• John Ikerd

Restoring Life to Soil

Soil is a living organism. Without life,the earth beneath our feet is simply a mixture of inert minerals or “dirt.”

Over time, non-living things inevitable tend toward uselessness – the law of entropy. Living things have the unique ability to sequester and use energy from the sun to offset this loss of usefulness. So, only living things are capable of supporting and sustaining life, including human life. Most of the living things that sustain human life are rooted in the soil. Thus, human life is critically dependent on the life and health of the soil. Whenever farmers rely on agricultural chemicals rather than healthy soils to produce crops, life in the soil inevitable is damaged, diminished, and eventually may be destroyed.

The process of restoring life to damaged or lifeless soils begins with an understanding of the interconnectedness of everything on earth. Soil, plants, animals, people are all inseparable parts of the same biophysical organism or living whole. Nature has both the means and natural inclination to restore health to soils. The first step in restoring life to the soil is to stop killing it. If there is life left in the soil, or even in the surrounding environment, nature will begin the healing process. We humans can either hinder or assist nature in the healing process. However, we must remember that only life can restore and sustain life.


The next logical step in healing the soil would seem to be restoring living organic matter. Nature begins restoring life to the soil by covering bare earth with soil building plants, if there is any spark of life left to initiate the process. Farmers can add soil organic matter by selecting and growing crops with large root systems that also produce biomass that can be incorporated into the soil. If the soil is “dead,” living organic matter can be added in the form of biologically active compost. The healing process may be accelerated by adding specific mineral and biological soil amendments, as indicated by chemical and biological soil analyses. If the soil is compacted or has a clay hardpan, modifying the soil structure mechanically may also speed the healing process.


Healthy natural ecosystem are inherently diverse. That’s why monocultures inevitably diminish soil health. Nature restores soil health through its natural tendency toward establishing and supporting a diversity of plant species with different soil building capacities. Likewise, farmers can restore the biological health of soils only by establishing a diversity of plants that exchange nutrients and energy with a diversity of biological organisms in the soil. Healthy natural ecosystems also include various species of “animals” that eat and digest living and dead plant materials, their organic wastes adding organic matter to the soil. Farmers can accelerate the soil healing process by selecting soil-building crops rotations and by integrating livestock and cropping systems, using crop and livestock wastes to restore and sustain the life and health of the soil.


Healthy natural ecosystems maintain balance and harmony among their diverse elements to accommodate their ever-changing internal and external environment. Every living species attempts to alter its natural environment to accommodate its particular needs, and humans are no exception. Problems arise when the ecological balance is tipped too far or too fast, exceeding nature’s ability to accommodate or adjust. Nature is resilient and resourceful and can accommodate less than ideal treatment. However, the soil has limits to its tolerance of abuse, limits farmers cannot afford to ignore.


To restore and maintain soil health over time, livestock and cropping systems should be selected and managed to accommodate the natural environment – not only temperature growing zones, but also rainfall patterns, basic soil type, and current health of the soil. The more closely the farm reflects what nature would do in  particular place at a particular time, the easier it will be to maintain the health of soils, crops, animals, and people who live on and depend on the farm. Farmers can only make nature’s work easier, not replace it. The life of the soil must be sustained as an integral part of the whole of life.  Ultimately only life can sustain life.


John Ikerd

© 2019 by John Ikerd All Rights Reserved

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