Healthy soils reduce flooding, global warming and run-off

By Deacon Tom Cervone, Ph.D., Sister Maureen Houlihan, D.C., and Nicole Cervone-Gish, Ed. M.S. 

Our Mother Earth

Editor’s note: This series takes a deeper look at Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical On the Care for Our Common Home, “Laudato Si’”.

Did you know that, through years of soil degradation, nitrogen, phosphorus and sediments have run off into rivers that enter the Mississippi River creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey (The Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone - SERC – Carleton, 10/15/2019)? 

Did you know that 1% of organic matter in the top six inches of soil can hold approximately 27,000 gallons of water/acre (USDA/NRCS, Soil Health Key Points, February 2013)? Did you know healthy soils are living ecosystems and a key to long-term agricultural production?

Healthy soils act as “sponges,” and having cover crops throughout the year help absorb more water; reduce chemical and sediment run-off; reduce flooding; and reduce air temperatures by removing atmospheric carbon dioxide, a heat-absorbing molecule, and storing it in the ground. Healthy soils can be a great sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Through photosynthesis, soils are given nutrients. With healthy soils, their bacteria, fungi, earthworms, minerals, organic matter, water and air interact in a way that sustains life. Joe Schalasky at Seton Harvest Farm says, “Soil is a living, breathing organism. It breathes in and out on a daily basis like we do but at a slower rate.”

Through photosynthesis, cover crops and no-till farming, we can replenish nutrients in the soil and bring back our agricultural heroes: earthworms! Earthworms do so much for mixing and aerating the soil. And guess what? They don’t ask for anything except a home!

Indiana has about two-thirds of its land in farmland. It’s ranked 10th nationally in total agricultural production, in the top five for crop production, fifth for swine and third for poultry (Indiana Agriculture, Farm Flavor, 2021). Traditionally, Indiana farmland has been tilled. 

But no-till farming provides for healthy soils because it has roots in the ground throughout the year that help hold water and nutrients for crops to grow. Cover crops with no-till farming increase soil organic carbon, which can reduce atmospheric temperatures and flooding. Former black prairie soils had high carbon levels and showed a high crop productivity.

Ray McCormick, Conservationist of the Year (IDNR, 1988) and farmer of 2,000 acres in Knox County, has used cover crops and no-till farming since the 1980s. He’s passionate about conservation and farming, and says, “If you love the land, you’ll take care of it.” Similarly, in Episode 1104 of “Growing a Greener World, former NFL football player Jason Brown presents a life of service in providing “first fruits” for all people.

This giving mentality carries on at Seton Harvest Farm, which is an excellent example of a community-supported farm sponsored by the Daughters of Charity. This Certified Naturally Grown farm uses the land in an environmentally conscious way by sharing locally grown food with shareholders, and persons who are financially poor and hungry. A portion of each week’s harvest goes directly to nearly a dozen different charities. Since 2006, Seton Harvest has harvested 590,577 pounds and donated 133,428 pounds of fresh, naturally grown produce (e.g., strawberries, carrots, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, lettuce, cabbage, eggplant, radishes and more). 

What can you do? 

Let’s follow the example of Joe Schalasky, Ray McCormick, Jason Brown, USDA/NRCS, IASWCD and Seton Harvest Farm in managing healthy soils, and producing healthier produce within a healthier and greener world!

Dr. Tom Cervone is a deacon at Holy Redeemer Catholic Church in Evansville, Indiana with 50 years of experience in ecology. He graduated from St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan University. Sister Maureen Houlihan, D.C. is a support sister on the Seton Harvest Farm started by the Daughters of Charity in response to the Communities - Care of Mother Earth. This CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) Farm grows all natural produce for shareholders and the poor. Nicole Cervone-Gish, Ed. MS. is an award winning ELL (English Language Learner) teacher, who lives in Evansville, Indiana with her family.