The complete guide to restoring your soil: Q&A with soil expert Dale Strickler – Mongabay.com

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Soil expert Dale Strickler’s new book, “The Complete Guide to Restoring your Soil,” covers why we should restore soil, what ideal soil looks like, practices that build better soil, and how to build better agricultural systems.The book is peppered with case studies from around the globe, including a section on Indigenous farming techniques, and includes many anecdotes from Strickler’s own life and experiences as a farmer.Strickler says many societal ills — malnutrition, disease, conquest, colonialism, warfare, famine, pestilence — can all be traced back to a root cause of soil mismanagement.The book offers farming techniques, strategies and practices that can be used to regenerate soil, remediate contaminated soil, and build thriving agriculture systems. Son of a sharecropper and lifetime farmer, Dale Strickler has lived his life by the soil. Strickler grew up in an impoverished area near the Ozarks in the U.S. Midwest, where he says he watched as the crops on his family farm died from drought and as the topsoil washed away from tilled fields.
“If I could change that soil, I could change everything,” Strickler told Mongabay. “And so that was kind of a goal under which I set forth … and I’ve maintained to this day.”
Strickler dedicated his life to learning about soil. He attended Kansas State University, achieved a master’s degree in agronomy, taught agronomy for 15 years, ran his own farm, visited farmers around the world, and now works throughout the Midwest and beyond helping people restore their soil and better manage their farms and pastures. He is the author of three books including Managing Pasture, The Drought-Resilient Farm and The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil.
His newest book, The Complete Guide to Restoring Your Soil, published on Oct. 27, is his reader-friendly magnum opus, covering why we should restore soil, what ideal soil looks like, practices that build better soil — such as farming without tillage (mechanically breaking the soil) and using cover crops — practices to remedy contaminated soil, and how to build better agricultural systems.
“I wanted [it] to be the first book that people would read on soil health … the gateway soil health book,” Strickler said.
Dale Strickler.
“Strickler gives us the tools we need to heal our damaged soil,” said Hank Will, editor at large for Mother Earth News. “This book should be on the shelf of every soil scientist, farmer, rancher, politician, landscaper, and informed citizen.”
The book is peppered with case studies from around the globe, as well as many anecdotes from Strickler’s own life and experiences, including converting his father from a staunch, old-fashioned, tilling farmer to a no-till devotee.
“He got caught in a downpour after he tilled his field. He watched his field wash away,” Strickler said. “All the soil he worked washed away in front of his eyes while he sat in the tractor. It was very sobering to him. ‘I’ve been doing this my whole life and, in the space of just a few hours, I lost what it took nature thousands of years to build. How many times in my life can I do this?’ And it changed him. He’d seen enough success with no-till that he felt comfortable converting the whole farm at that point. And to his surprise, it didn’t reduce his yields. His yields went up. The soil got better every single year. It got better and better.”
Cover of Strickler’s new book. Photo by Liz Kimbrough.
The book includes a section on Indigenous farming techniques and other success stories from agricultural practices that regenerate soil, such as agroecology. Strickler said that during his time researching, it was the convergence of thought — people around the world coming up with similar techniques and solutions to farm with nature — that most surprised him. He attributes this to people “thinking like nature” and using nature as a model, as “something to be imitated and embraced” instead of conquered.
“If we could heal our planet’s soils, we could heal a lot of human misery,” Strickler said. “And now we’re realizing that not only can we cure human misery, we can cure planetary misery. If we get enough carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil, we can reverse climate change, we can stop flooding, we can stop most natural disasters through soil management. I’m passionate about it. If you can’t tell.”
The biggest barrier to implementing these techniques on a larger scale, Strickler said, “is this really thick compacted layer that lies between the ears called the human brain. There really is no big technological barrier or biological barrier. There’s nothing outside of the human brain that is limiting us. It is all psychological.
“We have the technology right now to produce food on a mass scale, while we simultaneously make soil better. I’m more excited now about the future of this planet than I ever have been.”
Strickler spoke with Mongabay’s Liz Kimbrough on a range of issues, from his fascination with soil, to his initial surprise that Indigenous farming produces higher yields than “modern methods,” to the source of his optimism for the future of farming.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
AN INTERVIEW WITH DALE STRICKLER
Mongabay: What is your background and why we should listen to you about soil?
