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Q&A with soil expert Kris Nichols

Kris Nichols is veteran soil microbiologist with over 25 years of research experience studying arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi. She is the founder and principal scientist of KRIS Systems Education & Consultation and consults for Soil Health Consulting, Inc, Pachaterrae Inc, and MyLand Company. Nichols was previously the Chief Scientist at Rodale Institute for over three years, and a soil microbiologist with the USDA, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) for over 11 years. Here Nichols shares her insight on soil health.

Q: As a sector is it important for growers to define tillage, reduced tillage or minimum tillage to put them into practice or as an industry? 

A: When I am talking with growers I’ll ask them what they mean by the terminology so it becomes a producer by producer definition. When I am speaking and talking about, I’ll refer to reduced tillage versus no-till, because for some farmers reduced tillage might mean you only do tillage for certain crops so some crops you are no till and others you do tillage for. There is no industry-wide definition or it is rarely defined as to what things mean. 

When I was at Rodale we were talking about a no-till organic system but in most cases it’s a rotational no-till. The most important thing is to define what you are doing especially with research data and any type of studies you are conducting. 

I do think it would help for us to at some point from industry standpoint to maybe put a little bit of a definition or parameters around what these different phrases mean. I do believe it is important for us to have a better understanding of the page we are on. 

Q: What are strategies to boost soil health outside of current methods?

A: For me one of things I think is the most important factor outside of tillage is maximizing the amount of photosynthetic activity we can get. By increasing photosynthetic activity, you could offset what you might lose. When we are trying to build soil, it is organic materials combined with the mineral matrix – sand, silt and clay while the minerals without organic matter is dirt. To have soil you have to have carbon as a component where photosynthetic activities take CO2 out of the atmosphere. 

We also need to look at diversity of the plants we can grow and look more intensively at cover crops to see if we can take advantage of them. With cover crop mixes we are with cover crop mixtures we are selecting plants that grow at higher or lower temperatures, so we are trying to get more carbon in the soil and we are essentially trying to harvest sunlight. If your job is to harvest sunlight you have to minimize the number of days that you don’t have a plant growing. If you really want to build carbon you need to build sunlight, or you need to double cropping (growing two or more crops on the same land during the same growing season) so those are in your cash crop. The advantage of that with the plant is they want to be putting carbon below ground.

Q: Are there any challenges to achieving this, especially for organic growers?

A: We need to change the way we think, and put ourselves in the thinking beyond the paradigm of degree days and optimizing sunlight. For organic farmers we can also use perennials, and anything you have green and growing is important. For organic farmers it is how to be able to manage other plants that are growing that aren’t our cash crop. For organic farmers it is to manage the competition between cover and cash crops. Part of this is to manage the types of plants they choose and the concentration with seed mix. 

Q: What trends do you observe in working with growers? 

A:  Farmers see they need to make some changes in their management because of economic bottom line. Because of all of the things we are starting to see economically there really seems to be a theme of them asking questions of what options can I have, identify what other potential options are out there including cover crops, reduced tillage, perennials, and are looking for new tools. What they are currently doing isn’t working and they need to figure out some new options and a focus on soil health provides you with options and with what are the right things to do. 

The economics aren’t working for farmers as we look at population we are running out of land, but we are in the process of destroying much of our land. In the U.S. we lose 1.67 billion metric tons of top soil every year, and if you load it on rail cars you’d have a train that would stretch around the equator seven times. Again, we are in trouble and we can’t continue to do that. To lose that much soil on productive land is something we can’t afford to do.

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