Spreading the science of healthy soil

Unless you’re a farmer, or just really into dirt, you’re probably not familiar with a series of YouTube videos Robin “Buz” Kloot has produced for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

While they haven’t gone viral, Kloot’s “Soil Stories” and “Under Cover Farmers” titles are getting attention — more than 200,000 views from farmers and soil scientists interested in an emerging agricultural practice with dramatic results.

Kloot, an associate research professor of environmental health sciences in the University of South Carolina's Arnold School of Public Health, was approached several years ago to produce informational videos for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the agriculture department.

“I had done print projects for the USDA, which they liked, but I didn’t have any background in videography,” Kloot said. “In fact, I used to go on vacation without even taking a still camera. But I bought the equipment in 2009 and began learning how.”

 After producing a few straightforward agricultural videos, Kloot took a videography course taught by a National Geographic documentary producer and learned the art of storytelling. His doctoral degree in aquatic science from Carolina gave him the requisite background to create substantive scientific content.

“I realized you can’t tell a very compelling story about soil, but you can tell a story about the relationship people have with the soil,” he said. “And that was the turning point. We produced ‘Soil Stories,’ which got 89,000 YouTube views, and then we did ‘Under Cover Farmers,’ which has nearly 130,000.”

The latter title focuses on three farmers in North Carolina who have successfully experimented with a farming practice they learned from North Dakota farmers. Instead of the traditional practice of disking and plowing fields, spraying herbicide and adding chemical fertilizer, the farmers have planted cover crops — often radishes, turnips or grasses — in the fallow season when their commercial crops like corn and cotton are no longer growing.

The cover crops help maintain a healthy nutrient balance in the soil, retain ground moisture and maintain cooler soil temperatures in the summer. Farmers using this no-till, cover crop approach have found that even after sharply reducing or even eliminating commercial fertilizer, their commercial crop yields either stayed the same or improved.

“A number of farmers have shown it can be done on a production scale, but one of the criticisms from academia itself is where’s the science behind this ‘soil health’ practice?” said Ron Nichols, soil health communications coordinator for the Natural Resources Conservation Service. “Our challenge has been to come up with more than anecdotal evidence. And Buz is the perfect fit. He has the academic background and he also has gift of visual storytelling.”

Kloot admits he was skeptical of the “no fertilizer, cover crop practice” that is the hallmark of a soil health approach to farming. But after interviewing scientists and farmers across the country, he has pieced together much of the scientific basis for how it works. He even used the same technique successfully in his backyard garden.

The popularity of the videos Kloot has produced is fostering the growth of the soil health community across the country, Nichols said.

“We have to use the most effective media we can to allay the apprehensions some might have as to whether there is good science behind these practices,” he said. “More farmers and more scientists are interested in the promise and opportunity of this approach, and that’s important considering the prospect of trying to feed 9 billion people by 2050, and doing that without added fertilizer in an era of climate change.”

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