The relationship between plants and soil microorganisms is crucial yet complex, tracing back thousands of years. Kyriakides explains the relationship between the two, saying, “Plants produce sugars and carbohydrates in exchange for gathering things like phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil. Another really important way that plants do this is through something called the Rhizosphere – a little zone around the end of each root. At the end of a little tip, they pump a lot of sugar and carbohydrates straight out into the soil to feed the microorganisms and bacteria, which can be just as important as nutrients. The plant can’t necessarily feed itself in bare soil, but it can in relationship with a community of organisms.”
Deep, repetitive, and intensive tillage disrupts these networks and kills microorganisms below ground. Kyriakides notes, “In a forest where there hasn’t been any tillage, these networks are quite incredible.”
Many farmers understand the disruptive nature of tillage and are working to minimize this practice. The ultimate goal of reducing tillage is to build soil health and fertility. There are numerous strategies for building healthy soil and reduced tillage is just one of many components. Others include cover cropping, compost, diverse plantings, mulching, and more. Kyriakides says, “You can think of these practices as tools in a toolkit.” The main objective is diversity and resilience in the soil by fostering biological activity through these practices.
There are steps to building soil fertility when getting started and reducing tillage over the long term might require some initial tillage, depending on the land being worked. Kyriakides says, “I think we need to be doing some deep tillage just a couple of times, at Sandown, really strategically, so that is not going to be damaging things further. I think it’s necessary unless you want to wait decades for the biological processes to start to help that soil.” He adds that reducing tillage, “Is a destination, not an immediate goal for a lot of people.”
Building healthy soil is the best way to reduce emissions and build up climate resilience on a farm. When soil is tilled, carbon is released into the atmosphere, increasing emissions from agriculture and decreasing soil health for the farmer. Keeping carbon in the ground increases biological activity, water regulation, and storage of nutrients and cycling. There are significant physical, chemical, and biological benefits of storing carbon for soil structure and our climate.
Soil structure is especially crucial during periods of extreme weather. Kyriakides notes, “If [the soil] has a good structure throughout the year, it can take up water as it starts to rain and save like a bank account for the days when it’s needed.” In periods of heavy rain, the soil can absorb the water like a sponge and save this for the periods of drought we may experience.
In contrast, “Any sort of climate disturbance that comes through is going to be amplified by poor quality soil,” says Kyriakides.