Dale Strickler: I grew up on a farm in southeast Kansas. We were sharecroppers. Mom and dad started off with basically nothing. Dad had a tractor disc planter and 10 cows, so I began life as a sharecropper’s son. The idea was just to work as hard as you can, as long as you can, and things will work out. We had some family tragedies along the way. Dad raised hogs and his entire hog barn burned down one night with the pigs in it. So that was pretty brutal. My mom still cries when she talks about that. And back then, we survived and persevered and dad eventually built a very large farm for the area. We did things the way everybody else did. We raised hogs and cattle and had some backyard chickens and ducks, an Old McDonald sort of thing, and then we raised crops on the cropland.
So, I grew up thinking that that’s the only way things could be done. And every summer I’d watch the corn crop burn up. On the Fourth of July it always looked great, and then by first of September it was brown and dead. We lived in an area where we had high rainfall, but we had very shallow soils that didn’t hold much moisture, and if we missed one rain, the crop would die.
Once I got to college, I started traveling around and seeing other geographies. I thought, “Wow. It hasn’t rained here in two months, and your crops are still alive, how does this work?” It’s just completely different in places with good deep soils. They could go without a rain for a while and not lose the crop, and that was just so foreign to me. I’m like, gosh, if I could fix that soil where I grew up, it would change everything. It would completely change our life. It’s sort of, not quite Ozarks, but it’s on the edge of the Ozarks and like Appalachia, we have a very impoverished area, by and large. If I could change that soil, I could change everything. And so that was kind of a goal under which I set forth when I was about a sophomore in college and I’ve maintained to this day. Now I’ve moved back home and I’m trying to put all this into practice.
Mongabay: Why the focus on soil? Why does soil matter?
Dale Strickler: Soil fixes all. I have a friend, Gail Fuller, who has a slogan that’s gaining some traction. He says, “The answer is soil, what’s the question?” And there’s some truth to that. If you look at the causes of human misery, so many of our societal ills trace to soil mismanagement. That was supposedly how warfare originated. When you ruin your soil through agriculture, you’ve got to go find some more, otherwise, you starve. And that’s why conquest and colonialism and so many ills of society — malnutrition, disease, warfare, famine, pestilence — they all stem back to having a root cause of soil mismanagement. Why do we not fight wars over oxygen? Because it’s plentiful. It’s everywhere. We don’t need to fight wars over oxygen. We fight wars over limited resources. Obviously, there are ideological differences, but when we don’t mind our neighbors and if all of our needs are met, we can just live and let live. It’s when we become jealous and greedy that they have something we don’t, that’s when warfare and social strife begin.
So, if we could heal our planet’s soils, we could heal a lot of human misery. And now we’re realizing that not only can we cure human misery, we can cure planetary misery. If we get enough carbon out of the atmosphere and into the soil, we can reverse climate change, we can stop flooding, we can stop most natural disasters through soil management. I’m passionate about it. If you can tell.
Powder dry, blowing soil in western Kansas in September of 2019. Tillage and fallow caused the Dust Bowl in this region in the 1930’s, yet these two practices are still prevalent in the area. Photo by Dale Strickler.
Mongabay: What was your goal with this book?
Dale Strickler: Well, when I first started, I wanted to write the definitive reference on soil health. I wanted to cover everything. I started writing this book a long time ago, just writing a little at a time and as ideas would strike me. I wanted to be the Webster’s dictionary of soil health, the authoritative reference, the entire warehouse of knowledge. And once I started doing research, I found out a couple of things. One was that, this body of knowledge is far bigger than what can fit into one book. And the other thing is that I didn’t know enough. I started writing this book thinking I was pretty smart and pretty informed. And I found out how truly ignorant I am. Because as I started doing research and interviewing people and talking to people and meeting with people, there’s an awful lot of people that are a lot smarter than I am. And particularly within their own field. There are people that just spin circles around me in their area of expertise. And so, my goal with this book kind of changed midstream, in that I wanted it to be the first book that people would read on soil health and to use this book as a springboard. There are single paragraphs within this book about which there are multiple books written about the topic. But I want to introduce people to those ideas. And if it piques their interest, they can go on and learn more in-depth. I could not write a 30-volume set, not within my lifetime. So it became the gateway soil health book.
Mongabay: Would you like to see this as a textbook for agricultural schools?
