Healthy Soil, Healthy Planet

I attended a lecture titled Healthy Soils, Healthy Planet today at Hitchcock Nature Center in Honey Creek, Iowa. It was the third installment of their 2019 speaker series. Today, Jean Eells discussed the importance of soil health and its impact on every day life. From cover crops and no-till to how adopting those practices widely as production tools will improve water quality and infiltration she covered a range of topics that are important to anyone who calls the Midwest home.

Around thirteen people gathered at the center to hear Jean Eells speak. She started by asking for introductions from the group to learn more about the audience.

Eells demonstrated how to do some simple soil tests at home on your land or in your garden. The first test measured soil structure. She set out two large glass jars and covered the lids with onion sacks tied with rubber bands.

In the first jar, she placed really compacted soil (black dirt from her neck of the woods in central Iowa) from the end row of a field or the field drive. The soil sat in the onion sack but with enough lag to be in the water. In the second jar, she placed really good soil that had live roots in it when dug up.

The contrast was astounding.

Soil structure test using central Iowa soil.
Soil structure test using central Iowa soil.

In the photo above, the large jar closest to the camera was the compacted, bare soil sample. The jar furthest was the one with a live plant growing in it. The jar closest to the camera immediately began to disintegrate in the water, showing how our compacted plain dirt fields erode when it rains.

She said a lot of times our gardens have the worst soil structure from all of the years of tiling them up and constant digging.

Soil structure test using central Iowa soil.
How the two jars looked at the end of the one-hour class.

The second demonstration was was with Loess Hills soil. It was even faster to disintegrate.

Soil structure test using Loess Hills soil.
Soil structure test using Loess Hills soil.

The smaller container closest to the camera contained the Loess Hills dirt that was compacted and without plants.

Next, she demonstrated how rain water affects soil that as been tilled and soil that hasn’t been tilled. The jar closest to the camera had been tilled and therefore acted like a pond (in the jar) when it rained. The soil did not absorb or let the water pass through for some time. This shows how quickly rainwater runs off soil and does not absorb (think of our recent flooding here in Iowa/Nebraska). The water that did come out into the yellow container was very high in nitrates.

The jar furthest was soil that had not been tilled and the water ran through the soil very quickly. The water that came out had a much lower nitrate score. This demonstrates how no-till soil will absorb rainwater quickly and lets rainwater drain down to the water table before moving toward a river, etc.

No-till (left) vs. tilled soil (right) during a rain simulation.
No-till (left) vs. tilled soil (right) during a rain simulation.

This brought up the topic of drinking water and how many towns in Iowa use surface water as drinking water. The maximum nitrate score for drinking water is 10 or below.

This demonstration showed the importance of no-till farming practices.

Testing the runoff water for nitrates.
Testing the runoff water for nitrates.
Testing the runoff water for nitrates.
Demonstration of rainwater on soil.

We also discussed cover crops such as grasses, brassicas and legumes. Eells explained that cover crops that are planted after the field’s main crop, grow and absorb nitrogen from the soil. That nitrogen then stays inside of that plant until it is killed by either cold weather or sprayed. In the spring, the nitrogen is then released back into the soil for the next year’s main crop.

The lecture was fascinating and I really learned a lot. If you are interested in Hitchcock’s other summer events, view their website or check out their Facebook page.

She noted that over half of the farm ground in Iowa is either owned or co-owned by women. Eells is versed is speaking to female farmland owners through the program Women Food and Ag Network.

To learn more about the Women Food & Ag Network, visit their website.

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