Digging into a Summer of Soil Health

Soil Food Web

Soil Food Web by Elaine Ingham

You don’t have to be a farmer to appreciate the importance of soil health. Of course, most farmers I know really love their soil and treat it with the upmost care. But increasingly, the general public is realizing what farmers and gardeners have known for years, good food starts with good soil. It seems like everyone from Fine Gardening and the New York Times to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is talking about the soil food web and the connections between soil health and human health.

Building Soils for Better Crops

Building Soils for Better Crops, by Fred Magdoff & Harold Van Es

To dig into this topic, I am dedicating my summer reading to two SARE publications that take closer looks at building soils through practices like cover cropping. The first is “Building Soils for Better Crops: Sustainable Soil Management,” by Fred Magdoff and Harold Van Es. Originally published in 1993, the book is now in its third edition and has remained a SARE classic over these 20+ years. The reason? I think it has something to do with the practical style that Magdoff and Van Es deliver soup to nuts information on the ingredients to good soil, plus extremely helpful color photos and illustrations (I, for one, am impressed by anyone who can snap good shots of soil that don’t look like dirt heaps!). They also provide user-friendly tips to managing soils through practices like crop rotations, use of compost and animal manures, reduced tillage, and cover crops.

Managing Crover Crops

Managing Cover Crops Profitably

Speaking of cover crops, the other book on my summer re-reading list is “Managing Cover Crops Profitably,” edited by SARE’s Andy Clark. Also in its third edition, this handbook spells out the many benefits to the soil of using cover crops–preventing erosion, conserving moisture, improving soil structure, and scavenging nutrients, just to name a few. It also profiles the major cover crops available today, from the non-leguminous covers like rye, brassicas, buckwheat, and winter wheat–to legumes like clovers, hairy vetch, and cowpeas. Best of all, it contains a series of charts aimed to help readers select the right cover crops to meet their unique needs. Both books are available online as free PDFs on the SARE website as well as in hard copy through SARE’s webstore.


UVM Extension agronomist Heather Darby at Annual Field Day

I am eager to learn more in the field too! For example, I will be attending the UVM Extension Northwest Crops and Soils Annual Field Day. The event, to be held at the Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh on July 24, will focus on–you guessed it!–Feeding the Soils, the Plants, and the Communities. The day includes highlights of the many research trials being conducted there–including cover crop mixes, interseeding, no-till cropping, etc.–and will also feature a soil health tour looking at strategies to improve soils. The day is free for farmers, and 25 per person for the rest of us (includes a local lunch).



Profile photo of Debra Heleba

About Debra Heleba

Deb works for University of Vermont Extension where she is the Vermont SARE coordinator and also coordinates eOrganic's dairy team.
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