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Around the home and down on the farm, it’s planting season. Prime time for digging in the dirt.

Gardeners are feeling the earth under foot and between their fingers. For farmers, the crop cycle is taking root with spring plantings.

Healthy soil is key to planting success and clean water.

As soil health improves, productivity increases. As soil health improves, it is better able to absorb rain and cycle nutrients, meaning less harmful runoff and cleaner, healthier water. It is an economic and environmental win-win.

Roughly 19,000 miles of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania are polluted and the Commonwealth is significantly behind in meeting its clean water commitments.

Two of the top three sources of that pollution are agricultural and urban/suburban runoff of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment. So keeping the soil healthy and in place, are important factors in reducing pollution.

The down and dirty on soil, is that we don’t always think of it as having health. But soil can be so much more than a vessel for short-term plant growth dependent solely on the amount of water and fertilizer it can hold. Healthy soil is a living ecosystem and host to organisms of all sizes.

Soil health is influenced by many factors, significant among them is what is planted into it, and the benefits returned to the soil.

Cover crops, including grasses and a mix of broadleaf plantings like clover, are planted on many farm fields after the harvest and allow the soil to absorb, retain, and recycle nutrients, especially nitrates. Cover crops also reduce runoff of phosphorus, as surface water and soil otherwise carry it into local waters.

Increasing organic matter in the soil through cover crops and conservation tillage can increase crop resilience to climate change because it retains water in times of drought, reduces runoff during heavy rains, and moderates soil temperatures in hot weather.

For every one percent increase in organic matter, soil can hold 16,500 gallons of additional water per acre. Cover crops also improve the physical properties of the soil, reducing the degree of surface-sealing and increasing the ability of water to infiltrate the soil, instead of wash over it.

A farmer’s quote often repeated in our office is, “We don’t have a runoff problem, we have an infiltration problem.” It goes to the root of the matter. Improving soil’s ability to retain and recycle water greatly reduces the problem of runoff.

No-till planting can reduce erosion by more than 80 percent, compared to deep plowing and crop rotation where crop residue is left in the field.

The benefits of soil health extend beyond the farm.

At home, mulching the lawn pays multiple dividends. Grass clippings provide nutrients and can be an alternative to chemical fertilizers. The cuttings can provide half of the nitrogen the lawn needs in a year.

Before adding any fertilizer to the lawn, homeowners should have their soil tested. Penn State Extension offices in every county sell simple test kits. The results indicate how much, if any, fertilizer or lime might be needed in order to obtain the right balance.

At home or on the farm, maintaining healthy soil that can absorb moisture and cycle nutrients for plant use, that stays anchored in place, plays a key role in reducing pollution that enters our rivers and streams.

That’s the dirt on how Pennsylvania can get back on track toward cleaning up its waters.

Clean water is a legacy worth leaving future generations.

— Harry Campbell is PA executive director, Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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