Fertile topsoil is a lively ecosystem, teeming with microorganisms and worm life. It has robust soil structure that retains water well and allows plant roots to penetrate, to breathe, and to forage for nutrients.
But there’s a problem. We’re running through our supply of fecund soil in the U.S. at an alarming rate, with an estimated 996 metric tons of soil erosion over the past century. Conventional agriculture enables—and the tight margins of the farming industry incentivize—short-term bounty to the detriment of sustainable practices. Annual tilling, monocropping and chemical inputs promote an abundant harvest in the near term but ultimately catalyze soil erosion, cause the atmospheric release of stored nitrogen and carbon, compromise the soil structure, decrease water retention capacity, destroy the delicate microbial ecosystem, and make minced meat of the worms. Fostering healthy soil requires playing the long game.