by Sarah Nicholas, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture
When Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s soil science team goes out to a farmer’s field to measure the health of their soil, they don’t typically bring along a package of cotton briefs. But like the community scientists testing their backyard soils in the Soil Your Undies campaign, we want to know whether there’s a thriving community of microorganisms working underneath the soil’s surface to recycle once-living matter—fallen leaves, dead plants, and cotton undies—into nutrients that roots use for plants to grow and thrive.
We use more traditional tools to get our answers to the same questions: What is the physical and biological health of our farm soils? And what do we need to do to make them even better?
In 2016, Pasa launched our Soil Health Benchmark Study in collaboration with farmers to
measure microbial activity in a soil along with an array of other soil characteristics that can tell farmers how healthy their soils are. Our study now includes more than 175 farms in
Pennsylvania and beyond, and many partner organizations, including the Cornell Soil Health
Laboratory, Future Harvest and the Million Acre Challenge, Maine Farmland Trust, Penn State Extension, Rodale Institute, and Stroud Water Research Center.
We work directly with farmers to take measurements of their soil at different places on their
fields, and send those soil samples on to the Cornell University labs, where they are analyzed
for different indicators of soil health. These include the presence and abundance of soil
microbes, which are the critters that decompose those cotton briefs you buried.
We measure soil aggregate stability, which is a fancy way of saying how well your soil holds together—an important property for limiting soil erosion and soil loss. We also measure organic matter levels - how much decomposing leaf litter and other organic matter has accumulated in the top layer of your soil. High organic content can help absorb rainfall better, limiting the volume of water running off farm fields after a heavy rain and protecting the water quality of rivers and streams.
Soils rich in organic matter can also help plants survive periods of drought better. Planting trees and adding compost to your yard or garden can help build this important organic layer.
So while you’re waiting to dig up that underwear you buried in the Soil Your Undies campaign, think of the scientists and community-scientist farmers out analyzing their fields, where soil health is a matter of crop survival and economic survival.
And if you’re curious, dig into the Soil Health Benchmark Report that Pasa published recently to find out what we found out about the state of soil health on working farms.