Are you killing your soil?
Soil scientist Ray Weil makes a powerful case for no-till or, at the very least, low till.

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 here.

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