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Weird weather? One part of the solution may be carbon-rich soil

1 April 2020

Farmers know that there's nothing predictable about the weather other than its unpredictability, and the weird weather lately has left crop growers facing serious problems.

In 2019, US News and World Report wrote that an usually wet spring had delayed California crops, while only a year before, in 2018, the Christian Science Monitor described farmers in the Texas Panhandle as having to “scratch crops from dust.”

One of the best buffers against extreme weather is good soil, but this, too, has become a challenge. Topsoil in under threat throughout the world and in the United States. Nearly half of the planet’s most productive soil has disappeared in the past 150 years, and experts worry that cropland soil in the US is eroding nearly ten times as fast as it can be replaced. The USDA puts the cost of soil erosion in America at $44.39 billion and lost farm income at $100 million per year.

So what can farmers do to make their land more resilient to weird weather and improve their harvests? Many scientists today argue for a renewed focus on soil – in particular on its carbon content.

“Soil is more than dirt under your feet,” says Johannes Lehmann, professor of soil sciences at Cornell University. “Nutrient, energy and carbon exchanges between soil organic matter, the soil environment, aquatic systems and the atmosphere are an engine that drives agricultural productivity.”

And in practice? One method is to maintain and regenerate soil as a hedge against extreme weather is to introduce microbial inoculants, nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in symbiosis with soybeans, chickpeas and other leguminous crops. Microbial inoculants have also been used with success on cereals.

Another approach involves soil testing and sensing technologies. They allow farmer to image and identify where crops are underperforming in the hope of efficiently addressing problems.

Other strategies are crop management techniques including zero and low tillage. They increase productivity and resilience by reducing disturbances to soil.

One innovative solution that combines all of these threads and approaches is the German-developed soil-enrichment compound Novihum. It reintroduces carbon to soil, making it more hospitable for microbes and thus supporting inoculants. It also offers farmers a quick and easy way to help crops identified as under-performing. And it boosts soil resilience to droughts and improves harvests by augmenting water retention capacity.

Novihum is quick-working and requires no special equipment to use. Moreover, although it may feel like a typical fertilizer, it isn’t one, meaning that it brings with it none of the associated environmental and regulatory problems.

No one product or technique can solve the problems associated with extreme weather and soil degradation. But an intelligent combination of solutions does allow farmers to mitigate the effects of too much or too little rain and improve crop yield over the long term.

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