What Causes Nutrient Depletion in Soil?
By JenniferMaynard – Anyone with a rudimentary level of understanding about how soil works knows that its purpose is to supply nutrients and moisture to the crops growing in it. But what if it didn’t? What if, instead, the soil was a shell of itself — the cause of crop death and malnourished yields?
Zombie soil goes against the conventional understanding of how soil works, to do the opposite: sap the health of plants by depriving them of nutrients. No, it’s not the plot of an upcoming campy B-list zombie movie — it’s a real problem many croppers are dealing with right now.
Modern Farming is Turning Soil into Dirt
Soil depletion is the cause of many modern farming practices, each compounding on the other. No single practice is the true cause of zombified soil — rather, our shift away from heritage farming has caused significant, compounding damage to the earth.
Pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are the simplest place to start, and the adverse effects of these carcinogens are well documented. Our willingness to spray crops to protect them from fungi, bacteria, insects, and other blight has, over time, affected the ability of our soil to maintain a healthy profile of phytonutrients. As a result, it becomes harder and harder to maintain nutrient-rich soil, even through crop rotation or soil injections.
Tillage is also a significant detractor responsible for stripping the health of the soil. Tilling breaks down the structure of the soil, reducing it from healthy loam soil into easily eroded dirt, making it more difficult to support plant root structures. On top of these poor soil maintenance practices, the toll of heavy feed crop planting and lack of crop rotation quickly depletes the soil.
What’s left isn’t soil — it’s dirt. There’s no density or structure, and the soil can’t hold water or nutrients. The earth is a former shell of what was once nutrient-rich, hearty soil. Hence, the “zombie soil” moniker.
Our Current Trajectory
Zombie films are always marked by an epidemic or widespread catastrophe — the “zombie apocalypse.” The culmination of our zombie soil epidemic faces a similar endgame: one we’ve already seen before.
The Dust Bowl blanketed Midwest prairies and stomped agriculture from 1930 to 1936. And while significant drought and economic hardship set the stage, poor farming practices were undoubtedly the catalyst for this terrible time in history. The rise in zombified soil is pushing us back toward a similar phenomenon in the future — a time when depleted soil won’t be able to hold vegetation and widespread erosion finds us in another Dust Bowl.
Part of what pulled us out of the Dust Bowl was a push by the United States Department of Agriculture to adopt more conservative farming habits. Unfortunately, these stopgap measures became standard practice. Today, more than 80 years later, we’re still farming the soil the same way. The time to adopt more sustainable farming practices is looming.
Thankfully, while the past holds predictions for the future, it also holds the answers for how to change the trajectory we’re on.
Regenerative Farming is the Cure
Every zombie movie has a panacea: a cure that protagonists need to find to stop and reverse the effects of the outbreak. In our battle to reduce and reverse the effects of zombie soil, the cure can be found in tried-and-true regenerative farming practices.
The two most effective regenerative farming techniques borrow from heritage farming practices. To rejuvenate the soil and to help it better support future plant growth, we need to stop tilling and start planting diverse crops. Instead of cycling through the same feed or industrial crops, we need to supplement forage and ornamental crops throughout the year — including the offseason. Planting winter cover crops prepares the soil for springtime planting, and leaving soil untilled allows it to recover structure in anticipation of the next crop.
Restoring the soil’s biodiverse phytonutrient profile is only the start. To reverse our zombie soil problem, we also need to abandon monocropping practices and instead, create diverse planting beds. Not only will this attract pollinators, but it’ll also continue to diversify the soil microbiome.
It Doesn’t Take Brains to Farm Better
Part of the reason we’re amidst a zombie soil epidemic is that we’ve complicated the process of farming. Driven by unsustainable practices and “quick fixes,” we’ve left behind heritage farming practices for bigger yields. Unfortunately, our short-term gains are running into long-term setbacks. As we continue to rely on unsustainable farming, zombie soil is beginning to highlight the need for change.
A focus on regenerative farming means a return to heritage farming practices. That means backing off of the industrial practices we rely on and leaving more of the cultivation to the earth itself. Zombie soil can be rejuvenated, but it’ll take time and a commitment to abandoning the practices that sapped the nutrients and structure from our soil in the first place.
Most moviegoers chastise the poor decision-making skills of actors in zombie movies. Now, as a zombie soil epidemic plagues our farmlands, we need to have the wherewithal to recognize our own opportunity for choice and make the smart one: to adopt regenerative farming and put a stop to the spread of zombie soil.
Originally published in Countryside November/December 2021 and regularly vetted for accuracy.