Here’s the dirt on healthy soil (Editorial)

(March 22, 2016) Each year, the United Nations General Assembly, through its Food and Agriculture Organization, designates a topic to celebrate internationally.
In 2014, it was family farms, in 2015 it was the International Year of Soils.
This year, the group picked pulse crops but attention put on soil health has remained to increase understanding of the importance of soil for food security and essential ecosystem functions.
Among the numerous events and campaigns that came out of the UN designation was a greater spotlight on the push in American agriculture for improved soil health.
With an 80-year-long mission to improve soils, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service took advantage, working with the Soil Science Society of America and other partners, to showcase the importance of soil and NRCS’s 80-year-old mission through different monthly themes.
Combining modern technology with that long held mission, precision agriculture tools for making soil work smarter, not harder, were singled out as a key part of future soil health advancements.
“By studying these factors and using precision agriculture, farmers are able to produce more food at a fraction of the cost.”
Farmers also conserve soil for sustainable food production.
Precision ag results in a stable food supply, which results in a strong community,” the group said.
Healthy soils are the foundation of agriculture.
In the face of mounting challenges such as a growing global population, climate change, and extreme weather events, soil health is critical to our future.
Healthy soil is essential as global demands rise for food, fuel and fiber.
Soils also play a crucial role in food security, hunger eradication, climate change adaptation, poverty reduction and sustainable development.
Soil health, also referred to as soil quality, is defined as the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.
Soil is more than dirt. It is teaming with billions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that are the foundation of an elegant symbiotic ecosystem.
It is an ecosystem that can be managed to provide nutrients for plant growth, absorb and hold rainwater for use during dryer periods, filter and buffer potential pollutants from leaving our fields, serve as a firm foundation for agricultural activities, and provide habitat for soil microbes to flourish and diversify to keep the ecosystem running smoothly.
Soil has both inherent and dynamic properties or qualities.
Inherent soil quality is a soil’s natural ability to function.
Dynamic soil quality is how soil changes depending on how it is managed.
Management choices affect the amount of soil organic matter, soil structure, soil depth and water and nutrient holding capacity.
One goal of soil health research is to learn how to manage soil in a way that improves soil function.
Soils respond differently to management depending on the inherent properties of the soil and the surrounding landscape.
Understanding soil health means assessing and managing soil so that it functions optimally now and is not degraded for future use.
As farmers in the Mid-Atlantic and Delmarva — often regarded among the most conscientious in the nation — embark on another growing season, may the focus on soil health continue.
It’s their most precious resource no matter what year it is.