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2007 Soil and Water Conservation Society - Soil Quality Workshop

"Soil Quality: the Foundation for Natural Resource Quality"


Michelle Wander
University of Illinois, Urbana, IL

My presentation will explore how the soil quality concept, which can be argued to have origins in organic movement, can be effectively applied to modern organic production systems. Even though care for the soil is the basis for organic farming systems, some question whether their reliance on physical weed control methods might undermine their sustainability. Critics of organic systems may not know that the National Organic Standard (NOS) requires certified farmers to use practices that maintain or enhance soil quality by managing soil organic matter. The soil quality philosophy and importance of soil function is reflected in the language of the standards that assert transition practices should 'build' soils in a manner that enhances their biological and physical condition to increase nutrient and water use efficiency, suppress plant diseases, and resist erosion or compaction. Lingering concerns may stem from the fact that the standards are vague and include no measures for performance. The performance of various organic systems will be summarized. After this, I will argue the science supporting soil quality assessment and management has much to offer organic producers striving to achieve the ambitious goals set out by the standards and explain why existing soil assessment strategies may need to be adapted for organic systems. For instance, conventional soil testing methods will need to be reinterpreted for organic goals. Soil tests and the suitability of conservation planning tools will be reviewed, as will indicators that can be used in monitoring efforts. Finally, strategies to help farmers address multiple goals within specific farms and farming systems will be considered.

Michelle Wander - Michelle Wander is Associate Professor of Soil Fertility/Ecology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where she is also Director of the Agroecology and Sustainable Agriculture Program. Michelle serves on the Committee on Organic and Sustainable Agriculture (COSA) and National Soil and Water Conservation Society’s Science and Policy Committee. Michelle received her PhD in Agronomy-Soil Science from Ohio State University in 1992, MS in Agronomy from University of California, Davis in 1988, and BS in Soil Science from University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1983. Michelle's on campus teaching addresses soil organic matter, soil ecology, plant-soil interactions, and nutrient cycling. Ongoing research includes study of management (organic production, crop rotation, tillage and fertilization) on soil organic matter, C sequestration, indices of soil quality and sustainability to be used for on-farm decision making and policy, C credit opportunities and co-benefits including ecosystem services of production systems including biomass crops and, the influence of climate change on plant and soil response, green house gas emissions, and water and nutrient use. Service and synthesis activities focus on sustainability, land use, with an emphasis on soils, and the environment; efforts strive to increase community access to relevant campus resources including existing knowledge as well as to appropriate teaching and research opportunities.