Soil Conservation Methods: Dirt Makes The World Go ‘Round

shutterstock_136001393Soil is awesome. Hear me out before you disappear from immediate boredom. Soil is our life source, without it no crops would grow and we wouldn’t have food; without it flowers wouldn’t bloom in the spring to remind us of winters end; without it we couldn’t enjoy things like wine and beer; without it there wouldn’t be much of anything (including something to walk on).

See? Soil has its perks. Yes, there is hydroponic growing and yes, it can do many things, but it is certainly no replacement for the dirt that farmers world-wide coat their hands in for a living and our survival. If you’re into water growing plants (and fish) check out the course on Aquaponic Gardening. Sustainable agriculture practices are becoming more and more prevalent, assisting those who grow for a living to make the most bang for their buck – and produce better quality products. Soil conservation is one of those critical sustainable agriculture practices that is age-old, but the methods used to do it are ever-evolving.

What is Soil Conservation?

Basically, it’s a way to conserve soil, meaning prevent the loss of soil due to things like erosion, chemical altercation, leaching and contamination. With something as valuable as soil it’s important that we examine all the ways in which we can conserve it. With good quality soil you can do things like Grow a Medicinal Food Forest – this course highlights how to do it and why you should consider it.

The Importance of Soil Conservation

Conserving natural resources has been a big movement since the eye-opening tree-hugging days of the sixties. Conserving soil, however, has been in the spotlight much longer than that. Ancient farmers learned real quickly that if they didn’t prevent soil loss or contamination that the crops weren’t as good, the yield not as high and sometimes – there were no crops at all. (Ever heard of the Dust Bowl? Now that was bad.) As previously mentioned, soil is kind of vital to existence on earth. Many organisms thrive under the dirt and those organisms contribute to our ecological system as a whole. Here’s a basic introduction to Biology course, in case you have a hankering for learning more about the environment and organisms.

Earth worms live in soil, birds love earthworms, bigger prey love birds, we eat that bigger prey. There’s also the whole plants-make-oxygen thing and plants grow in soil. Call it the circle of life. Oh, and different types of soil do different types of things for crops and life on Planet Earth – read more about Kinds of Soil to become super soil-savvy for your friends. (Okay, soil isn’t that cool, but it’s interesting nonetheless.)

If we were to break it down into two categories of “soil conservation methods” we’re left with biological and mechanical conservatory efforts. These categories envelope so many practices that all aim to keep soil from becoming nutrient deficient, toxic and non-existent. We’ll get into that now.

Biological Methods

Under biological soil conservation methods there are three well known practices that can be even further divided. Remember I said farmers and environmental scientists have been studying this topic for decades. They aren’t playing around.

  • Agronomics – The Science of Soil Management

Generally speaking, agronomists are the people you want to listen to when it comes down to maximizing the usable life of your soil. They will likely encourage some of the following ideas:

  • Contour Farming

When you look at a topographical map there are a bunch of lines indicating levels of elevation and increments of incline. Contour farming requires farmers to till along these contour lines in order to collect rainwater and to eliminate excessive surface erosion of soil. There are a few types of contour farming including terracing. Terracing is to say “build steps out of land”, kind of. See more about it under Mechanical soil conservation methods.

  • Crop Rotation

One year grow corn. One year grow wheat. Repeat, or add another crop. By rotating what kind of crop you grow each year you are enriching the soil with nutrients, eliminating pathogens and replenishing necessary nitrogen. It’s also recommended to rotate planting deep-rooted plants and shallow-rooted plants to help keep the soil structure from degrading.

  • Strip Cropping

If your farm is on a steep slope or grade, strip farming is your friend. Alternate rows of tightly sewn crops to create natural water barriers between your crops. This will help with keeping moisture in the soil, and the soil from washing away.

  • Mulching

Mulch isn’t my favorite, but if you must use it, try to get organic. Organic soil and mulch feed more nutrients and less chemical into the food we’re eating. Learn about Organic Soil Growing in this course. Mulch serves to keep moisture in the soil and to improve the overall health and structure of the soil. It looks okay (a lot of corporate parks use it) and it will smother aspiring weeds. For conservation efforts, I think there are better ways.

  • Sub-Soil Refining

On the top, there is top soil. This is the dark brown dirt most often associated with gardening. Under all of that smelly earth is another layer of less-smelly earth called sub-soil. If the sub-soil is manipulated well enough it breaks down. This increases water absorption for the land and thus top soil erosion can be prevented.

  • Agrostology – Branch of Botany that Studies Grass

Sounds really interesting, I know. But these guys know what they are talking about, too. They suggest a practice called ley farming. This is essentially the rotation of crops to grassland pastures – depending on the level of soil erosion. If the soil is looking pretty beat, agrostologists will recommend the farmer plant a field of grass to aid in soil recovery. Otherwise, alternating between grass and crops is a good measure to take. Plus, you feed cows.

  • Dryland Farming

That about says it all. If you are living in an arid climate, chances are you still need to eat. So growing crops without (proper) irrigation can become daunting. The dryland farming technique requires farmers to obtain high-water absorption soil and to select a crop that also requires little water to thrive. There is a neat publication on low-water crops for America’s Great Basin, it’s probably useful for planning purposes even if you don’t live in the States. Dry strip cropping is a mixture of strip cropping and dryland farming. In hot, dry climates farmers sometimes leave typical wind-facing rows fallow to prevent soil erosion from fast moving air.

Mechanical Methods

Biological practices don’t always do the job. Sometimes, you have to bring in the machinery and make the land do what you know is best for it.

  • Terracing

When land is terraced you cut it into step-like sections to help with eliminating erosion. Sometimes channels are dug at the lower end of a canal, or a canal is formed on the contour line by digging out mud, or there is bench terracing which requires building platforms with a flat top and vertical sides to create legitimate stairs of crops.

  • Bund and Trenches

A bund is really just an embankment and a trench is, well, a trench. Bunds often are covered in grass to prevent them from collapsing and more soil erosion to occur (remember ley farming?), and the trenches are used for water conservation and to help enrich the soil with collected rainwater. Not to mention this couple helps prevent water run-off which leads to soil erosion.

  • Basins/Ponds

Much like trenches, channels, canals or any of the other waterways crafted to aid in soil conservation; basins and ponds act as storage areas for excess water.

  • Protect Water Banks

You know when it floods and you see on the news how an entire house got sucked into the raging river? Yeah, that’s not good. It’s not good for the house, the people, or the soil. To prevent this from happening contractors can build stone or concrete protective walls along the river banks to strengthen them. This is not a fail-proof method of keeping things on the shore, but it is considered a preventable practice and a soil conservation method.

Water-pollution eradication is another conservationist campaign that is worth reading about. Water is obviously quite vital to the survival of life on our planet and with more and more contaminants entering our water sources we need to be more aware of how we can become a solution to the problem. Read more in this article about types of water pollution, its causes and its consequences.