you killing your soil?
Soil scientist Ray Weil makes
a powerful case for no-till or, at the very least, low
What comes to mind when we say the word farm, asks
soil scientist Ray Weil. Crisp straight rows of crops
separated by soft, bare dirt your boot sinks into as
you walk the rows?
Surely plants must grow better in this environment,
you think. But you'd be way off, says Weil. Cultivated
soil is biologically close to death-just a sterile medium
for holding up the plant. Bare soil is prone to erosion
and evaporation of nutrients. And that's just the beginning
of the story.
Ray Weil at a field day recently,
picking apart the secrets of healthy soil
with a hunting knife and his wit. Ray is
a professor of soil science at the University
of Maryland and co-author of The Nature
and Properties of Soils.
We were at a field day recently on Steve Groff's farm.
Much of the land on Groff's farm has not been cultivated
in 30 years. Ray Weil, who is a professor of soil science
at the University of Maryland, College Park, was standing
in a pit dug out by a backhoe, in a grassy field that
will be planted in tomatoes next year. There was a small
awning over the hole to keep out the worst of the sun
on a hot, humid day. Weil was surrounded by young Mennonite
farmers in big straw hats and black suits, a landowner
looking for an organic farmer to farm her land and assorted
other farmers looking to improve their practices or
add value to their operations.
Ray was picking at the sides of the hole with his big
hunting knife as he pointed out details of soil structure
and traced worm holes deep into the hard clay depths
of the earth. And as he picked it became clear to all
of us just what the secrets of soil health were-and
how traditional farming, organic and otherwise, with
its dependence on plowing, turns nature on its head,
as Weil says, disrupting fungi, killing worms, and generally
calling down a blitzkrieg on the stable communities
of organisms and microorganisms that make up a healthy
soil. It was enough to make us all want to stop cultivating,
and figure out some other way to control the weeds.
The soil Ray pointed to as a model of health wasn't
all that pretty: a tangle of partly decomposed plant
matter on top; not at all soft; not all that deep, with
hard claying soil beginning about six inches down. But
the hard clay was permeated with worm channels-paths
or root growth and water infiltration. There was no
hard pan like a steel plate turning away plant roots
and water, the result of compaction as a plow pushes
down hard in order to lift up tons of dirt per acre.
Coming soon, Ray will share some of his insights
into soil health with New Farm® readers. If you're interested
in being notified when his column is posted, click