This article was written by Jim Swenson of the Telegraph Herald after the Dubuque Co. WLL event on January 10th.
Tricia Conter never knew soil could be so complicated. The Cascade woman attended a Dubuque Women, Land & Legacy learning session Tuesday at the Peosta Community Centre. She and her husband, Paul, plan to rent at least 40 acres on his family’s Century Farm this spring. “I’m here getting my hands dirty with actual farming,” she said. “I know nothing, so everything I’ve heard today is new to me.”
About 25 people, including five men, heard from two speakers and saw demonstrations on dirt during a three-hour presentation. The main topics were the intricate biological makeup of soil and the advantages of not tilling soil too frequently. “From a farmer’s perspective, if water is running off your land or becoming a pond, it seems intuitive to fluff it up to let the water get into it,” said Jennifer Filipiak, associate Midwest director at the American Farmland Trust, based in DeKalb, Ill. “Now we’re realizing it’s just the opposite.”
Soil that is not tilled can keep a more conducive structure for water to penetrate into the roots. The biological “critters,” as Filipiak put it, such as earthworms, mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria bring more nutrients from and into the soil. Tilling can disturb or kill those critters. “The till versus no-till (discussion) was very interesting and different,” said Lynn Sutton, of Dubuque, an avid urban gardener. “I think it’s something different that I could use.”
The first demonstration was a slake test, where clumps of tilled and non-tilled soil were dropped into bottles. The non-tilled soil held together better. An infiltration test simulated rainfall going over soil clumps. The water went through the non-tilled soil in a consistent fashion but began to pool up on the tilled side.
Colleen Siefken, conservation assistant with the Dubuque Soil and Water Conservation District, said the sessions are meant to help attendees get a working knowledge of the subject. “We’re bringing them the basics,” she said. “There might be articles out there that are way over their heads. This is a tool to help make them better informed.” The other speaker, Laura Klavitter, of Dubuque County Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, gave a tutorial on soil sampling and testing.
Filipiak said “there are a lot of good reasons to till.” “The goal is, perhaps, to till less,” she said. “Soil is a living, breathing thing. There’s a lot we don’t know about what’s going on beneath the surface of the soil.” That’s why attendees such as Conter showed up through sleet and rain. “The fungi system within a system blew my mind,” she said. “I’m literally working from the ground up.”