That’s what we did! And learned a lot as well.

It was a very hands-on workshop. Our classroom was Marty Earnest’s farm in Caldwell Parish. Marty has a long history of experimenting with conservation farming methods that have enriched his soil and reduced the cost of farming, for example by reducing the number of tractor passes on his fields.

Rachel Stout-Evans, soil scientist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, laid out the basic principles of conservation farming that will improve soil health:

  • minimize disturbance
  • keep roots in the soil year-round
  • rotate crops
  • maximize plant diversity
  • incorporate livestock (the newest addition to the list)
Anne Frazer focuses on evaluating the texture of the ball of mud in her hand.

Most people know that soil erosion is a problem. Using simple field set-ups–like water in a tall cylinder–Rachel demonstrated the difference following these principles can make. The secret is protecting and feeding soil microbes that enable soil to absorb water rather than be washed downstream by every rainfall.

We dug our own soil plugs, and examined and rated them on a chart of soil qualities. Then La Tech forestry professor Bill Patterson taught us how to identify soil type from texture by making mud in our hands. I haven’t had so much fun since making mud pies as a child growing up on an Iowa farm!

We conducted a simple infiltration test in a field by pounding an aluminum ring a few inches into the soil, pouring in a measured amount of water, and timing how long it took to disappear into the ground. Marty Earnest’s soil performed pretty well.

While waiting for water to disappear into the soil in our infiltration test, I focused my macro lens on the critters popping out of the ground. You should see two in this photo.

It was, all in all, a most interesting morning, and we came away with knowledge and simple tests we can conduct to improve soil health in our own gardens and yards.

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