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Soil Health on Organic Farms

Aug 17, 2017

Healthy soils are essential for resilient crop production. They positively contribute to soil water retention, support a diversity of organisms vital to decomposition and nutrient cycling, provide crops with essential nutrients and can maintain carbon stores, contributing to global climate change mitigation. Healthy soils also play an important role in pest, pathogen and weed suppression, ecosystem services that are of particular importance for organic farmers operating without the use of most synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. As a result, a strong understanding of farming techniques that build soil health are key to the success of organic farms.

Soil properties commonly associated with soil health may be biological, chemical or physical – beneficial microbial activity, nutrient availability, and the size and type of soil aggregates for instance — and may be static or dynamic. Properties, associated with the type of soil as determined by its underlying mineral composition are unchanging over time while most other characteristics, are affected by farm management practices.

While a growing body of scientific literature suggests that soil management strategies commonly used in organic systems improves overall soil health the relative importance of particular soil characteristics and the quantitative and qualitative indicators used to assess them remain contentious. Significant variation in characteristics assessed and the methods used to gauge soil health means that often times results across different studies are not comparable. Even when scientific studies do use comparable measures of soil health they may come to contradictory conclusions. Management decisions that lead to an improvement in soil quality in one study may be less effective in another suggesting that some protocols must be carefully considered based on localized conditions to achieve best results. As such, reaching solid conclusions on best-management practices for achieving optimal soil health and fertility can be difficult, particularly for organic farmers who cannot rely on formulaic recommendations for fertilizer application.

A comprehensive review of the most current science that evaluates organic compliant methods for optimizing soil health is needed to develop best practices for organic farmers.  The Organic Center is addressing this gap by collaborating with the University of Maryland review the science that evaluates organic methods for building soil health for scientific publication.

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