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Soil Test

The Wonder Beneath Our Feet: Resource Conservation District and local producers make soil health strides

Mar 30, 2019

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By Christine Kuehn

The media has given lots of attention to soils recently, with numerous news outlets talking about the role soil can play in making our entire planet more vibrant and resilient to weather extremes.

In conjunction with last year’s Global Climate Action Summit, held in San Francisco, people traveled from all over the world to Sonoma County to learn about how healthy soils and climate smart agriculture can combat climate change. But many farmers and ranchers already knew the secret power of soil, long before its recent spotlighting! They know that soil often holds the key to farming success, and that it can also often be the root of farming challenges.

Dedicating time to keeping soil healthy and vibrant will repay in the long-run by making the on-farm ecosystem (including the “cash crop”) more resilient to the factors that can often lead to setbacks. While there is currently no universally accepted measure of soil health, researchers are working on ways to evaluate soil characteristics to judge its condition and compare it between different locations.

Current research reports that improving soil health has many benefits, including sequestering carbon to combat climate change; improving grass production on grazed lands; reducing the need for fertilizer inputs; increasing disease resistance and decreasing the need for pesticides; increasing the soil’s capacity to hold water; improving crops’ ability to tolerate drought; and reducing soil erosion.

North Coast producers, in collaboration with local researchers, the Carbon Cycle Institute and Marin Carbon Project, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and the Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) have been closely collaborating to coordinate regional soil health efforts. Regional RCDs have begun developing Carbon Farm Plans and conducting Soil Health Assessments for farmers and ranchers interested in understanding how to increase soil health and promote carbon uptake within the farm, potentially offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from their operations.

The Sonoma RCD is working with a handful of both vineyard and livestock producers to assess soil health through field demonstrations. These demonstrations involve modifying management practices such as tillage and compost application, and collecting hundreds of soil samples to analyze for total carbon (organic matter), bulk density, and a variety of other soil health parameters. These field demonstrations complement the work of neighboring RCDs to carry out similar projects and develop a regional dataset to inform producer decision-making on soil management.

Since 2017, the North Coast RCDs have been coordinating a regional hub to disseminate information about soil health and promote soil conversation among winegrowers. The “Soil Hub” sets out to capture the goings on in soil health and to provide a platform for growers, researchers and other natural resource partners to engage in conversation. Together we’ve held numerous workshops and tailgates to increase collaboration and share on the ground experiences, with our most recent Soil Health Symposium attended by approximately 100 local winegrowers. While the Soil Hub has been launched with a vineyard focus, we look forward to expanding our focus to include other ag industries over time.

If you’d like to learn more about the Soil Hub, or about other exciting work going on at the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, please visit  https://sonomarcd.org/.

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