The world has 7.9 billion hungry people, but a teaspoonful of dirt has that many hungry micro-organisms and more. Those micro-organisms are a key element in what makes healthy soil different from plain old dirt.
Williams County students in the sixth grade learned about that and more during the annual Eco-Ed days, which are being held on Wednesday and Thursday this year at the Williams County Soil Conservation District.
In addition to learning about healthy soil, the youths also learned about farm safety, electrical safety and wildlife. They talked to firefighters and EMS personnel, and they also built wildflower seed bombs and bee hotels to take home.
Keith Brown led the soil health workshop for the students, which included a demonstration showing what happens when rain drops hitting the ground encounter healthy soil versus not so healthy dirt.
In the latter case, much of the rainwater ran off without wetting anything, and it carried at least some material away. That material from the top layer is where the most nutrients are, including minerals from weathering rocks.
“Anybody want to guess how long, how many years it takes to weather rocks down enough to create the minerals one new inch of soil?” Brown asked.
Guesses were between five years and 2,000, but the correct answer was somewhere in between— 1,000 years. That’s a tenth of one inch every 100 years.
“So if we’re losing even a 10th of an inch of soil a year over 10 years, how much soil have we lost?” Brown asked. “Is that sustainable?”
While the United States has done a better job of limiting erosion than many other countries, globally speaking, Brown said the United Nations estimates at the current rate of soil degradation there are 60 harvests left before soil is too depleted of nutrients to be productive.
“I’m not going to be around in 60 years, but I hope most of you guys are still around then,” Brown said. “So you know, some of this is important. We have to think about what we can do to improve soil health, and one thing we can do is minimize disturbance.”
Other things that help protect soil health include boosting plant diversity, maintaining a living root of some sort in the soil throughout the growing season, and covering the soil so that there’s less erosion and more water retention. Integration of livestock is also helpful when feasible, or, if it isn’t, top dressing with compost can help replenish lost nutrients.