This summer, the United States Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program published the fourth edition of Building Soils for Better Crops — arguably the most influential publication on soil health. SARE has distributed more than 80,000 copies of the 2000 and 2009 editions, and the online version has received more than a million page views.
Harold van Es, professor and former chair of the Soil and Crop Sciences Section of the School of Integrative Plant Science, co-authored these with Fred Magdoff, a now-retired soil scientist at the University of Vermont, who wrote the first edition of the book. The first edition focused more narrowly on soil organic matter management. But with van Es’ contributions, subsequent editions have addressed soil health issues more broadly and the book has evolved into a comprehensive guide for improving soil health.
We recently sat down with van Es to learn more about this pioneering publication, available in print or as a free download.
At nearly 400 pages, this edition is more than double the length of the first one. How has the book grown?
That first edition dealt almost exclusively with soil organic matter. Fred saw that the scope was too limited. He and I had collaborated on various soil research projects. I had complementary expertise and had done work on soil compaction, crop rotations, nutrient losses and tillage, so he reached out and asked me to work with him on the 2000 edition.
We’ve added new topics to reflect the rapid growth of the field of soil health in the last 30 years. We added sections on cover crops, erosion, irrigation and drainage, for example.
It has evolved into a comprehensive publication that’s used in workshops and college courses from Iowa State to Wageningen University in the Netherlands. When I travel, I see it on the shelves of my faculty colleagues around the world.
Who is your target audience?
We purposefully wrote it in an approachable style, seeing our primary audiences as farmers, field professionals and the educators who work with them. It’s easy to read, although we don’t avoid complex subject matter when it is needed. We try very hard not to go over people’s heads. It’s also a good introduction to soil health for avid gardeners and anyone who cares about food and the environment.
Farmers want to know how things work. So we take the scientific information about soil health and package it in an easily consumable way. I tell them, if you read the whole book front to back, it will change your perspective. It will show you how different factors interconnect – the physics, chemistry and biology of the soil and how management practices impact them – to make your soil healthy and resilient or unhealthy and vulnerable to degradation.
For many farmers and ag businesses, the soil was all about chemistry – the nutrients and the fertilizers. Nutrients are still important, but with this book, we’ve brought all of the dimensions of soil together in a more holistic approach.
The book has also been well-received by the organic community. Soil health is the foundation for organic farming, and we discuss a lot of management practices organic farmers use as the right way to go to build soil health for other farming situations.
Another reason for the publication’s success has been our collaboration with SARE. They price the hard copy at cost, and the online version is free. We just want to get this information out circulating.
How else have you expanded the scope?
Early editions had a mostly Northeastern United States point of view, but we’ve broadened that not just to other regions nationally, but also globally. The third edition was translated into Chinese through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. The fourth will again be translated into Chinese and hopefully into Spanish as well.
The fourth edition also includes a chapter focusing on urban soil issues including dealing with soil toxins and improving soil health for landscape plantings.
You’ve been doing an edition about every 10 years. What will the fifth edition look like a decade from now?
I’m game for another one. There will be plenty of new information to write about in this active field.
There’s a lot of convergence happening on best methodologies for assessing soil health. And with more research, we’re getting more sophisticated about how different management practices affect soil heath under different circumstances. So we’re still learning where best to invest our efforts and resources to improve soil health.
We’re learning how some farming systems – especially those based on continuous export of grains off the farm – are just not conducive to maintaining soil health.
And we’re also looking at the best ways we can manage soils to help mitigate climate change. Sequestering carbon in soil organic matter isn’t a panacea, but it’s one of the best ways agriculture can help reduce greenhouse gases. Plus the improvement in soil health helps make soils more resilient to climate extremes – better able to hold water to withstand drought and not get waterlogged after heavy rains.
Improving soil health can also help reduce emissions of nitrous oxide – a potent greenhouse gas released as a result of poor nitrogen fertilizer management.
How do you view the connection between the soil health and the food we eat?
Dan Barber, the influential chef at Stone Barns, read the book and told me it was inspiring. He and other chefs increasingly explore the connections between farming practices, soil health and healthy, flavorful food.
But those connections are even more important in areas of the world where there are nutritional challenges – where people really do live off the land. The health of their soil determines in large part the quality of their nutrition.
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