Soil Health: A Personal Chronology of a Global Paradigm Shift

Michael Doane is a guest columnist for Dirt to Dinner and will be sharing a series of articles on how restoring our lands is the best tool for sustainable food systems. Read his first post on Land Degradation: The History Lesson We Are Still Learning.

Michael is the Global Managing Director for Sustainable Food and Water for The Nature Conservancy. Michael started farming at a young age and is a partner in his family’s cattle and row crop farming operation located in Kansas. He combines his passion for agriculture with his love for nature in leading one of The Nature Conservancy’s top global priorities to provide food and water sustainably.

A Journey Begins

I drove my tractor and disk combination to the edge of the field and paused to survey the scene. Across a vast area was an overrun combination of weeds, large and small, and crop residues. It looked unruly, not cared for properly, and I was about to fix that. It was my first time to turn the soil on this farm and at just 18 years old, I felt a sense of energy about the task.

Having grown up on a working farm, I embraced my role as steward of the land. I didn’t know much about this particular field, but I knew the farmer managing it before me had some wild ideas on how to farm. The field always appeared overgrown; I had never seen it clean and neat, freshly turned to cleanse it from weeds and prepared for planting.

The opportunity in my mind was to make good on what I saw as neglected duties of the previous farmer to manage the field properly.

Little did I know I was about to begin a lifelong journey to understand soil health.

I pulled into the field and prepared the disk to turn the soil, anticipating a long day of working a rough, compacted field. But, as I lowered the disk into the field for the first time, I didn’t feel or hear the tractor begin to pull as I had experienced so many times before. I quickly craned my neck to inspect the situation behind me, fully expecting a breakdown – either the disk had not descended into the soil or perhaps it had somehow become unattached from the tractor. Instead, the disk was there and doing its duty, slicing through and aggressively turning the soil.

The soils in North Central Kansas are variable but mainly light brown in color. From my tractor seat, I noticed the soil in this field was much darker than any field I had ever worked. Perplexed, I stopped the tractor to get a closer look. I knelt into the soil, running my hands through it. The black, moist soil had an overpowering earthy smell of fertility and goodness, unique to anything I had experienced so far in my young farming career.

At the time, I was unable to make sense of what I experienced that day, but I was pleased with the growth of several successful crops on that wonderfully productive piece of non-tilled ground.

Fast Forward

Just a few weeks ago, I found myself in the seat of a small tractor towing a newly developed planting drill, delightfully named the Happy Seeder. I made a few passes with the drill and noticed how elegantly it mulched and placed the crop residues from the prior crop neatly between the new rows while it simultaneously opened a narrow slot to plant a new crop of wheat and place a small amount of fertilizer without turning over the soil. This no-till drill was unlike any I had seen before. The field was located in rural India, within the state of Punjab and the research complex of the Borlaug Institute of South Asia (BISA).

This region in Northwest India is in the midst of a major transition in their food production. Food security in India was achieved within a short and critical window of time, earning Dr. Norman Borlaug international fame as the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. An iconic example of the “Green Revolution,” this region increased food production as a result of advanced plant breeding of staple food crops such as wheat and rice and aided by the benefits of irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides.

But after many years of benefits, the situation has now changed. The once productive aquifer supporting the paddy rice and wheat cropping system has dwindled. In an effort to maintain paddy rice production with much less groundwater, the planting dates of the paddy rice, as a matter of public policy, have been shifted to take greater advantage of the monsoon season.

But this new cropping system is having unforeseen consequences. With a compressed window of time to harvest rice and plant their wheat crop, farmers have started burning the rice residues in the field, which allows a single pass of tillage to prepare the field for wheat planting. Tragically, the residue burning practice has caught international attention for the human health hazard it creates.

The Happy Seeder, however, offers an elegant and cost-effective solution to this problem. As documented by a recent Science article, the Happy Seeder allows the farmers to plant their wheat crop in one field pass – without burning the residue or tilling the soil. The Nature Conservancy is now cooperating with several partners to unlock the full deployment of Happy Seeders across the region with the goal of eliminating residue burning.

The Paradigm Shift

My experience of planting with the Happy Seeder in India and the curiosity sparked in me as a young, aspiring Kansas farmer were separated by 25 years and a global paradigm shift around soil health.

I now understand the farmer whom I followed into the field of my youth was on the right track – he simply didn’t have access to the knowledge, techniques, and innovations farmers now enjoy. He appreciated what I did not know at the time – tillage is devastating for soils.

Tillage destroys the biological life and functionality of a delicate living ecosystem in ways we can now comprehend and manage to avoid. While he was ultimately unable to achieve his vision in a profitable manner, what he left behind was healthy soil, full of life and highly productive. My conventional management practices at the time – which depended heavily on regular tillage – went on to extract this productivity.

Tillage is still a common management practice on nearly 90% of global croplands. As tillage continues, the life of the soil is interrupted, depriving it of plant cover and roots, making it more prone to erosion, unable to retain and cycle water and nutrients efficiently. Tillage in croplands is one of the primary drivers of land degradation, but it doesn’t need to be.

Over the past 25 years, a global movement to eliminate tillage in agricultural croplands has taken shape. My experience with the Happy Seeder convinced me we now have the technology to bring productive, zero-tillage cropping systems to farmers worldwide at any size and income level. This technology and the development of other no-till systems are also being deployed in the organic sector, whom we must thank and acknowledge for keeping attention on the priority of soil management.

When zero-tillage systems are paired with the regular planting of cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, soils currently on the slow but steady path toward degradation anywhere in the world can be restored to their prior glory as productive, living ecosystems. The paradigm shift to prioritize soil health is an ecological and human health imperative. Thankfully, our family farm made the switch to zero-tillage during my personal chronology of this movement and we are now utilizing cover crops and more diverse crop rotations. I am now confident any farmer in the world can acquire the knowledge and technology to make the paradigm shift too, reversing the looming land degradation threat one field at a time.