Experts discuss unknown universe of soil

Carbon in soil is essential to having things form naturally, Amazing Carbon founder Christine Jones told a room full of students and faculty during Carbon Nation Conversations on the Tempe campus Tuesday.

“There is a link between the atmosphere and soil and to manage the amount of carbon dioxide, we need to manage the plants,” she said.

Experts from across the nation met together to talk about how keeping soil healthy helps gain access to clean and abundant water and quality crops. Peter Byck, the director and producer of Carbon Nation, hosted the discussion.

There was a general consensus that carbon dioxide in soil is the key to keeping it healthy. When soil is healthy, the chance of wind and rain erosion is lessened.

Steven Apfelbaum, principle ecologist of Applied Ecological Services, said floods wouldn’t happen as often if there were more carbon in soil.

“With more CO2 in the soil, the water capacity would increase, which will essentially keep water on the land,” he said. “It would evaporate instead of running off and flooding.”

Michael Lehman, research microbiologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, said crop diversification helps increase the amount of CO2 in soil and stops land from becoming fallow.

“Landowners need to improve their individual decisions on managing the land,” he said. “The answer is to simply grow more kinds of stuff.”

One mistake farmers tend to make is only growing one type of crop in one plot of land. This process is called monoculture. Wendy Taheri, founder of Terra Nimbus, said monoculture doesn’t allow any underground diversity.

You need diversity on top to have diversity on the bottom,” she said. “When you only have a monoculture, you limit the amount of niches, which is detrimental to the quality of soil.”

Microbes also play a significant role in higher quality soil. According to a journal on nature.com, densely colonized soil that contain various kinds of microbes provides plants with mineral nutrients and fixed nitrogen in exchange for carbon.

Taheri said microbes play a major role in plants’ livelihood.

“Plants have evolved to work with microbes and these organisms play a major role in the carbon cycle,” she said. “Not only do they have an impact on plant physiology, they also make the ecosystem more efficient.”

Cattle farmers and other owners of large grazing animals can also change their methods to improve the quality of soil. Jason Rowntree, a professor of beef cattle and forage utilization at Michigan State University, said he believes human management of cattle grazing has confined natural processes.

“Back in the 1800s, large grazing animals like buffalo had more freedom to graze where they choose,” he said. “Essentially what has adapted over time is with human interaction confining animals in specific areas to graze, they have damaged the natural process.”

Rowntree said the solution is better management of pastures.

“Farmers should move their animals to different sections so that there is even grazing,” he said.

 

 

Reach the reporter at kgrega@asu.edu or follow her on twitter @kelciegrega