The Power of Dirt
Farmers explore soil-friendly practices
By Rachel Mullis
Judging by some common phrases, dirt is a bad thing: we talk of a dirty house or a dirty little secret. “We think of dirt like a rock: an inanimate object we put things into, dig up, or cover up. But really, it’s the lifeblood of all… we see and need,” said Lilly Hancock, an ecologist at Bio-Logical Capital who is focused on soil and plant health. From a global perspective, dirt pulls carbon dioxide out of the air. It fosters 99 percent of the world’s food and close to half of our oxygen. Without it, none of us would be here.
Soil, a fascinating and essential ingredient
Good dirt nurtures vegetables and livestock because it’s full of minerals and beneficial bacteria. Each handful harbors billions of small organisms that interact with larger animals and our atmosphere to break down nutrients and enable plants to root deeply and thrive. Healthy soil boosts crops, filters water, and stores water during droughts and floods.
But good soil isn’t a given. As we learn more about how soil functions, we better understand the benefits and the risks. Loss of organic matter and soil structure can diminish farm output, lessen its capacity to retain water, and increase erosion.
“We are beginning to understand that soil quality is a really important focus as the climate is changing,” said Heather Darby, an agronomic and soils specialist at UVM Extension. “The function of soil can help us through the tough times, mitigate nutrient losses, feed the world, and slow down climate change.”
Growing healthy soil in Vermont
In Vermont, farmers are heeding the call. Many are learning more about how to produce food and improve soil at the same time.
At Cheryl and Marc Cesario’s farm in Cornwall, cattle and sheep graze on pastures with lush grasslands a foot deep. The animals fertilize the field with manure and trample the soil, which seeds new grass. The Cesarios use temporary fencing and move the cattle to another area until the grass grows back.
“We benefit from healthy, productive livestock, which keeps our vet and labor costs down,” said Cheryl.
Their soil-friendly practices could also improve water quality in the Lake Champlain Basin. “Increasing organic matter by just one percent retains 27,000 gallons of water per acre. That’s water that’s not running off into the watershed,” Marc added.
And, because of increased moisture in the soil, “our pastures held out a lot longer during last year’s dry summer,” Marc explained.
“Farms that have been using regenerative practices for decades, their grass is so lush they can be in the middle of a drought and grazing their animals,” agreed Sam Smith, Farm Business Director at the Intervale Center.
Dairy farmer Guy Choiniere echoed the sentiment, quoting his mentor and farming pioneer Jack Lazor, who recently passed away: “The soil knows what to do. If you respect the soil, it will take care of you.”
Guy transitioned to organic pastures in 2005 and started his cows on a grass diet 10 years later. He and his son monitor and adapt the cows’ grazing, moving them from time to time to allow the soil to recover. They have planted flowers to attract pollinators. They also planted trees along riverbanks to support clean water, and in their pastures for shade and to attract birds, which keeps the fly population in check.
The value of healthy soil
Farmers understand the benefits of improving their soil, but it is often a long-term investment financially.
“The entry cost for regenerative agriculture is comparable to conventional farming,” said Sam. “The real challenge is that it requires a longer timeline to see a return on investment.” Most setups require more land. And for enterprises like vegetable farms, the manual labor required to hoe, hand-weed, and manage pests naturally can be prohibitive.
“If you figure out how to store carbon and excess soil and water, that’s a real public benefit,” said VLT’s Tyler Miller. “But that isn’t a service that farmers are compensated for, and they’re already in a really tough business.”
Along with others in the state and beyond, VLT is looking into the impact of widespread adoption of soil-friendly practices and how to compensate farmers. In the meantime, innovative farmers are exploring what’s possible—for their enterprises and the planet.
“Educate yourself about soil. Realize that it’s a living, breathing thing,” said Guy. “When you think about it that way, you might look at it differently.”
VLT is partnering with UVM and Bio-Logical Capital to study the impact, costs, and benefits of soil-friendly farm practices. This work is supported by the Conservation Innovation Grants program at USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Learn more.