Sunday, April 24, 2016

Beyond Chemicals

While I see a need to have soil restoration promoted in the next version of the Calvert County Comprehensive Plan, there are already many elements of the plan and ongoing institutions promoting soil conservation. The Comprehensive Plan includes "Sediment flows from development and farming" as a threat to the vision that
Our wetlands, streams, and forests support thriving plant and animal communities.
The corresponding action is "Develop soil conservation and water quality plans for farms."

When you look into the Best Management Practices of the Soil Conservation District, it appears that they have this whole issue pretty well in hand (at least among the farms on the list of cooperators). Many of these best practices lead to soil restoration in addition to soil conservation. At least one of the BMPs, however, is potentially counterproductive - that is, perpetuation of chemical fertilizers.
Photo by Paul Riismandel (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
The problem with chemical fertilizers is that they can reduce the soil biota population below a critical level where the microorganisms make the soil ecosystem work in the plants' favor. This results in the need to use more fertilizer to achieve the same results as in previous years and the soil undergoes a death spiral until it is no longer economical to farm.  Many of the trace nutrients used by plants are generated by the proliferation of soil microorganisms and could be uneconomical to add directly as we do commonly applied macronutrients like Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium (N, P, K).

It may be possible to restore soil humus by intensive farming methods while still using chemical fertilizers, but a surer method is to farm organically using biochar, compost, and organic fertilizer, as necessary. The goal should be to eliminate fertilizers altogether in favor of creating humus which is self-regenerating as long as crops are grown successively and rotated from year to year. Our farmers, large and small, need to learn to do this if for no other reason than that chemical fertilizers are a nonrenewable resource. A better option, still, is to grow perennial food crops. While we're at it, let's take advantage of soil carbon restoration for its role in cooling the planet.

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