The Science of Soil

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. — Aldo Leopold, “A Sand County Almanac,” 1949

The Science of Soil

A solution for climate change impact on our food ecosystem is to build healthier soil. The use of cover crops and rotation increases organic matter in the soil that reduces the need for chemicals, absorbs heavy rainfalls, increases yield, and captures carbon.

  • One study published in 2018 found that healthier soil reduced carbon dioxide in the air to the equivalent of 21 percent of current U.S. emissions.
  • The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service estimates that 1 percent of organic matter could store 25,000 gallons of water in the top six inches of soil on a per acre basis.
  • According to Ohio State University research, cover crops can reduce nutrient and pesticide runoff by 50 percent, slash erosion by 90 percent, reduce soil sediments in water by 75 percent, and cut water contaminants by 60 percent.

The Women Behind Soil Health

The following is adapted from a 2018 LSP newsletter

As a six-year-old, Elaine Ingham’s father taught her how to use a microscope and identify microbes in our world. Eventually she became a world-renowned microbiologist, presented to the United Nations about the dangers of genetically modified organisms to soil ecology, and created her own business working with producers on aerobic composting.Visit

Kris Nichols has long worked with no-till farmers in North Dakota to build organic matter at a rate not seen before. She grew up on a southwestern Minnesota farm, and has learned how to develop symbiotic relations with the roots of a plant — fungi provide micronutrients and water to the plant in exchange for sugars. She has researched the glue-like substance of glomalin, which creates pore space for oxygen and water while holding soil aggregates together. Tillage disrupts these relationships and releases organic matter into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Visit

Christine Jones originally pursued economics, but her study of textile product performance showed her the connection between wool quality and pasture quality. That led to a doctoral program in soil biochemistry to understand how plants communicate with soil microbial communities. She is concerned by the worldwide trend to use more synthetic chemicals in cropping systems, and the correlation between chemical and fertilizer over-use and the decline of soil structure. She warns that only in seeing the whole system do we realize why crops are more susceptible to disease, pathogens, drought, frost, and salinity.Visit

Related Resources

Several states have passed legislation to provide financial incentives for farmers to build soil health and sequester carbon. Next week: the status in Minnesota.

As Land Stewardship Project defines it, “Regenerative Agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices built upon a soil foundation that uses carbon via photosynthesis to improve nutrient and water use efficiencies and provide resiliency against climatic uncertainty and pest and disease issues. Regenerative Agriculture has the potential to revitalize communities and improve global economies as well as solve food insecurity by providing abundant, nutrient dense food.”