Erica Woods, Communications Manager at Friends of the Greenbelt Foundation, shares her experience at the Citizen Scientist Training held by the Erin Soil Health Coalition on May 22, 2018.
Last Tuesday, on what I hope was the last cool day of spring, Research Manager Tom Bowers and I joined a few dozen volunteers at Everdale Farm in Hillsburgh to learn about soil testing. The training was led by Ruth Knight as part of the Erin Soil Health Coalition project.
With a $70,000 research grant, the Erin Soil Health Coalition has recruited 30 farmers to participate in a pilot project that will share knowledge between farmers about how to improve soil health. Healthy soil is higher in carbon and is able to absorb and retain more water. For farmers, this means the soil is more productive and crops are less susceptible to droughts or to flash floods. For someone like me who struggles to keep a spider plant alive, this means more carbon is being captured and stored in the soil instead of in the air contributing to climate change.
So how do you test soil?
Quite easily with a variety of hand tools. Ruth lined up two tables of various tools the citizen scientist volunteers will need when they’re in the field (science/farm pun!). The volunteers will spend about two hours at each farming testing two things – how much carbon is in the soil, and how much water can the soil absorb.
Volunteers testing soil with the Erin Soil Health Coalition
Large metal rings are placed in the soil and filled with water. Measurements are taken for how fast the water is absorbed and how many times the rings can be refilled before the soil can’t absorb any more water. The healthier the soil, the more water it can absorb. This directly benefits farmers in the short term – better water retention prevents flooding and erosion during major downpours, and can feed plants for longer during prolonged dry periods.
A long metal tube is plunged into the soil in 8 different spots to collect soil samples at 15cm and 30 cm depths. This soil will be analyzed in a lab for the carbon content. The volunteers also dig a small soil pit and remove two more soil samples at 15cm and 30 cm. These soil samples will be analyzed for bulk density. Healthier soil will have higher concentrations of carbon, which supports plant growth – plus the more carbon that can be sequestered in the soil, the less there is in the atmosphere.
Along with taking measurements from the farmed field area, the volunteers will take samples from a nearby ‘unmanaged’ area to compare the results. This will help inform how much carbon content has been lost from the soil and give a sense of how much the soil quality can be improved.
It was a great day to spend at Everdale Farm learning from Ruth and seeing so many engaged volunteers participating in this pilot project.
Ruth, teaching us and the volunteers about soil testing