THE BLOG
05/15/2014 08:58 am ET | Updated Jul 15, 2014

Smart Soil: Transforming American Agriculture One Class at a Time

I've examined soil health on more than a thousand farms on four different continents. And in all that time, I've realized it's not lab tests or field measurements that tell me the most about how farmers treat their land. It's whether those farmers reach down to grab a scoop of earth, whether they run it through their hands and say, "Look at this. Look at how rich this is."

Every single organic or ecologically minded, no-till or integrated farmer that I've met has done just that when they show me their fields, because the key to sustainable agriculture starts at the ground level. Good soil is fortified with organic matter from compost, mulch and cover crops. Good soil easily absorbs water and stores nutrients. And good soil protects a farm against erosion, so that a farmer doesn't have to spend thousands of dollars on synthetic fertilizers and chemicals to make up for what washes away.

For more than 30 years as a soil scientist and professor, I've encouraged my students at Washington State University to think of the food they eat and the soil it comes from. Starting in 1994, I led a team of scientists and graduate students on a six-year study of apple production in Washington State that compared organic, integrated (a mix of organic and conventional) and conventional growing methods. We measured more than 15 indicators of soil health, along with pesticide impact, energy use, apple yield and quality and the farm's economic profitability.

Published as the cover story in Nature in 2001, our research showed that the organic and integrated systems had better soil quality and potentially less negative environmental impact from pesticides than the conventional system. All three systems gave similar apple yields, but the organic produced sweeter fruit, higher profitability and greater energy efficiency, compared to the integrated and conventional plots. Our data indicated that the organic system ranked first in environmental and economic sustainability, the integrated second and the conventional last. The study proved that farmers can protect the health of their farm AND earn more money by working with nature instead of against it.

If we are to feed a growing world population, producing abundant crop yields is vital, but only one of four goals that must be met for agriculture to be sustainable. Equally important is enhancing the environment, making farming financially viable, and contributing to the well-being of farmers and their communities. Conventional farming has provided increasing supplies of food and critical products, but often at the expense of other sustainability goals.

Innovative methods, like organic and integrated farming, better unite production, environment and socio-economic objectives. Yet, while enough science now supports the benefits of more ecological systems, policy and market opportunities lean toward conventional agribusiness.

I urge students in my classes to consider soil science and farming in the broader picture of American agricultural policy, because ultimately it's not enough just to churn data. We have to apply it. In 2011, I published an article in Science magazine with several other leading experts, calling for a transformation of American farming. "Look to a whole system redesign rather than single technological improvements," we wrote. In other words, let's stop judging a farm just by the size of its yield, and start considering the health of its soil, the happiness of its employees, and the financial stability of its owners.

To make that switch in priorities happen, we need more education. We need more courses on sustainable agriculture and more access to information about food and farming for consumers, growers and scientists. It was with those goals in mind, that I spearheaded the development of WSU's Organic Agriculture Systems major -- the first of its kind in the country -- and the campus' working organic farm. The next generation of American farming needs people who understand sustainability from the dirt up. Since 2006, we've also started an 18-credit, online and on-campus Certificate in Organic Agriculture that will offer students, not wanting a full degree, some training in organic gardening and farming, soil science and agroecology.

Winning the NRDC and BFI Growing Green Sustainable Food and Farm Educator Award is a chance to share not only the value of sustainable agriculture, but also the importance of teaching. The most satisfying experiences in my career have been when students ask questions, when they expand beyond the information I've given them to think about new ways of approaching a problem. Many of my students are on the front lines of the food movement, fighting hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa or starting an organic farm in the Pacific Northwest.

The Growing Green Award means that I've had an impact on building healthy food production systems. Yet, perhaps more importantly to me, it says that I've contributed to the transfer of knowledge about those systems. That's really what a teacher tries to do -- to empower people with information and inspire the desire to know more.