Paul Overby believes in trial and error. Since 1993 he and his wife, Diane, have been running Lee Farms, the family farm spread over 1,400 acres (5.5 km sq) in North Dakota, near the US-Canada border. In that time they’ve changed course quite a few times: diversifying the grains they grow, starting to manage the soil according to individualised zones, limiting the tillage of the land, and experimenting with planting cover crops alongside their main commodity crops.
Together, these techniques have transformed their land. “The soil should crumble like a brownie would,” Overby explains. When he took over the farm from his parents, the soil had a lot of fine particles. The silt, sand, and clay making up the soil would come apart easily. After a heavy rain, the soil would become very sticky, as the fine texture didn’t allow much room for drainage.
Today, the soil is dark and full of large clumps, with bigger gaps between the particles. Water is now able to reach the deeper layers of the ground. “When you walk across my fields, it feels like you’re walking on a carpet,” Overby says.
For farmers like him it isn’t an option to ignore what lies beneath. Soil is critical for the food everyone eats. Healthy soils matter not just for producing 95% of global food supplies, but also for safeguarding other aspects of human health. Soils sequester a massive amount of carbon (over twice as much as the atmosphere and all plants combined). In addition, microbes in healthy soils lead to the development of antibiotics and other medicines.
So it’s alarming that this foundation of food production and health is in trouble.