Earth Day on the Farm: Celebrating Soils, Science and Solutions

By Karen Ross, Secretary
California Department of Food & Agriculture

When we celebrate Earth Day, we come together to recognize our earth as a giant, complex ecosystem that we – humans – have pushed out of balance. Why is it a celebration? Because in recognizing our role, we can identify and enact measures that move us back toward that balance.

All over the world on Earth Day, school kids are learning about words and concepts like “anthropogenic” and “permafrost” and “greenhouse effect.” They are learning that science is not just a tool that confirms and measures the damage that has been done, but also a source of specific solutions to mitigate damage today as well as transformational ideas to preserve our earth tomorrow. Many of these ideas are already at work transforming our farms and ranches.

California’s farmers and ranchers are students, too. They are students of the earth – of its remarkable creative, regenerative and restorative power. They work their whole lives to become experts in the powerful characteristics and combinations of soil, water and sunshine. We study microbes, pollination and life cycles; we invent tools to plant, irrigate, fertilize and harvest; we hybridize and optimize. Science is hard at work alongside every farmer and rancher, every day. My job lets me spend a good deal of time with farmers on their land, and I am so often in awe not just of their knowledge and work ethic, but also of their constant drive to learn, improve and innovate.

I’m proud of the work that our California Department of Food and Agriculture does to bring science to bear in responding to climate change, through our Office of Environmental Farming and Innovation. Our Healthy Soils Program is one example, providing incentives for farmers and ranchers to implement and demonstrate practices such as cover cropping, no-till, reduced-till, mulching, compost application, and conservation plantings.

It’s no accident that soil is also known simply as “earth.” Soil holds tremendous power – and not just to grow food. It’s easy to understand why students and scientists alike are drawn to the vastness of space or the deep, dark oceans. But I would argue that a single square foot of soil – its components, processes and possibilities – conceals enough mystery to rival any other opportunity for scientific discovery.

When soil is healthy, it has the power to draw down and store carbon that could otherwise add to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It also has the power to store tremendous amounts of water, improving our ability to conserve resources and withstand droughts. As we invest in the science that gives us these solutions, I look forward to new discoveries about our earth that allow us to take the next step.

Farming is both a creative art and a productive process. We grow food to feed us, fiber to clothe and house us, and even flowers to inspire us. While agriculture is often characterized as an industry, it is also very much a way of life. For a farmer, Earth Day is both a celebration of what our earth makes possible, and a sincere acknowledgement of our role in keeping this giant, complex system on track for future generations.

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