Organics: The Power of Plants
Posted December 21, 2017 by Dani Kusner
Last week, the first snow fell in Northern Ohio. Today, the winter solstice officially marks the beginning of winter. On the solstice–the shortest day of the year—I always enjoy a few moments of celebration because yes, while winter is here with blustery snow and low temperatures, after December 21, the length of daylight begins to increase again! And though still months away, it will be this sunshine that warms our soils enough for spring planting.
While at this year’s Acres Eco-Ag Conference, I listened to Dr. Christine Jones from Australia whose groundbreaking work on the liquid carbon pathway is revolutionizing how farmers think about plant and soil health. I encourage you to visit her website (http://www.amazingcarbon.com) for published articles and presentations. Here is one lesson from Jones:
Green plants are the most important factor for soil health. Remove the green, and you have CO2 loss, while evapotranspiration and erosion increase.
Just this week, I was talking to one of our sales managers, and he shared that most of Illinois’ soils are currently bone-dry and in desperate need of moisture and snow cover to re-charge their groundwater. This made me wonder how many acres in Illinois plant a winter cover crop of rye or adjust their varieties of corn and beans to allow enough time for a winter cover crop to get planted in order to help hold more water in the soil.
In addition to these physical properties of soil, green plants regulate the microbiology of soil. They are constantly pumping the byproduct of photosynthesis, liquid sugars, through the roots to feed the microbes in the rhizosphere (root zone). Dr. Jones is known for coining this, “the liquid carbon pathway.”
Consider this triangle which is often used in biology and ecology classes to illustrate the relationship between soils, plants, and animals. Soils are the base of the triangle and, in theory, support everything above; plants grow from soil, herbivores eat plants, and carnivores consume herbivores and smaller predators, etc.
In contrast, Dr. Jones conceptualizes that due to the primary service of plants, photosynthesis, the triangle could be built a very different way. She argues that plants should be the base, because without plants there would be no photosynthesis; and without photosynthesis, the sun’s energy would not be converted to sugar that fuels all life. From feeding the smallest of organisms through the liquid carbon pathway, to building more complex sugars that create the food animals and humans need to survive, plants are powerful. Plants build carbon in the soil, and farmers can maximize plants’ benefits by including cover crops in their rotation.
On this winter solstice, be grateful for the phenomenon of how light drives plants to sustain our planet, and look forward to longer periods of daylight! Merry Christmas to all of you, and I wish you a safe, healthy, and progressive 2018!