Dale Strickler: Well, I think in agriculture, and this is probably true for most professions, we spend an extraordinary amount of energy defending what we do to the outside world when we should be looking critically at what we do. What can we do better? And there’s a lot of things we can do better. They say don’t curse farmers with your mouth full, but I think we’re actually horribly inefficient at our main job, and that’s capturing sunlight. I was just talking to a customer and said, “Would you buy a piece of land and let it sit idle for the next 30 years and then decide to farm it in year 31?” He said, “No, that’d be stupid.” Well, in corn and soybeans the average farmer farms for about 40 years. And in a corn-soybean rotation, there’s only about a quarter of the year spent in full photosynthesis, basically June, July and August. Why do we settle for that? That’s the same thing as leaving the farm idle for 30 out of 40 years. And that is the status quo. Why do we accept that?
Mongabay: As you were researching for or writing this book, did you learn anything that surprised you?
Dale Strickler: I think two things really jumped out at me. One was of the people doing things to support soil health, the amazing diversity of practices. I’ve got a story in there from Saudi Arabia, where they get like, 2.5 inches [64 millimeters] of rain a year, on average. Like, holy cow, what do you do? What can you do in that environment? And then I have another one from a guy who’s farming in the ocean, underwater. Talk about two extremes, places where there’s virtually no water to underwater, and the whole spectrum in between: cold, various tropical areas, rainforest areas, grasslands, forests.
The other surprise was the convergence of thought, all these people are coming up with similar techniques in complete isolation of each other. I think one of the reasons that we have this convergence of thinking is that the people who are thinking are looking at nature as a model. Instead of viewing nature as something to be conquered and dominated, they look at nature as something to be imitated and embraced. Instead of nature being the cause of our problems, we look at nature as a solution to our problems. Gabe Brown was the first person I ever heard say, “I used to get up in the morning thinking, what do I need to kill today to save my crop. Now I think, where can I create life now? What can I make live now, where nothing was living before?” And it is a completely different mindset. That seems to be the common thread that runs behind all of the case studies that I put forth in the book. That’s what I would call the common thread in all of them.
Mongabay: Tell me more about the section in the book on Indigenous farming techniques.
Dale Strickler: Well, I guess first thing is, I personally find it quite fascinating. Throughout all of history and prehistory, people who have had agriculture methods, who fought against nature, have tended to fail — with one lone exception: the tillage in the culture of wheat that spread from the Middle East that seems to have come to dominate the world, unfortunately. Because once you ruin soil, you could just go and take land away from someone else who has not yet ruined their soil. I think it’s really sad that there have been so many really interesting and fascinating forms of agriculture that really fit the environment that they were in, that were displaced by what we now call “modern agriculture,” tillage-based, annual plants in big monocultures.
Some of these Indigenous systems produce way more calories per acre than what we produce now with “modern” agriculture, and that was without fertilizer, without herbicides, without any of these inputs that we have at our disposal today. If we can imitate some of those systems, and add a layer of technology on top of them, what could we accomplish? Maybe we threw the baby out with the bathwater when we displaced some of these systems. It’s really sad when you look at what we eat now. When you look at corn and edible beans and squash and tomatoes and potatoes — those were all essentially Central American, South American crops that form a good chunk of our food supply now. We adopted the plants, but we’ve completely obliterated the systems in which they were formerly grown. And I think that’s really sad. And I think if we could look back at some of those systems, there are some definite things that we could learn. And if we could use our current technology to take that wisdom and make it even better, I think we could feed the world multiple times over.
The dark colored soil (right) has been farmed no-till and with cover crops for decades, while the pale one (right) is from a tilled field with no cover crops across the road. Photo by Dale Strickler.
Mongabay: What is tilling and why is it harmful to soil health?
Dale Strickler: Tillage is the mechanical stirring of the soil. And when people first started tilling, they got this tremendous growth response and it was almost magical. It’s like, oh, wow, we stir the soil up, and plants really grow. And so, obviously, when you’re rewarded for a behavior, that behavior increases. So we began down this path of tillage many years before we understood what tillage does.
