Building Soils for Better Crops, Third Edition

Healthy Soils


All over the country [some soils are] worn out, depleted, exhausted, almost dead.But here is comfort: These soils possess possibilities and may be restored to highproductive power, provided you do a few simple things.

C.W. BURKETT, 1907

It should come as no surprise that many cultures have considered soil central to their lives. After all, people were aware that the food they ate grew from the soil. Our ancestors who first practiced agriculture must have been amazed to see life reborn each year when seeds placed in the ground germinated and then grew to maturity. In the Hebrew Bible, the name given to the first man, Adam, is the masculine version of the word “earth” or “soil” (adama). The name for the first woman, Eve (or Hava in Hebrew), comes from the word for “living.” Soil and human life were considered to be intertwined. A particular reverence for the soil has been an important part of the cultures of many civilizations, including American Indian tribes.

Although we focus on the critical role soils play in growing crops, it’s important to keep in mind that soils also serve other important purposes. Soils govern whether rainfall runs off the field or enters the soil and eventually helps recharge underground aquifers. When a soil is denuded of vegetation and starts to degrade, excessive runoff and flooding are more common. Soils also absorb, release, and transform many different chemical compounds. For example, they help to purify wastes flowing from the septic system fields in your back yard. Soils also provide habitats for a diverse group of organisms, many of which are very important—such as those bacteria that produce antibiotics. Soil organic matter stores a huge amount of atmospheric carbon. Carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas associated with global warming. So by increasing soil organic matter, more carbon can be stored in soils, reducing the global warming potential. We also use soils as a foundation for roads, industry, and our communities.

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