Healthy Soils are Full of Life: Celebrating Soil and Water Conservation Week

posted on Monday, May 1, 2017

soilGuest blog by Catherine DeLong, Water Quality Specialist, Conservation Districts of Iowa

April 30 – May 7 is Soil and Water Conservation Week across the nation, and this year’s theme is “Healthy Soils are Full of Life!” Many people think of the soil as inert, a non-living geologic material. But the soil is one of the most dynamic mediums on Earth; it breathes, it eats, but it never sleeps. 

There are more living organisms in a handful of healthy soil than there are humans on earth. Earthworms, one of the many organisms in soil, can easily consume two tons of dry matter per acre per year. And as the matter passes through the worm, it is enriched with nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and microorganisms before being excreted back into the soil. Many widely used antibiotics, like Penicillin, were first discovered in soil fungus or bacteria. Within the last two years, an antibiotic that kills methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – the bacteria which causes staph infections – was discovered in a Maine soil sample.

The soil is teaming with life, and Iowa – because of its glacial history, perennial prairie plants, climate and microbes – has some of the most productive soils in the world. It can take over 500 years to create an inch of topsoil and Iowa’s 500 elected Soil and Water Conservation District Commissioners are on the front lines working to protect and enhance our soil resources. After the 1930s Dust Bowl, one of the worst environmental disaster in US history, numerous federal and state programs were created to help farmers implement soil conservation practices. The original emphasis of these programs, and the state Soil and Water Districts, was to decrease soil erosion. In recent years, the concept of soil conservation has expanded to include enhancing “soil health” or the resiliency of the living organisms within soil.Catherine  

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) now offers financial incentives through the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) to implement soil health practices like no-till, cover crops and crop rotations. Paul Ackley, a farmer and Taylor County Commissioner, states that “CSP gave me the financial ability to try a small grain,” which he refers to as a “soil builder.” Today, commissioners like Paul are leading by example and helping other local farmers navigate federal and state conservation programs.

Iowa’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts have many plans to celebrate Soil and Water Conservation Week. Howard County Soil and Water Conservation District will be hosting Outdoor Classrooms for 3rd and 5th graders to learn about bird and tree identification, soils, plants and pollinators. Fremont County Soil and Water Conservation District will showcase soil health by burying three pairs of tighty-whities in soils under different management. When the underwear is dug up a few weeks later, the degree of decomposition will show microbial robustness or soil health. Black Hawk County Soil and Water Conservation District has partnered with an Environmental Literature class at University of Northern Iowa to create a community conservation book with stories from local outdoor enthusiasts.

To see what’s happening in your area type “Iowa [your county/district] Soil and Water Conservation District” in your search engine to find your district website, or see if they have a Facebook page. You can also use the link, here, to find the contact information for your local Soil and Water Conservation District.

We encourage all Iowans to consider what they can do for Soil and Water Conservation Week, this week – and beyond. One easy idea is to participating in a social media campaign spearheaded by Anna MacDonald, a Madison County District employee and Badger Creek Lake Watershed Coordinator. Anna had the idea to deluge Facebook and Twitter during the week with pictures of someone’s hands (clean, dirty, callused, manicured, young, old) holding healthy soil with an Iowa plant (prairie seedling, cover crops, etc.). Search for the hashtag #HealthySoilsAreFullOfLife on Facebook or Twitter to track the campaign, like it or join in!

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