Tillage breaks soil particles apart, exposes all this soil organic matter, all the carbon compounds to make some susceptible to being eaten by a class of soil microbes that feed off that soil organic matter. There’s a tremendous amount of fertility stored in that soil organic matter, like nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur. When that organic matter breaks down, all that fertility is released. So it’s almost like throwing fertilizer out there, you get this big explosion in plant growth and it is dramatic. But every year you do that, it’s like when you first get a credit card, your lifestyle changes. Maybe a debit card is a better example, because that soil organic matter essentially is a savings account, and it pays annual dividends and it’s responsible for your desirable soil structure and all this. But using it is kind of like taking the porch off your house to burn in your fireplace. You eventually run out and then you’re so much worse off than we ever were before because now when you till you don’t get that fertility response because there’s no organic matter left to break down. And now your soil doesn’t absorb rainfall, the roots can’t go in because there’s no structure, there’s no oxygen movement, no gas exchange, and you’re stuck. You’ve got dead soil. The only way you can really restore that fertility is to import some sort of fertilizer from outside the area. And for the last 150 years, that’s been mined phosphate, last 120 or so it’s been anhydrous ammonia, or nitrogen fertilizers made from anhydrous ammonia. We have painted ourselves into a corner and now there’s really no new lands to conquer and that storehouse of fertility is just not there anymore.
Mongabay: Tell me a bit about your experience implementing the methods in this book.
Dale Strickler: I bought my first farm in 2000 and I grew corn and beans. It was an irrigated corn and soybean farm. So I did what had been done on it before. I tried to make a few minor changes; I tried minimizing tillage and inserting cover crops and having more complex rotation, and then I just kind of finally got tired of work where I made a huge amount of money for the seed dealer, the equipment dealer, the fertilizer dealer, the chemical dealer. I made a lot of money for a lot of people, but didn’t get to keep any money and my soil was getting worse. And I said, this is not how I want to do things. I want to farm in a manner that builds soil and I don’t have to write all these big checks. I want to leave something to my children other than dead soil and large debt.
So I bit the bullet and I put all my land to pasture. I said, everything that leaves here will walk off the place, everything will leave here on hooves rather than on tires. I don’t want to be exporting massive amounts of organic matter in the form of grain or hay or any plant material, I want to run all that plant material through livestock and turn it into meat and manure. And so I would retain the fertility. I didn’t want to till. I didn’t want to spray. I want all my fertility to cycle internally on the farm so I wouldn’t have to be annually importing fertilizer to replace everything that I dropped off in the form of grain. And there was no blueprint for what I did. I didn’t know anybody else on the planet. I met Gabe Brown a couple of years later and found out that he had done most of the same things that I was doing, only he started 10 years earlier. So it was a real relief to talk to Gabe. And it gave me a real sense of relief to know that I was on the right track.
The dark soil (left) is from a property that uses a practice called pasture cropping, in which cool-season cereal crops are planted during the fall in the dormant residue of warm-season grass pastures. Not only does this allow the production of both forage and grain from the same acre in the same year, but it results in darker soil color (indicative of greater stored soil carbon)  compared to the soil from the pasture across the fenceline (to the right) which is not pasture cropped. Photo/caption from Dale Strickler.
Mongabay: What would you say to a conventional farmer who is interested but hesitant to try some of these methods in your book?
Dale Strickler: I think I would encourage them, number one, to learn. I think one of the biggest failings of farmers is that they don’t self-educate enough. You look at the personality traits of people that become farmers, they’re very independent. They want to be their own boss. They don’t like sitting at a desk. They don’t like sitting in the classroom. They like doing things, building things, doing things with their hands. They like to be active. They don’t like to sit and read. And I think that often is their undoing. I forget who originally said it, but the person who does not read has no advantage over the person who cannot read. And too many of our farmers do not self-educate. And we’re in a time in history where it has never been easier to self-educate. And so, that’s my first advice, is to go learn, teach yourself, don’t rely on the opinion of someone trying to sell you something.
The other thing is just experiment. If you’re farming 1,000 acres, how big of a mistake could you possibly make on 10 acres? Try it.
There are some failings of human nature and cognitive dissonance is one of them, and confirmation bias. If you take pride in what you’re doing and someone suggests doing something different, it’s often taken as an insult. It’s like, “how dare you criticize what I’m doing. I’m smart and I’m doing the best thing. I’m doing God’s work here. I’m feeding the world. How dare you criticize me?” Well, sometimes, oftentimes, that’s the worst possible response we can have. And we look for evidence that invalidates that criticism. Like, the person across the fence could be producing better crops than us nine years out of 10 but we remember that one year they didn’t. We seek evidence that confirms our existing biases. It makes us feel better about what we’ve done. Because in order to accept a different practice, we first have to accept that we need to change. And to accept that, we have to accept that we’re doing something wrong right now. If you’re proud of what you do, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. To say, “Well, I guess you’re right, I am destroying the planet” — that’s hard, that’s really hard to accept. I’ve spent my life destroying the planet. It’s not exactly a feel-good story that you put on TV. It’s a lot more comforting to pat yourself on the back and say, “I feed the world,” than to swallow hard and say, “but I’ve been destroying the planet in the process.”
