Keeping Indiana’s soil healthy for future generations is key to growth

Editor’s Note: The following is part of a class project originally initiated in the fall of 2021 in the classroom of Professor Adam Kuban at Ball State University. Continuing the project this fall, Kuban challenged his students to find sustainability efforts in the Muncie area and present their ideas to Deanna Watson, Editor of The Star Press, Journal & Courier and Pal-Item. Several such stories will be presented in November and December 2022.

The world’s population is increasing rapidly. According to the World Population 2020 Datasheet, our population is estimated to reach just under 10 billion people by 2050.

As a result, food production alone must increase by at least 70% to keep up with the basic needs of this growing population, according to a study published in Impact Investor in 2022.

To meet this demand, those working in agriculture need to be educated about and implementing sustainable farming practices, and there are a few organizations in Indiana that are making this shift.

According to The Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program, the goal of agricultural sustainability is “to be able to meet the food needs of society in the present without compromising the ability of future generations to use the land for their own needs. A key part of ensuring our country will endure for future generations is focusing on soil health now. No-till and using cover crops are two of the best ways to begin the sustainable agriculture journey, according to Andy Ertle, executive director of the Soil and Water Conservation District for Southern Indiana.

However, it can be difficult to break traditions, especially those that started as early as the 18th centuryth Century, but one tradition that soil conservationists are trying to stop is tillage in agriculture.

Tillage involves turning over the first 6 to 10 inches of topsoil to control weeds and prepare for seeding. However, Ertle explains that when you till the soil, you slowly release many of the carbon gases from the soil. In addition to releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, tillage also exposes the soil to rain and wind, leading to erosion. When the floor is turned over and exposed in this way, the heat hardens it, turning it into a concrete-like consistency. This hardened “concrete” cannot absorb moisture, ultimately making it difficult for the plants to grow.

“It takes about 500 to 1,000 years to form one centimeter of topsoil. So if you lose topsoil every year, (then) the land cannot be sustainable,” Ertle explained.

The sustainable alternative that soil conservationists are propagating today is called no-till. As described in The Green Directory, it uses implements that essentially cut a slit in the soil, drop the seed in, and seal the slit shut. This way there is still good soil-to-seed contact which also maintains soil moisture and prevents soil erosion.

Another important step is to use cover crops, which can be thought of as a type of living mulch since it is a crop used to slow erosion, improve soil health, and control pests.

He further explained that while this method is healthier for the soil and more sustainable for the earth, it usually requires more planning and money, making it sometimes difficult for farmers to switch from traditional tillage. The Midwest Cover Crop Initiative is helping with this challenge by providing grants that provide technical and financial support to farmers who are increasing their use of cover crops.

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Although soil health is necessary for producing fresh food, a farmer in downtown Indianapolis has found a way to grow crops without soil. His name is Mario Vitalis, founder of New Age Provisions, and he describes himself as a “container builder”.

Vitalis uses hydroponic farming, where plants are grown in water to which the nutrients they need are added from the soil. He grows his plants in a shipping container that uses blue and red lights that simulate the sunlight plants need to absorb. In this way, Vitalis can grow crops all year round and does not have to use pesticides on its crops. This process uses 98% less water than traditional farming because the tank can control and recycle the water.

“You can’t grow root vegetables here – only leafy greens. This is only an alternative to traditional farming, but cannot completely replace it,” said Vitalis.

Companies like the Red-tail Conservatory in Muncie, Indiana, have found a way to restore and protect farmland that is no longer suitable for growing crops due to erosion and invasive plants. You first break open the farm tiles that are preventing the water from flowing naturally. Then they prepare the soil by removing the old seeds and planting those native to east-central Indiana. This turns the land into prairies with tall grass, allowing native species to return and live on the land.

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“Our tall grass prairie — which was once a soybean field — has been in the works for 20 years, and this was the first-ever year that we finally had a pair of nesting ospreys. It’s such a success story because they only come when they have what they need to be taken care of by habitat,” said Kelley Philips, communications manager for the Red-tail Land Conservancy, as she explained how long it’s taking for that to happen land to fully restore .

Indiana farmers are now the national leaders in topsoil protection.

They saved about 6.3 million tons of topsoil from spring erosion by no-till, according to a 2018 study by the St. Joseph County Soil & Water Conservation District. Indiana also remains a top state for growing cover crops — 1.5 million acres of cover crops, to be exact, according to a 2021 Indiana Department of Agriculture survey. This can be compared to Ohio, another top state for cover crops, whose farmers planted 718,000 acres that same year.

Although acceptance of these methods has increased, Andy Ertle stressed the importance of all farmers making no-till and cover crop mainstream.

“You see, farmers love to smell this dirt. Flip it and start the season. That’s just tradition, but now is the time (when) we need to start a new tradition in order for our country to be sustainable for our future generations,” he said.