Interview with Mark Kopecky

Air Date: March 28, 2016

Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now here’s host Anne O’Connor.

ANNE O’CONNOR: Hi! I’m Anne O’Connor for Rootstock Radio, and I’m here today with Mark Kopecky, soil agronomist for Organic Valley. Thanks for being with us today, Mark.

MARK KOPECKY: Oh, my pleasure, Anne. Thanks for inviting me.

AO: Mark, can you tell us what a soil agronomist does, and some of your background and how you became a soil agronomist?

MK: Sure. Well, I’m not sure how many soil agronomists there are in the world. It’s kind of a specialized area. There are lots of people who work in agronomy and soil science, and it’s kind of the blending of those two branches of the disciplines. But my college degrees are both in soil science, and I’ve always had a lifelong fascination with the soil. It’s just been kind of a mystery to me, from when I was a little kid, you know, trying to understand everything that was going on in the soil—how plants could extract their nutrients and survive from year to year, and go through the seasons. And everything like that just seemed like a very interesting part of nature to me. And I’d always been interested in nature in general anyway. So when I went to college, that’s what I studied. And I love it, and that’s been my lifelong passion.

AO: So is there some kind of common misperception about soil that you are continually addressing in your work?

MK: I think so. One of the things that people who may not be that acquainted with ecology or with the natural sciences may not realize is that soil is not just a physical medium. It’s not just this inert substance that holds plants up so that they don’t tip over, and maybe gives them some water and some nutrients. Soil is a dynamic, vital, living community. Soils have literally hundreds of thousands, or maybe millions, of different types of organisms at work in them. And a lot of them we don’t know anything about; some of them we don’t even know that they exist. We’ve only named a fraction of those, and we only understand a fraction of the natural services that these things provide. But it’s just a fascinating area. So I guess the thing, to me, is that soils are dynamic, living communities, very, very complex and very fluid in how they react to different conditions and how they respond to different things going on in the environment. So it’s deceiving, because most of these things are microscopic, and just from digging up a handful of soil, you’d never really know that. So I think that’s probably the most common misunderstanding.

AO: So how is soil connected to the food that we eat, the food that we go into the grocery store and buy off the shelf?

MK: Well, to make it real simple and real blunt, if we didn’t have soil, we would have no food, because plants don’t exist in a vacuum, and they can’t exist… I mean, we can get plants to grow in the laboratory under hydroponic conditions without any other biological interactions, but that’s a very artificial system, and we would never be able to continue life on earth if we had to raise food that way. Soils provide the background, they provide the community that all the plants need that we depend on for our food and our fiber, you know, for a lot of uses, for our fuel. And we would just absolutely cease to exist as a planet without soils.

AO: Is there any risk to our soil at this point in our lives?

MK: Oh, there’s lots of risks. I mean, I don’t think that we’re going to run out of soil soon, but the way that we degrade our soil in so many ways, in so many places on the planet, is really appalling. We’ve got problems in lots of areas in the world, including right here in the United States, with wind and water erosion, where we physically lose the soil from the place where it’s supposed to be to support our cropping systems, our forests, our environmental services—all those things. We physically lose that soil and have it move someplace else. If it lands someplace else on the landscape, it’s maybe not quite such a big deal, but if it ends up going out in the ocean, well, you know, for us, for all practical purposes, that soil is lost. So erosion is a big problem. And just the way that agriculture in many parts of the world pounds the soil with relentless tillage and lots of synthetic chemicals, it’s awfully hard on the living things in the soil. It’s hard on the physical structure of the soil. That makes it harder for the plants that are growing there to thrive and to take up the nutrients that they ought to. It makes it harder for water and air to infiltrate into the soil. And it makes it harder for the soil to store carbon. Soil is a huge carbon sink, and there are ties between soil erosion and soil degradation and atmospheric carbon. So these things are all connected. And those are some of the things that are going on with the soils that are kind of troublesome.

AO: What I hear you saying, and what we’ve heard over and over again, starting with maybe Rodale back in the, maybe it was the 1950s, that healthy soil leads to healthy plants, which leads to healthy animals and healthy people and a healthy world. So in that kind of equation, it all starts right there in the soil.

MK: Absolutely.

AO: That’s pretty powerful stuff for, you know, when a lot of people think of it as dirt. And is there a difference between dirt and soil?

MK: (laughing) Dirt is soil where we don’t want it!

AO: On your shoes.

