Soil Photo

Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

Take Action! How You Can Help Build Healthy Soil in Texas

Since the industrialization of agriculture, soil has been thought of as simply a growing medium. A blank canvas, soil could support plant life and be manipulated to increase yields. But now we know soil is far more than that - it is a complex ecosystem and a crucial and irreplaceable part of our world.

The standard model of industrial agriculture effectively removes minerals from the ground to the point of depletion and replaces them with fertilizer. This model leaves soil degraded, vulnerable to erosion, and unable to perform its essential functions of retaining water and carbon, which are critical to mitigating the effects of climate change.

But why is soil so critical to our climate, and why aren’t more farmers growing food in ways that protect this natural resource? Today, we’re digging deep into soil and sharing what can you do to help protect it for future generations.

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What is soil?

Growing up, most of us learned that soil is composed of minerals, in the form of broken-down rocks. But that’s only part of soil -- about 45-49% of it. The other pieces of the mud pie are air (25%), water (25%), and organic material (1-5%; mostly broken-down plants, plus roots, bugs, fungus, etc.).

The remaining 55% of soil is what’s harmed by conventional farming. Tillage breaks down soil structure and reduces the amount of air and water it can hold. With less water and air, along with the addition of harsh chemicals, organic matter breaks down quickly and the living things in the soil can’t survive.

Did you know that it takes 1,000 years for three centimeters of topsoil to form? Topsoil is the upper 5-10 inches of soil and contains the highest concentration of nutrients and microorganisms. High-quality topsoil is critical for farming practices that rely on natural systems rather than chemical inputs. Once soil is degraded, it is much more vulnerable to erosion. In Texas and across the world, we are losing topsoil to wind and water erosion at dramatic rates. If we continue at the current rate of soil degradation, our planet could be devoid of topsoil in 60 years.

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Digging in: What is “healthy” soil?

In the past few decades, scientists have made massive strides in understanding the relationships and functions of our soils. Agronomists now understand that farming practices can have drastic impacts on our ability to conserve soil.

By building healthy soils, farmers and ranchers protect our ability to grow food long term. Soils with higher organic material have more pore space in them, which means it's easier for water to infiltrate. This can help mitigate flood events. Healthy soils also hold more water and for longer - lessening the impacts of drought. When farming with healthy soil practices, farmers use fewer inputs (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) and sequester carbon back into the soil itself!

Glen Miracle of Laughing Frog Farm in Hempstead, Texas, has been practicing soil-smart farming on his farm since the early 2000s. He recalls the effects of a major rainstorm: “My neighbor who had plowed his field was underwater for two weeks. That wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago. The soil is losing its ability to retain water.” At the same time, Glen did not see that level of damage on his farm thanks to the farming practices he’s implemented to rebuild the soil on his land.

What is standing in the way?

Healthy soils are a better way to farm. Seems obvious, right? So why aren’t all farmers and ranchers doing this? Well, it’s complicated.

When a farmer uses highly mechanized production systems, they rely on additives (fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides) to feed and protect their crops. When farming in a soil-smart way, a farmer relies on the soil’s ecosystem, instead of manmade inputs, for those functions.

A healthy soil ecosystem provides nutrients, water, and a healthy place to grow crops. But you can’t flip a switch and have healthy soil. It takes work, time, and often costly physical improvements for farmers and ranchers to make that change. When a farmer first decides to make the switch, production often drops dramatically. Their crops aren’t getting the fertilizer they’re used to, and the soil takes several years to recover its ability to supply nutrients to protect crops. Costs go up, production goes down, and growers must scrape by for three to five years until their ecosystems recover enough to make a profit.

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Springfield Farm. Photo by Naomi Silverman

Why is it important to include soil health in legislation?

Policy changes are key to enabling farmers to shift toward healthier soils without bearing such a significant burden, particularly when it comes to the initial investment and risks involved with new production processes and infrastructure.

Soil health legislation is particularly important in Texas. “Texas has more degraded farm and ranch land than any other state,” says Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance (FARFA). “So we have immense potential for improving our soils, with all the benefits that come with that. But many farmers and ranchers need technical support on how to implement healthy soil practices effectively, and the up-front costs are not feasible for many others.”

Nationwide, state governments are establishing soil health policies that provide financial assistance for incentivizing and developing agricultural practices that sequester carbon, reduce atmospheric greenhouse gasses, and improve soil health. So far this year, legislation that includes soil health has been passed in at least 21 states - we want to add Texas to that list!

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Springfield Farm. Photo by Naomi Silverman

What can you do to advocate for healthy soils in Texas?

NOW is the time to advocate to pass legislation that can help rebuild Texas’ soils and move Texas forward in our nation’s efforts to mitigate climate change. While there is no single answer to climate change, these small steps forward are critical. Call your legislators today with this simple message:

Hi, my name is [your name] and I am a _______ [farmer, mother, gardener, student, etc.] in your district. I am calling in support of HB 2619/SB1118. Rebuilding healthy soil is important to me/my community because… _________________.

Need help contacting your Representatives?

Call the Capitol Switchboard at 512-463-4630, give your zip code, and ask to be connected to your State Representative's office. Spend just a few minutes talking with the staffer who handles agricultural issues. Place a second call to your State Senator. Follow up in a few weeks so that they know this truly is important to you. It's that simple, and it truly makes a major difference in how legislators vote on bills like this.

You can also find your representative and their contact info here.

With COVID, the Winter Storm, the budget shortfall, and redistricting dominating their workload, Texas legislators are only going to pay attention to this bill - and the others aimed at supporting local foods and regenerative agriculture - if their constituents tell them to make it a priority. Make your voice heard!