Soil and water conservation
Successful agriculture depends on healthy soil and water. Fertile soil and clean water are both renewable resources in natural systems and, when managed properly, can also be renewable resources in the context of agricultural production. Soil and water are required resources for life on Earth. Most terrestrial life needs a continual source of water for sustenance and soil is an essential medium for plant growth in most terrestrial ecosystems, providing nutrients, water, physical support, and biological interactions with roots. Soil and water are closely linked in nature, impacting each other through the hydrologic, geo-chemical and energy cycles. In most cases, an impact on the soil system has a direct impact on water resources.
Food Alliance supports a vision where farmers and ranchers improve soil resources and productivity, protect or improve water quality, and efficiently use water at renewable levels. The management practices and tools required by the Certification process can achieve this vision while also enhancing farm/ranch productive integrity and profitability and delivering important ecological benefits to society, such as clean water and wildlife habitat. The recommended strategies include practices to avoid (such as over-grazing and excessive tillage) and practices to embrace (like buffer strips, mulching and cover-cropping).
Vision for the Future
Our vision for soil and water conservation is one where farmers and ranchers improve soil resources and productivity, protect or improve water quality, and efficiently use water at renewable levels. Management practices and tools are chosen that can achieve this vision while enhancing farm/ranch productive integrity and profitability. Such operations will deliver important ecological benefits to society, such as clean water and wildlife habitat. Where conservation activities cost more to adopt, various public programs can offset this added expense. Market-based approaches such as Food Alliance are, in part, aimed at overcoming such economic disincentives for sustainable agriculture.
Broad strategies to achieve this vision:
- Control and minimize soil erosion by employing practices designed to prevent wind and water from transporting soils away, and/or reduce physical and chemical degradation of soil.
- Identify soil quality indicators that can be used to monitor success in building soil health and productivity. Healthy and productive soils help increase rainfall infiltration and storage in the soil and are require fewer imported nutrients.
- Reduce tillage where possible, rotate crops and recycle organic residues back to the soil. This will enhance soil organic matter levels, help reduce soil compaction, and promote carbon sequestration in soil (which helps counteract atmospheric change due to greenhouse gas emissions).
- Adopt water-conserving strategies as appropriate. These include new irrigation techniques, mulching, soil moisture monitoring and irrigation scheduling.
- Protect water quality by soil erosion control; careful management of nutrients, agrochemicals and manures; and the use of landscape features such as buffer strips and riparian habitat.
- Raise livestock with access to pasture/range when possible, and a system of rotational grazing to prevent overgrazing and erosion.
List of Evaluation Criteria and their Goals
- Continuing Education for Soil and Water Conservation: Farmers and ranchers who monitor soil quality, use biological and physical indicators to gauge their soil’s health, and/or learn about nutrient planning and erosion prevention strategies are awarded higher scores.
- Buffer Strips around Waterways: To score well on this criterion, buffer strips will be placed around waterways to help prevent migration of soil and farm chemicals into surface waters. In addition, buffer strips are managed in a way that prevents them from becoming sources of invasive weeds, and where possible, to maximize riparian habitat for wildlife.
- Soil Erosion Prevention: High scores are awarded when: appropriate steps are taken to reduce or eliminate erosion; cultural practices like cover cropping and conservation tillage are utilized; barriers and windbreaks are used to prevent moving soil from impacting waterways.
- Tillage Selection Practices and Soil Compaction Prevention: High scores are awarded to farmers who choose tillage methods to prevent erosion, compaction and loss of soil quality.
- Irrigation Systems: Farmers and ranchers who select the most efficient irrigation systems available for the crop being grown, and replace or improve older and/or less efficient systems receive higher scores.
- Irrigation Water Conservation: High scores are awarded when farmers and ranchers practice water use planning to help track and monitor water usage and eliminate wastage. Irrigation management practices that factor in weather conditions, soil moisture, and plant need also rate higher scores.
- Nutrient Management: High scores are awarded when farmers and ranchers: apply only the amount of plant nutrients to crops that are needed or recommended; time applications in order to prevent nutrients from leaving the field; use a nutrient management planning process to design strategies for preventing nutrient contamination of water.
- Soil Organic Matter Management: High scores are awarded to farmers and ranchers that test for soil organic matter, an important indicator of soil health, and use practices designed to increase soil organic matter levels such as: adding compost to soils; planting cover crops; reducing tillage; practicing crop rotation.