MK: Right! And I refer to soil as dirt quite often in a loving way, in an endearing way, but not in a condescending way. I have a very high regard for soil. And whatever we call it really doesn’t matter. It’s the way we treat it and the way we regard it that’s the important part.

AO: So if we want to have healthy kids and we want to have our food that contains the high nutrients that we’re all looking for, and we want to be healthy, we’ve got to start at the soil. So tell me, is there a difference—I already know there is—tell us about the difference between an organic system and a nonorganic system, in the soil. You’ve talked a little bit about it already, but just in a farming production method, you’ve got an organic system and a more conventional system. Is there really a difference?

MK: Well, there’s a huge difference. But let me preface this by saying there are a lot of farmers out there who are not organic farmers who are very good stewards and very good operators and very concerned about the land and taking good care of their farms. So I want to make it clear that we’re not alienating everybody just by saying if you’re not organic you’re doing a bad job. But just in general—

AO: Absolutely, that’s a really good clarification there—thank you.

MK: Well, you’re welcome. But just to generalize, I mean, the way we see industrialized, modern agriculture going, compared to what we think of as the organic model, there are huge differences between those two philosophies. With organic agriculture, we try to understand natural cycles, and we try to work within those natural cycles as much as we can. Whenever we do farming, we’re going to be doing some sort of disturbance to the natural environment. Dr. George Bird from Michigan State University has a term that he uses a lot of times that I really like. He calls agriculture “disturbance ecology.” I like that, because we’re manipulating the natural environment somehow to attain the goals that we have, and usually for us. That involves raising food. It could be fruit crops, it could be vegetable crops, it could be meat, it could be dairy products—any of those. But we’re manipulating, you know—we’re not just walking out into the woods or out into the prairie and harvesting our food. So we have to make that happen. So every farmer has to manipulate the environment somehow. But we try to work within those natural cycles as much as possible. We try to do as little disruption of those as we have to—as we can, I should say—in order to do the things that we have to do to get our crops or to get our livestock to perform. The industrialized, modern agriculture model is pretty much the complete opposite of that. It relies on heavy use of synthetic chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers, that disrupt the environment in ways that we don’t even begin to understand. Lots and lots of mechanical tillage, year after year after year in some cases. In some cases it’s the same crop on the same field year after year after year. Whereas with organic farming, if we are in a cropping system, we rely very heavily on crop rotation and try to get as much diversity into the system that way. The thing with diversity is that organic farming embraces diversity…

AO: Just to land this in a really specific…so, for example, you have a field, and you may have corn and then soybeans and then corn and then soybeans and then corn, year after year after year. And what you’re saying is, in an organic system you wouldn’t do that. You would do perhaps a cover crop and then do a… You wouldn’t do that rotation over and over. You might have a rotation of three or four different crops in that cycle.

MK: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it’s very common in a lot of the Corn Belt for farmers to just have a very simple rotation, if they’re not organic farmers. It’s very common in an industrialized, modern agriculture setting to have a rotation that just consists of corn and beans, back and forth, corn and beans, corn and beans. In some cases it’s just corn. It’s just corn after corn after corn after corn.

AO: Have you had a chance to study that soil in that kind of environment? And can you talk about what’s different in that soil versus the soil that you’re talking about where there’s more rotation and more variety?

