In my quest to better understand how compost improves the chemical, physical and biological attributes of soil, I came across a training course created by the Rodale Institute, with support from the Northeast Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) Program called “An Introduction to Soil Health.” The course emphasized that if we can improve the overall quality of the soil — improving it chemically (nutritionally), physically and biologically — we can improve crop productivity, reduce inputs, save water, reduce erosion, and so on. This must have been 10 to 15 years ago. Having a technical background, I was given permission to use the presentation as a training tool for composters, as well as potential compost end users and specifiers.
I took the concept within the presentation as the “gospel,” and thought (again with my technical background) that the world has to look backwards to go forward. History, a la the U.S. Dust Bowl in the 1930s, has shown what happens when a society does not protect the soil as if it were a valuable resource. And very little was done to fix what caused the Dust Bowl, until the dust from the central U.S. (Oklahoma and Texas) actually blew down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C.
Defining Soil Health
More recently, federal agencies (e.g., USDA, U.S. EPA), state agricultural universities and many nonprofit organizations and trade associations have promoted the virtues of “Soil Health.” Why? Because improving soil health will allow us as a society to feed the growing number of inhabitants, and because with healthy soil, we can more easily moderate the effects of climate change.
So, what is “Soil Health”? Several definitions currently exist — which may be part of our problem in gaining overall acceptance of the concept:
The “Classic” Definition: The term “Soil Health” is really just a synonym for improved “Soil Function” and/or “Soil Quality.” Simply put by Dr. Clay Robinson, American Society of Agronomy, “Soils that are healthy, function better and help plants function better.”
USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Definition: The continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals and humans. (Huh?)
“An Introduction to Soil Health” (Northeast SARE program):
- Soil: An ecological system consisting of inorganic minerals, decomposing organic matter, living organisms, and growing plants.
- Soil health or soil quality: A general term that describes the ability of a soil to function. (Ahhh….)
State of Washington Department of Ecology, from “Building Healthy Soil”: The term “soil health” refers to the condition of the soil. Healthy soil is productive with less effort. It has physical, chemical and biological properties that easily support healthy plants, humans and other animals, and maintain a healthy environment.
Read the full article in BioCycle Magazine