I recently had the great fortune of interviewing Mark Kopecky, a self-proclaimed soil lover and Organic Valley’s very own soil agronomist. As a soil agronomist he has a deep understanding of both crop and soil science.  He uses this technical expertise to provide producers with tips on managing the soil and crops on their farm. Mark is truly an expert with an unmatched soft spot for soil. And after spending forty minutes chatting with him it is impossible not to share his enthusiasm. Here are three key takeaways from our conversation that will leave you loving soil….

1. Soil Is An Amazing Community

Ranck_4513_hand in soilMark immediately and with great joy expressed, “I love the soil.  It is just such an amazing community. […] It is a collection of physical, chemical, and biological components that work together to do such amazing things for us as people, for our livestock, for the environment, and for the world in general.” Like any healthy community, healthy soil is comprised of a combination of characteristics. It consists of other chemical nutrients that help plants grow.  It also consists of a variety of organisms such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, arthropods, insects, and some bigger animals like mice and gophers. All of these creatures are “part of the big system we call soil.” The combination of “soil fertility, biological activity, and the good physical structure in the soil all work together to give us what we think of as healthy soils.”

2. Our Health Starts With Soil Health

Mark was quick to point out that “everything works together.”  He explained that, “when we have a good healthy soil that has good fertility and has good physical characteristics and good biological activity we grow plants that have more nutrients in them.” In addition to having “higher levels of vitamins,” healthy plants grown from healthy soils have a lot of minerals to “satisfy our own health and the health of our livestock.”  When such nutritious and simple foods are consumed, “we typically see a lot fewer health problems of all sorts. […] And it all starts with healthy soils because we can’t have healthy crops, good yields, or healthy people without healthy soils.”

3. Soil Plays A Critical Role in Climate Change

Mark professed that soil can play a huge role in climate change mitigation in two major ways. First, soil has the amazing ability to sequester carbon.  The basis of plant material is carbon.  So the more plants, the more carbon taken out of the atmosphere.  Of course, some of the carbon removed will be recycled back into the atmosphere when the plant is harvested, but some of the plant’s biomass will return to the soil. This biomass will go to feed biological activities in the soil, but what isn’t used will become humus, which is a very stable form of carbon. With good management practices, producers can build humus levels, thus taking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it safely in the soil.

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Another way to fight against climate change with healthy soil is by harnessing the suns energy to help produce natural forms of nitrogen and by using nutrients diligently. As Mark explained, “when we have good, well balanced agricultural systems that are designed to make as much free nitrogen as we can, just through biological activity, we are taking that energy that is freely available from sunlight and we are using that to build our nitrogen fertilizer.” Making synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is very energy intensive, requiring a lot of fossil fuels.  “That same process goes on naturally in plants and in certain types of bacteria and other organisms and it still takes an awful lot of energy to do that but the energy comes from the sun,” not fossil fuels.

It is about time for soil to get the respect it deserves.  Soil is a critical component in solving many of our biggest challenges including those related to our ailing health, and changing climate.  It is crucial we recognize soil’s role in supporting a diverse, sustainable, and healthy agricultural system now and in the future.

Want to hear more about the wonderful world of soil? Check out Mark Kopecky’s interview with Food Sleuth Radio.