From the beginning of mankind, the soil has been plowed. A passage in the first book of the Bible tells us, “…Cain worked the soil.” Now personally, I think God intended Cain to no-till, the practice of simply cultivating a narrow slot to plant his seeds, but you know Man – he likes to think big. “If God wanted me to till a little bit, I’ll till the whole darn field!”

So began soil erosion.

There’s an expression I’ve heard many times that “they ain’t making any new soil.” There is a finite quantity of soil and we have choices about how we use it. We can choose to use the land to produce food, fuel and fiber, to build housing and shelter and commercial properties, and for places to explore nature.

These are basic necessities of life. As our world population continues to grow, more and more pressure is placed on this finite quantity for all these competing needs/uses. We read in the newspaper daily about building new houses, new commercial properties, new roads and highways, and new parks across the land. Have you ever read about new land being developed for agriculture?

The US Department of Agriculture – Natural Resource Conservation Service and many conservation districts have been promoting the benefits of improving soil health for several years through a media campaign titled “Unlocking the Secrets of the Soil.”

The focus has been on encouraging the use of no-till farming, planting cover crops and rotating the soil, etc. – all in the name of improving the quality and health of our soil for the sustainability of agriculture and our world.

While I commend USDA for this marketing strategy, I think we can, and need to do more. Rather than continue to bring marginal land in to production, usually at the expense of existing wetlands, woodlands, and pastures, maybe we should first try to increase the yield potential of our soils by reversing degradation and enhancing soil health.

USDA has produced soil survey maps; we have one online for Delaware County. In those manuals are charts showing crop yields for individual soil type. Those estimates are developed, not to indicate the actual yield potential, but rather to compare the potential of one soil type over another.

The yields in these charts are generally far lower than what farmers typically expect from their yields. Maybe it is time to research the yield potential of soil types based on the health of the soil. Do we truly know the maximum yield potential of a given soil based on its quality — the nutrients stored in the soil, the moisture holding capacity, the organic matter content, the microorganisms, etc.?

A work associate and friend from my days in Washington DC, Bruce Knight, who is a former Chief of the USDA-NRCS, recently authored an op-ed that suggested the next Farm Bill should include a major initiative that focuses resources on research of the potential for soil health improvements.

He suggests that “We’ve got to move beyond chemical testing for soil. There’s more involved in soil health than testing for nutrients … we must identify additional factors in soil health and develop a modern regimen of tests that’s reasonably inexpensive to help farmers determine what their soils are missing. We need a more robust measuring tool for soil health.”

We have cultivated the soil for centuries on end with very little research into what the yield potential truly is. It is time we studied the effects of our actions, or in-actions, as we strive to grow what we can out of “our old ground.”

Solid research is needed to show the impacts of no-till, cover crops, soil amendments and all the various actions we take to increase our yield potential. The health of our soil is imperative to the sustainability of an ever-growing global population.

For information on soil health, go to our website at

By Brad Ross

Contributing Writer

Brad Ross is communications specialist at the Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be reached at [email protected].