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Defining healthy soil

Published on: 01/23/2023


Happy New Year. I wish that readers of this column and all across this county are fortunate to have a bountiful and rewarding year.

In the spirit of forward looking and resolution making, I know I’ve got some pounds to lose. We are also given the opportunity to remind ourselves of where we came from and truly how lucky we are to have such meaningful lives.

Deep in this reflection, I am reminded of wise words attributed to the late, great radio host Paul Harvey: “Despite all our accomplishments, we owe our existence to a 6-inch layer of topsoil and the fact it rains.”

This cannot be a column written by yours truly without mention of soil.

Soil is the foundation of civilization. Not only providing the media by which we build, upon which we walk, and in which we grow, soil is an integral part of natural cycles.

All of these provisions are on full display every day on the farm, and have been since the dawn of agriculture.

Recently, an agricultural movement has gained traction in some circles, calling for growers to improve “soil health.”

There is great debate over the formal definition of healthy soil.

Many cite specific ecological criteria that define healthy soil, including rates of respiration or microbial species composition. Other advocates define the physical criteria of healthy soil, like water infiltration rates and water holding capacity.

And some assert healthy soils are those that demonstrate effective plant-nutrient cycles (like sulfur from a previous column).

Frankly, the debate and its application to farm practices is quite contentious and maybe needless.

With no formal definition, the voices of the advocates may appear to be greater than those who actually apply the practices to the farm. Growers may (and have) become frustrated with the endless stream of voices claiming, clambering, and arguing over a mere definition, as well as their declarations of practices that must be implemented to achieve “healthy soil.”

Yet, one who implements practices in the sole pursuit of achieving a particular metric may find that their pursuit sets them further from reaching their goal.

Far more important than the practices of debate are the principles that guide the natural processes that actually create “healthy soils,” by whichever definition one chooses.

Principles like limiting soil disturbance, maintaining a living root, keeping soil covered, increasing diversity of plant and microbial communities and integrating livestock — all within one’s own context — do not prescribe a certain practice, but instead guide decision-making.

I, like many others, submit that a healthy soil is not just one of the aforementioned biological, chemical or physical criteria. Rather, a healthy soil intrinsically exhibits all of those criteria.

And no less important is that the healthy soil must provide the economic welfare that supports the grower. A healthy soil would be all for naught without those who manage it by its guiding principles.

To learn more about soil health principles and their application to the farm from experts far more knowledgeable than this soil nerd, please join the Frederick and Catoctin Soil Conservation Districts and the Frederick County Farm Bureau on Feb. 7 at The Frederick Fairgrounds from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Learn more about the event at the Catoctin & Frederick Soil Conservation Districts website,

In need of pesticide or nutrient management credits? Please join us on Feb. 22 in Urbana for the annual Central Maryland Agronomy Update Meeting. Register at or call us at 301-600-3576.

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