Soil is the most important resource for farmers – one tablespoon of soil contains more organisms than people living on earth. But the degree of soil degradation in the European Union is significant. It is therefore essential to manage soil in an environmentally sustainable way.
A trough, a dam, a trough, a dam: By taking these two soil formations in regular turns every 60 cm, Willy Ronsmans successfully grows potatoes on his farm in Bertem, Belgium. He is one of the first farmers to use micro-dam technology for potato growing to prevent erosion and run-off. In addition, he is part of the Food Chain Partnership initiative between Bayer and the global potato processor Farm Frites and benefits from the knowledge and training methods Bayer offers. The aim of the initiative is to work together to grow potatoes in a more sustainable way by creating awareness of good agricultural practices, but also by testing and implementing different measures, for example to reduce erosion.
For farmers like Willy Ronsmans, erosion is a big – but not the only – risk to having a successful yield. From floods to salinization, contamination, or sealing, there are a lot of dangers that growers have to fight. 22 percent of European land is already affected by degradation, for example by water and wind erosion. 45 percent of mineral soils have low organic carbon content and around 36 percent of subsoils are susceptible to compaction. These are some of the results of the latest study, “Research for AGRI Committee – Preserving agricultural soils in the EU,” by the European Parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.
Micro-dams for healthy soil
Alarming results show that planting potatoes is not as easy as it seems. “Weather and soil conditions play a major role,” says farmer Willy Ronsmans. If it rains a lot, soil can be washed away along with crop protection products and important nutrients. That’s why he uses micro-dam technology. “Plots with micro-dams built on an incline produce higher yields,” says Willy Ronsmans. The reason: The dams ensure that the water remains in place and can’t completely run off. Moreover, the nutrient-rich soil stays in place, even after heavy rains. Water run-off means less moisture for the potatoes. “We calculate the distance between the micro-dams by computer,” Willy Ronsmans says. “The closer the dams, the more they stay intact.”
And micro-dams are just one of several measures to manage a healthy soil environment for crops. Bayer Food Chain Partnership supports farmers in better understanding how to keep their soil environment healthy. It also helps them in maintaining their soils with different measures apart from micro-dams, such as reduced tillage, increasing organic matter, and oxygen availability. Soil is the most important resource for farmers – there is no successful yield without healthy soil. That is why soil has to be protected.
Willy Ronsmans in his potato field, inspecting the plants.
Compaction as the biggest threat to soil
One of the biggest threats to soil is compaction, caused by agricultural machinery for example. In the 1960s the load per wheel was between three and five tons. Today, it is three times more – too heavy for cultivated areas. “And we are at the limit of soil density as many subsoils are also already compacted,” says Jan van den Akker, researcher at the Department of Soil, Water and Land Use for Environmental Research at Wageningen University & Research. In the case of soil compaction, the roots of the plants are stuck in the topsoil but need a rooting depth of 60 to 100 centimeters. “If the roots can’t go that deep, they can only use the upper water – a serious problem during dry seasons,” says van den Akker. To avoid compaction, farmers should not put too much pressure on the soil. One solution: using low-pressure tires with less than one bar inflation pressure. Another solution: using vehicles with as many tires as possible to better distribute the pressure on the soil. And the third: lightweight equipment to prevent machinery overload.
Grass buffer strips against erosion and run-off
On Willy Ronsmans’ farm, one finds yet another solution: grass buffer strips. These strips have multiple functions: reducing soil erosion, decreasing run-off, and creating a habitat for insects such as earthworms. “And, of course, this contributes to harvesting a better potato yield,” adds Willy Ronsmans.
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