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Greenspace: State soil health specialist finds soil ‘deeply mysterious’

July 1, 2018 GMT

Minnesota hired its first state soil health specialist this June.

Anna Cates, a University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, will begin her role full time in January. She has a master’s degree in soil science and doctorate in agronomy. Her postgraduate studies focused on studying soil’s organic matter in different cropping systems.

Cates, originally of Montana, is using the months before she assumes her position to connect with partners and stakeholders to plan outreach and research activities.

The Post Bulletin asked her a few questions about soil health and how her work will impact farmers in Southeast Minnesota.

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What got you interested in studying soil?

I worked on small farms for a number of years in Oregon and Montana. I wanted to learn more about the soil because that’s the basis for all the food we grow, so understanding soil health is practical. It’s also deeply mysterious — you can’t see what goes on between microbes and plants underground, but we depend on those processes.

What does it mean to have healthy soil?

Healthy soil is productive, with a diversity of microbes and other organisms to support plant life. This is more about function than specific microbes or plants. The network of fungi and bacteria underground create good soil structure, so water can easily infiltrate during a big rain but is also held for plants to use throughout the growing season. Plus, microbes are the foundation for building soil organic matter, which provides nutrients to plants as natural fertilizer. When you keep more water, soil and nutrients in place, healthy soil can make a farm more resilient while providing cleaner water to the neighbors.

What factors influence soil health?

If you think of soil health as thriving soil microbes, then you really have to think of feeding those microbes, and you feed them with plants. Living roots feed microbes, as does crop residue. So keeping the soil surface covered year-round is important for the biology. Plus, as farmers already know, keeping the soil covered prevents erosion and runoff of nutrients. You can’t have healthy soil if you are losing it in every rain.

How would you rate the soils in Southeast Minnesota?

You’re starting with a really productive soil base — mostly fine-textured soils where there’s potential to build a lot of organic matter. Since organic matter helps soil structure, that’s great for both the wetter areas where farmers are concerned about drainage and the steeper slopes in the Driftless Region, where the big challenge is keeping the soil in place. These different types of soil are part of the reason that you see so much diversity in agriculture in this part of the state.

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What farming habits or needs do you consider when studying soil?

First, sustainable farm businesses. Farmers are the cornerstone of thriving rural communities, and we hope to help them work within existing economic realities while being good stewards of the land. We’re aiming for the win-win of good stewardship and profit, which as commodity market prices sink may require trying new things. We can provide information about transitioning to new practices as well as the cost-sharing available to help farmers mitigate risk while they try something new.

Second, the diversity of farm systems. Soil health is a broad understanding of how soil works, and you can apply it on any farm with any soil and any cropping system. But exactly how you do that will vary from farm to farm and even field to field. The infinite variety of the landscape plus the infinite variety of farmers means that you can really have a lot of different interpretations of any guideline. They can all be right, too. It’s important not to set one-size-fits-all goals for soil health in agricultural systems.