Lamb touts soil sustainability
NEW BRUNSWICK — Virginia Lamb often speaks about composting, but her session at the NOFA-NJ Winter Conference on Saturday, Jan. 28, dealt with her other passion, soil sustainability.
Lamb is the soil health and composting/sustainable agriculture field coordinator at the North Jersey RC&D. She is also founder of Groundwork, a Roseland based consulting firm that offers services in organic waste reducing/composting, organic gardening/farming and sustainable soil management. She advises local governments, non-profit organizations and farmers.
“We all rely on soils, they are the skin of the earth,” she said, noting she returned to school to learn about soil science.
Even though soils have been depleted by development and industrial agriculture they can be restored, she said.
“We’ve treated our soils like dirt,” she quipped. But soil is alive and just as many species of flora and fauna can be restored, so can the soil. And it’s vital, she added because it takes healthy soil to perform in extremes, “and we’re seeing a lot of extremes.”
By evaluating soil texture and structure/aggregation the farmer can build on what is in the soil by adding the proper amendments to build on what is there. Since certain areas are known for soil with particular characteristics, the farmer/land steward knows what to add to bring his soil back up to its proper components.
Soil consists of 50-percent matter and 50-percent water and air. The amount of organic matter in soil fluctuates, Lamb said.
Chemical analysis of the soil is not enough, Lamb said. Physical and biological indicators must also be measured. So should natural compaction, as opposed to pressure compaction from equipment.
Soil must be able to survive both global warming, which is a long-term increase in surface temperature, and climate change, which is the change in average temperatures.
Farming does contribute to the climate problem, Lamb acknowledged. She said about 11% of carbon releases are attributable to farming. So farmers must address the things that impact the soil’s ability to store carbon: climate, geography and temperature.
That starts with the five principles of soil health: cover, limited disturbance, living roots, diversity and integrating livestock, she said. No-till practices and the correct cover crops are essential.
While covering the soil with residues and mulches is somewhat effective, living soil cover is better, especially with the roots left. The best cover crops reduce soil erosion and compactions, suppress weeds and pests and attract pollinators, Lamb said.
There is a potential for significant improvement in soil health, she said, and it is vital: “agricultural practices determine how successful civilization is.”