MK: Yeah. Where there’s diversity, you have lots and lots of different things going on at the same time. And there’s interactions between different types of plants and the microbial communities that colonize the roots that they produce in the soil. Each type of plant has its own biochemical signature that it actually injects into the soil in the area around its roots to stimulate the microbial community that’s working with that plant. So red clover has a certain formula that it puts into the soil; Kentucky bluegrass has its own formula that it puts into the soil; corn has its formula that it puts into the soil. You know, every kind of plant has a different kind of mix that it’s putting into the soil. And it’s geared to help favor the community of organisms that will work with that plant to help that plant get nutrients, to help it get water, and to help protect it against diseases and insects. So when we have lots of different plants growing together at the same time, like we would in, say, a pasture situation, or in a hayfield where we’ve got lots of species going on at the same time, we have this diversity going on, and we’ve set up the conditions for the natural system to behave more the way that it’s supposed to, the way that it was designed to. On the other hand, if we work up a field and we grow just two crops back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, those are the only two species of plants that can contribute anything to this system, and they’re not doing it at the same time. You know, even organic farmers will raise a single crop on one field—for one year. But then we go to something different the next year. So where we have this very simple system like this, we’ve taken out lots of the factors that nature provides as natural defenses, as natural ways for plants to get nutrients and water. And a lot of times, another part of that that’s a big problem is that a lot of time that comes with an extreme amount of mechanical tillage. Whenever we till the soil, we destroy some of what we call the structure—or, in other words, the way the individual particles of sand and silt and clay and particles of organic matter are grouped together. This aggregation process is extremely important to soil, because those aggregates, those little bundles of this physical material, are where the soil stores its water and its humus and its nutrients. And in between each one of those aggregates there’s a space, there’s a void or a pore. Those pores or voids are what allows water to get into the soil after a rainfall, and they’re also what allows fresh air to get down into the soil and for carbon dioxide to come out of the soil. So the physical characteristics of soil are extremely important. And in some cases, where farmers who are not farming organically are using a simple rotation with lots of mechanical tillage, a lot of that structure gets destroyed. And so what happens is the air and the water can’t get down into the soil to keep the microbial community, the earthworms, the arthropods, and the plant roots themselves happy. The water can’t get in, and then that leads to more accentuated drought problems when we don’t get quite enough rain. We have more runoff, we lose nutrients. If the farmers are spraying pesticides, we lose the pesticides in the runoff. And the whole cycle just kind of caves in on itself. On the other hand, there are conventional farmers who are nonorganic farmers who used a reduced tillage. And that’s helpful, because that does help preserve more of that structure. The downside of that is that it usually comes with lots of synthetic chemical use to keep weeds down, because if we’re not cultivating and we’re not plowing, we have to do something to be able to keep the weeds at bay so that the crops that we’re interested in can thrive. So, you know, there’s no perfect system, but we think that the organic way of doing it is far superior. And there’s lots of research data out there that supports that.

AO: I want to just remind our listeners, if you’re just joining us, that this is Anne O’Connor for Rootstock Radio, and we’re here today with Mark Kopecky, who is a soil agronomist. Just to continue on this vein for just another minute here, so if you went to a field where for years and years this not-organic production system, lots of tillage, lots of chemicals, and you took a handful of that soil. And then you took a handful of organic soil from a field that was very diverse, had lots of plants activity, and it was very healthy soil. If I held the conventional soil in my left hand and the organic soil in my right hand, what would I be able to see in the difference, in my hands?

MK: Well, again, we’re using broad generalizations here, which is sometimes dangerous, and I don’t want to offend anybody who’s not farming organically who is doing a good job. I’ll just give you the, I’ll give you the very typical examples. The soil that’s been farmed with the industrial agriculture method is usually going to be lighter in color. And the reason for that is it’s going to have less organic matter, particularly in the form that we call humus. Humus is organic matter that’s been entirely decomposed from its original plant or animal origins and turned into compounds that physically are very tiny and they have interesting chemical characteristics. But the reason that they show up in the soil like that is that they have a dark color. So typically soils that have been farmed that way are going to have less of that, and so they’re going to be lighter in color. The organic soil, on the other hand, should be darker. You should see a visual difference in that. The Rodale Institute has a wonderful paper showing a photograph. They’ve been doing side-by-side trials of these exact situations, where they have plots that they’ve been farming with the conventional, industrialized agriculture method, and they’ve got plots that are being farmed organically, scattered through a field—so it’s the same soil, you know, it’s from the same area, it received the same rainfall and everything like that. But you can see the physical difference in the color. Beyond that, the structure of the soil is going to be much more pronounced in the organically farmed soil than in the soil that’s just been beat to death. You’ll look at the soil and when you break apart a handful of it, it looks like you’re looking at black cottage cheese. If you take a handful of another soil that’s been beat with mechanical tillage year after year after year, and attacked with all these synthetic chemicals year after year after year, and you break apart a handful of that, it looks like you’re just holding two clods. So the physical structure is different, the color is different. You’re probably going to find many more earthworms on the organic side than you would on the conventional side because earthworms feed on fresh organic matter—in other words, fresh plant residue. They don’t attack living plants, but when a leaf drops or when a plant dies and it tips over, the earthworms hang on to that freshly dead organic matter and drag it down into the soil, and that’s their food. So they have to have this continual supply of fresh organic matter. And you typically find a much better supply of fresh organic matter in fields that are managed by organic methods than you would by this industrialized agriculture method. So you’re going to see more earthworms. If you smell the soil, you may smell a difference, actually. The smell of soil is produced by a type of microscopic creature called actinomycetes. And when you smell nice, healthy soil, it’s got that very peculiar, characteristic aroma. You know, a lot of people find it very pleasant. It’s produced by those microbes. Those microbes also are feeding on organic matter that’s in the process of being decomposed. And that’s like to have much better food supply on the organic side than it would be on the industrialized agriculture side. So there’s lots of differences there.

AO: I wanted to talk to you now, it seems like a good segue to go into this idea of carbon and how does carbon stay in the soil. And you talked about “carbon sink.” I don’t know if everyone knows what carbon sink is, so maybe you could talk about what carbon sink is and why organic farming methods is one of the best ways to keep carbon actually in the soil as opposed to being released into the environment.

MK: Right, right. It’s very important, and there is a direct link between the two. And it goes back to just starting with plant growth and photosynthesis. You know, in photosynthesis, plants also have this miraculous thing going on in every single living green plant where, through photosynthesis, they can take carbon dioxide and water and turn those into sugars and amino acids. You know, in the case of amino acids, it also takes some nitrogen. But amino acids and [unclear] sugars that become fibers, they become physical structures in the plant, they become energy that’s stored in the plant, and proteins, enzymes, vitamins—all of these things. And in the process of doing that, plants of course release oxygen gas as what they think of as a waste product—of course, we need to have for life to continue too. So the plant is accumulating this carbon in the form of sugars and fibers and proteins and enzymes and vitamins and all these things that the plants are producing. Those all contain carbon. So carbon is a central part of practically every molecule on the plant. When that plant grows, a certain amount of that plant’s structure is aboveground and a certain amount is belowground. Now, if we’re growing potatoes or beets or something like that, we might harvest the belowground part, but most of the time what we’re harvesting or what the cows are grazing is the aboveground part. And so the roots are left behind in the soil—those are preserved. And all organic matter contains carbon, and most of the organic matter in soils comes from plants. So where we have a system that has a dense growth of plants and a dense root system, we’re going to have more carbon in the soil to begin with. If we have a good crop rotation, and especially one that includes several years of a perennial forage crop—you know, a hay crop, a pasture crop, something like that—those are years when that soil doesn’t have to be disturbed by tillage at all. And the typical situation with organic farming is that we have that going on, and so between the combination of having more plants growing on every acre, and denser root systems, less tillage, less disturbance, that way we tend to see soils that have higher organic matter contents when they’re farmed using organic methods than if they would be farmed using industrialized agriculture methods.

Industrial agriculture uses row crops, you know, very, very commonly where you have plants growing in a row with bare soil in between, so very little root activity going on, very little diversity, lots and lots of tillage. And so there’s fewer amounts of organic matter being contributed to the soil in those industrialized agriculture models, and there’s more tillage being used. So between the two of those, you know, when we compare all the aspects of both models, we see that the typical thing going on in organically farmed soils is that there’s much higher organic matter. And that is a source, that’s a carbon sink. We’re storing carbon there. And the more carbon that’s stored in the soil, the less carbon there is available to be up in the atmosphere. So by doing things that conserve our soil and help to add organic matter to the soil, relying less on tillage, less on monocrops, less on row crops, we’re helping take some of that carbon from the atmosphere and put it down in the ground and saving soil.

AO: So organic farming is one of the ways that carbon can stay in the ground and help to maybe start thinking about minimizing carbon footprints on the planet.

MK: Definitely, definitely. You know, the ideal system is a prairie. Prairies have deep, dark soils because those prairie plants had deep roots that lived there for thousands of years and, well, they went through these cycles. You know, bison would come through and graze, and they would do this pulsing thing that we talked about where the roots would slough off. But everything that dies underground, pretty much, almost all of that stays underground. I shouldn’t say almost all, but a good deal of it stays underground, because as things decompose underground too they do produce carbon dioxide. But we’re storing organic matter that way; we’re storing carbon, rather than let it go up into the atmosphere.

AO: Great. So all kinds of things to consider about soil and the effects that it has on our food and our land and our lives. So I want to just thank you so much for taking the time today, Mark Kopecky, a soil agronomist. Thank you for being with us.

MK: Well, thank you, Anne. It’s been a real pleasure.

AO: Thank you, too, to our listeners, and I hope you join us again next week for Rootstock Radio

You can listen to Rootstock Radio on the go at iTunes and Stitcher, and find us online at Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.

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