Soil is the foundation of healthy farms, forests,
cities and watersheds.
Yet we are failing, collectively, to take care of
soil health and it is starting to catch up with us.
Losing soil health is linked to a number of
concerns in the Kettle River watershed. Our
streams and rivers are carrying more silt, nutrients
Storm water from intense rainfalls travels
quickly over compacted soils and urban landscapes
to pollute our streams. And nitrates and
other contaminants infiltrate our sandy soils and
Globally, mismanagement of soils is threatening
food production, harming coral reefs, releasing
carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases,
and creating algae blooms and vast ‘dead zones’
in lakes and oceans.
So what can we do? It turns out that taking
care of our soils means learning about their hidden
mysteries as ecosystems.
“We need to learn how to give back,” says
Sheila Dobie of the Grand Forks and Boundary
Regional Agricultural Society. “Composting,
growing cover crops to return energy to the soil
and rotating crops so we don’t deplete it—there
are many things gardeners and farmers can do to
help the soil food web.”
Recent studies show that soil contains one
third of all of the world’s organisms. One teaspoon
alone can contain billions of microbes of
thousands of different types.
When a leaf falls or a plant dies in healthy soil,
earthworms and termites quickly tear it apart
and consume it. Fungi and microbes continue
the work and make the nutrients available to
growing plants to continue the cycle.
But modern, mechanised and chemical-based
farming destroys the food webs in the soil, and
rapidly breaks down the structure that keeps soil
together. Heavy nitrogen fertilization and tilling
literally burns off the carbon stored in the soil by
In fact, nearly a third of the world’s cropland
is losing soil faster than it is gaining. According
to Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.
“Soil that was formed on a geological time scale
is being lost on a human time scale.”
Soil is also disregarded when developing urban
areas, and it needs to be stewarded carefully
on ranches and forestry operations to prevent
erosion and loss of productivity.
Because of their knowledge of building soil
without chemicals and pesticides, we can turn
to organic farmers to learn more about restoring
Organic farmers have learned to keep the
soil covered with soil-building crops like fall
rye, buckwheat and clover. Clover can even be
inter-planted with other crops to give a boost of
nitrogen to the crops, at a fraction of the cost of
conventional fertilizer. Incorporating perennials,
shrubs and trees in working farms can also reduce
wind and water erosion and provide mulch
and compost inputs for crops.
“One of the biggest things we can do around
here is composting,” says Dobie. “It breaks my
heart to see us burning and polluting the air
when all of that crucial organic matter could be
returned to the soil, with even less work than
Over the coming months, the Stakeholder Advisory
Group will examine many ways of supporting
healthy aquatic ecosystems and water
supplies in the Kettle River watershed, including
stewardship of the soil.
Graham Watt is the coordinator of the Kettle River
Watershed Management Plan for the RDKB.