State Policy

Earth Day Turns 50: Unlocking Soil Health Solutions for a Vibrant Planet

A picture of the curve of the Earth from above

One day each year is designated for us to offer some reverence for the Earth.

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, a tradition started in 1970 in response to oil spills, air pollution, and water contamination so bad the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. Cleveland became a poster child for the need to take environmental action to protect the soil that feeds us, the water we drink, and the air we breathe, helping to pave the way for the Clean Air and Water Acts and the Endangered Species Act.

The need for action was clear to Michelle Ajamian, co-owner of Shagbark Seed and Mill. “When I was growing up in New York City, the afternoon roads were so thick with traffic and smog, it burned our eyes and made us cough. The beaches had raw sewage riding in the waves.”

Earth Day celebrations this year will certainly be different from years past, as a virus wreaks havoc on the world. Many of us are still under a “stay at home” order. If we are lucky, we’re safe, our families and friends are safe, and we’re working from home. But more than 22 million Americans are unemployed and tens of thousands have lost their lives.

But with our society’s vulnerabilities laid bare, perhaps now, it is more important than ever to examine the frailty of our food system and the many other crises we face by not thinking more about the Earth every day of the year.

Beneath every Midwestern farm, the soil offers wonderful opportunities to solve many of the challenges we face, including increasingly erratic weather patterns caused by climate change. NASA’s Global Time Machine offers a perfect illustration of our warming planet leading to weather patterns like those that caused massive flooding for farmers throughout the Midwest just last year.

According to Scott Myers of Woodlyn Acres in Dalton, Ohio, “Farmers talk about what normal weather is and I think the new normal for farmers when it comes to climate and the weather is constant change.”

The wet spring of 2019 is being called “the new normal” by climate experts as well.

Yet, by increasing soil organic carbon, farmers can help the climate, grow their bottom lines, and develop resilience to the impacts of extreme weather.

Midwestern soils lost a net 3.5 billion tons of carbon between 1850 and 2015. That loss accelerated with decades of corporate special interest influence on federal farm policy that has ignored life-building soil practices and favored mono-culture corn-soybean systems.

Helping farmers, who manage one-fifth of U.S. land, reverse this trend, improve soil health, and increase soil organic matter on their farms is essential to the future of our food system and our planet.

Using integrated soil health practices like continuous living cover, multi-species cover crops, longer crop rotations with small grains and perennials, agroforestry, and well-managed livestock grazing, organic and regenerative farms across the Midwest have already become net carbon sinks.

In addition, these climate solutions offer multiple yield benefits to our farms, communities, and environment including stabilized crop yields, reduced nutrient and soil runoff (which leads to cleaner drinking water), and increased per-acre profitability.

Organic and sustainable farmers are leading the way forward, but our policy makers need to catch up. Encouraging farmer leader innovation takes deliberate and significant investment. It is imperative that we reduce the risk to farmers as they shift to new, climate-friendly agricultural practices that build soil health by investing in relevant technical assistance, financial incentives, and research—including support for transition to organic systems, where Ohio is a national leader.

These are not pie in the sky ideas, but tangible solutions that are being used successfully and can be adopted by more farmers with support. The new Ohio Healthy Soils Initiative is working to help Ohio policy makers act on this opportunity, but we won’t succeed without your help.

If you are a farmer implementing these practices, a farmer interested in learning about how you can do more, or an educator, health care provider, or climate advocate, please join the growing number of people who have stepped up to say we can do more. With your help, we can make a difference here in Ohio, throughout the Midwest, and around the world.

Please contact us today to learn more and let’s celebrate keeping the Earth vibrant and healthy for the next 50 years!