I’m a soil nerd to say the least. This year marks my third year on UW-Platteville’s Collegiate Soils Judging team. (Yes, judging soils is actually a thing!) I’ve traveled to Missouri, Arkansas, and all over Wisconsin to look at what some people refer to as “dirt.”

Members of the UW-Platteville Soils Team and the author as the judge soils at a "cozy" practice pit.

Members of the UW – Platteville Soils Team and the author as judging soils at a “cozy” practice pit in Arkansas at the National Collegiate Soils Contest.

I cringe as I type that derogatory word. If you remember one thing from this article, remember this: “Dirt” is the unwanted material you sweep off the floor; “soil” is a living breathing environment that all life is established upon.

You read that right, soil is alive! Did you know that just one teaspoon of healthy soil contains over a billion bacteria? And that’s just bacteria. There are fungi, protozoa, earthworms, and even furry creatures that call the soil their home.

There are four main components that make up our soils:

  • Mineral material (particles of sand, silt and clay)
  • Organic matter
  • Water
  • Air

The right balance of these components is essential for crop growth. Research shows if cows eat healthy grass they produce healthier milk. Where do you think that healthy grass comes from?

……………..Drum roll please…………..

Bingo! Healthy soil!

Often humans look at problems in farming—such as sick-looking crops—, and they say, “What can we create to solve this problem?” The next thing you know, there is a new pesticide or fertilizer on the market.

But there’s a better solution. Instead of looking only at the health of the plant, we should first look at the environment around the plant—especially the health of the soil supporting it.

Whether organic or conventional, soil health is a crucial component to a healthy farm, helping to prevent crop diseases and other pest problems. Just as we need to keep our bodies healthy and active, our soils need the same care.

2015 is the International Year of Soils. I hope you take some time this year to appreciate this resource that is virtually non-renewable. According to the National Resources Conservation Service, one inch of our nutrient-rich topsoil (that supports most plant life on Earth) took hundreds of years to form. It may not be a glamorous or entertaining topic, but it’s an important one. As my soils coach always says, “Dirt’s a dirty word.”

I heart soil

photo property of the Soil Science Society of America

For more information on the importance of soil to the environment and farming, start digging here: