As Earth Day approaches, the focus is usually on hugging trees to save the rainforest or protesting against companies that don’t care about the environment. But in light of growing scientific evidence that the overuse of natural resources is causing devastating and irreversible damage to our planet, there’s a growing case for taking a different approach to Earth Day: hugging the ground. Here’s why: the earth is in deep, deep trouble.

Mother Earth is the metaphorical mother of all earthlings, but it’s time we take our Mother more seriously. After all, she has brought us so many gifts, not the least of which is air to breathe, water to drink, and a place to call home. So, as we celebrate Earth Day, let’s not forget to give her a big kiss and say “thanks.” It’s the polite thing to do.

Brian Maxted, guest columnist

For those of us lucky enough to work in agriculture, every day is Earth Day.

We have a connection to Earth like no other.

Almost all non-marine life on Earth depends on the first few inches of soil that plant roots need to establish themselves on the surface. Equally important, every square inch of topsoil is home to billions of microorganisms that are needed to break down basic nutrients that are common in nature, but otherwise bound to the soil to feed the roots. With 95% of our direct and indirect food supply coming from the soil, our livelihoods are heavily dependent on the health of the soil beneath our feet.

But we have abused our land a lot over the years. About 33 percent of the world’s soils are moderately or severely degraded by soil erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution, according to a 2015 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. According to the EPA, poor land management practices account for nearly half of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

While many point to these problems, agriculture is at a unique crossroads and many in California are already taking steps to make a difference.

Many of the farmers we work with have been farming the same land for generations. Our company has been providing soil health products and services to farmers in Central California since the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Our producers understand that soil is the foundation of everything we do. And keeping that soil healthy and productive is their mission in life.

It’s not always talked about much, but California farmers are true stewards of the land and are recognized by the industry as some of the most innovative and sustainable in the world.

If you can do it in California, they say, you can do it anywhere.

We take a scientific approach to growing and producing the food that feeds our planet. We regularly take soil, water and tissue samples. Our proprietary agronomy programs, coupled with precision slitting technology, maximize land management, optimize costs and proactively identify stressors before they negatively impact current or future crops.

We revitalize soil with soil conditioners and organic products that restore soil health and ensure a healthy root system and plants, rather than feeding plants synthetic solutions that take more from the soil than they provide in the long run.

Have you ever bit into a strawberry that has almost no flavor? Most likely these plants have been grown with huge amounts of synthetic chemicals, mainly for size, appearance and weight (commercial performance), but they lack many vital nutrients that are needed not only for flavor, but also for your body to grow and thrive.

As every acre of land comes under increasing pressure to become more productive, it can be rationally explained that trade-offs must be made to both make a profit and feed the growing planet. However, with production and labor costs skyrocketing in California, our farmers cannot afford to use more inputs than necessary to harvest. And we, as an industry, cannot afford to apply more to our land than is necessary. In addition, the use of synthetic inputs often requires the use of more and more chemicals per acre per year, robbing the soil of its vital resources. And according to FAO Director José Graziano da Silva, further loss of productive land would have serious consequences for food production and security, increase food price volatility and could plunge millions of people into hunger and poverty.

Can we do better? Yes, we all can.

We can continue to improve our soil management programs by finding creative ways to increase the amount of organic matter and natural nutrient availability in the soil, and strive to use only the amount of resources our soil needs to maximize production – while helping to feed a growing population that will exceed 9.7 billion by 2050.

We can continue to restore our soils by alternating crops or planting ground covers to prevent erosion and increase the amount of carbon stored in our soils.

Good news for Earth Day? The FAO report shows that this loss of soil resources and functions is avoidable. And in many cases, vice versa.

For example, the recent California Climate Action Plan 2019 report indicates that agriculture and forestry could absorb up to 20% of California’s current greenhouse gas emissions.

When we supplement soil sequestration with better soil management practices, technological advances such as GPS and variable rate fertilizers, and better soil identification and sampling techniques, we can only give our soils the supplements and nutrients they need to maximize their health and production.

With this in mind, technology and improved soil management practices have made our connection to soil even stronger in recent years.

This year, let’s embrace not only the tree, but also the earth – and remain committed to improving the land we farm for future generations.

Brian Maxted is the CEO of Holloway Agriculture, a Paso Robles-based provider of soil solutions and services. For more information, visit hollowayag.com.

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