," says Dr. John Galbraith, soil scientist at Virginia Tech in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. Dr. Galbraith joined us for episode four of our podcast, 4 The Soil: A Conversation, and described the importance of minimizing soil disturbance. "Some of the farmers can actually show an economic benefit as well [as environmental benefits]," said Dr. Galbraith. When we are “4 The Soil,” we follow four core principles of soil health. The second principle is to minimize soil disturbance, biologically, chemically, and physically.

What does it mean to minimize soil disturbance?

​Physically, this means avoiding over-tilling and over-working the soil. Tillage of any sort affects the soil structure and aggregate stability. By minimizing this type of disturbance, we encourage nutrient growth and healthy habitats for worms and microbes.

Chemically, it involves minimizing application of harmful fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. This also protects the biology of the soil, and when we add organic matter we help increase carbon levels. Minimizing disturbance can help maintain soil aggregates and keep soil armored against rainfall and extreme hot conditions. Soil is a home for living organisms. It takes a long time to build and strengthen. Cory Gulliams of Virginia USDA-NRCS and Gabe Brown of Brown's Ranch and author of Dirt to Soil, use this analogy to help explain the importance of this principle. When the soil is disturbed, it takes time to recover and rebuild it’s important glues and networks that are essential to microbial life home. Minimizing disturbance heals and protects the soil and ultimately enhances the biological component of soil life.

Why is it important?

Soil health, like human health, takes time and attention. When neglected or over-tilled, the results can be disastrous for plant life and beneficial insects and bacteria. Dr. John Galbraith observes the importance of this principle in his one-acre garden. "One thing I've learned from my own gardening…is that disturbing the soil, flipping it upside down is really not beneficial at all because it breaks open the aggregates," he explained. "It disturbs the microbes, disturbs the earthworms, disturbs so many things." When soil managers implement no-till or low-till practices, the soil's health can flourish. See how farmers in Virginia use these practices in the short documentary Gaining Ground.

How can I minimize disturbance?

"I know that it's necessary [to disturb soil], but it may not be necessary on a frequent basis. So minimizing the number of times that you flip that soil upside down and then maximizing the times you add carbon to the soil has proved to be beneficial," said Dr. Galbraith. Covering the soil, another one of the four soil health principles, is key to helping minimize disturbance. It protects the soil from over-exposure to the elements as it builds nutrients.


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.

Hands holding dirt with earthworms.
Photo by Pexels

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