But the one message that I would like to leave with is hope. I read this U.N. report that we’ve only got 60 years’ worth of soil at the rate we’re losing it. That’s not written in stone. That’s not our destiny. For the last 7,000 years, our means of producing food have, by and large, been methods that have been destructive. For the first time in history, we have the technology to produce food on a mass scale that rebuilds soil. That’s never been the case, in all of recorded history. That’s never really been the case before. That, to me, is tremendously exciting. We have the technology right now to produce food on a mass scale, while we simultaneously make soil better. I’m more excited now about the future of this planet than I ever have been.
Mongabay: What are the barriers to implementing these kinds of practices that you’ve written about in large-scale, commercial agriculture?
Dale Strickler: The biggest barrier is this really thick compacted layer that lies between the ears called the human brain. There really is no big technological barrier or biological barrier. There’s nothing outside of the human brain that is limiting us. It is all psychological. All of these things I talk about, they’re scale neutral. Everybody will come up with an excuse like, “that won’t work around here.” Everywhere I go, there’s this mythical place called “around here” where nothing works, where the laws of physics do not apply. Everybody has this “round here.” Why won’t it work around here? Well, it’s different here, you don’t understand. What’s different? Well, they get too much rain or too little rain, their soil is different, it’s too cold, it’s too dry. I say no, nature grows stuff everywhere. Everything works on sunlight and soil minerals and rainfall and gas exchange in the soil. Optimize those processes. Practices will change by region and even site to site within a region. You don’t do the same thing on a hilltop that you would do in the valley. You don’t do the same thing in a desert that you do in the rainforest. But the principles are universal. All plants need sunlight. They all need moisture. They all need minerals. They all need oxygen to the roots from carbon dioxide to the leaves. All these practices in the book are based on optimizing those inputs, those growth factors. And the only thing stopping us from optimizing those growth factors and becoming harvesters of sunlight and harvesters of rainfall instead of corn farmers or bean farmers or cattle ranchers is the barrier between our ears. I truly believe that.
It’s easier on the psyche to make excuses than to accept responsibility and swallow your pride and learn.
The Morrow plots at the University of Illinois is the longest continually operating agricultural experiment field in the USA (144 years). The plot in the left of the photo has been continually cropped since the inception of the plot shortly after the US Civil War (1876), while the area at the right of the photo has never been tilled. Note the subsidence of the soil due to loss of organic matter and pore space from a hundred and fifty years of tillage.  Photo via Dale Strickler.
Mongabay: Your father used to till and then switched to no-till. Tell me about converting your dad to no-till agriculture.
Dale Strickler: My dad would get mad if you mentioned no-till. My dad was the hardest-working guy. He worked incredibly hard. His whole self-identity was about his ability to work. And to him, no-till was just basically an institution for laziness. You bring up no-till to him, he would get angry. You could see it in his face. The class I wish I’d had in college, but they never offered, was one called dad management. The best thing you can do with your dad, really probably anybody, is to make them think a new idea came from them rather than you. My brother and I have both worked in the private sector with no-till farmers, so we took my dad and we just drove around and visited farms to check this out. Eventually, he got to thinking this whole no-till idea was his idea. He started trying it out, kind of edging in, giving it a try here and there. I have the story in the book about how he got caught in a downpour after he tilled his field. He watched his field wash away. All the soil he worked washed away in front of his eyes while he sat in the tractor. It was very sobering to him. Like, “Oh my God, I’ve been doing this my whole life and, in the space of just a few hours, I lost what it took nature thousands of years to build. How many times in my life can I do this?” And it changed him. He’d seen enough success with no-till that he felt comfortable converting the whole farm at that point. And to his surprise, it didn’t reduce his yields. His yields went up. The soil got better every single year. It got better and better.
Mongabay: That’s a good story.
Dale Strickler: Thank you. Like most of these stories all I did was remember it. I didn’t invent it.
Banner image of tilled vs. no-till soil by Dale Strickler.
Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter @lizkimbrough_
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agribusiness, Agriculture, Agrochemicals, Climate Change, Environment, Farming, Green, Happy-upbeat Environmental, Industrial Agriculture, Nature-based climate solutions, Soil Carbon
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