The Secret Is in the Soil

by guest blogger Coach Mark Smallwood, Executive Director of the Rodale Institute.

The headlines are extreme: “Broiling Heat,” “Punishing Drought,” “Worst in 50 Years.” And the images are even worse. Miles of dry, cracked fields, crispy cornstalks, and stoic farmers holding tiny ears of kernel-less corn. More than half of the country is experiencing drought conditions, and counties in more than 25 states have been declared crop disasters by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Farmers in some of the areas worst hit by this year’s extreme drought are throwing their hands up and mowing down acres of brown and shriveled crops.

Costs of corn and soybeans are going through the roof as more and more crops shrivel up and die. Since more than 80 percent of these crops go to feed livestock, experts are suggesting shoppers may end up seeing this drought reflected in higher prices at the meat counter.

If it seems familiar, it should be. One year ago the news was aflame with the extreme drought of 2011 that parched all of Texas. Farmers, officials and media whispered of devastation reminiscent of the 1930s Dust Bowl. The historic drought was deemed the most costly on record, causing $5.2 billion in agricultural losses.

Chemical ag behemoth Monsanto has been surprisingly silent, despite having trumpeted the only genetically modified drought-tolerant corn variety approved by the USDA for commercial use. Why? Because the product doesn’t live up to the promise. According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, traditional breeding and improved farming practices have actually increased drought tolerance more than genetic modification.

Although there is no magic pill to protect our farms from extreme drought, there is something that can reduce the devastation and help our food, farms, and farming families bounce back: organic farming.

Organic corn produced between 28 and 33 percent more than conventional corn under drought conditions in the Rodale Institute’s Farming Systems Trial (FST). The organic corn of the FST was even more successful under drought conditions than genetically modified drought-tolerant seed varieties were in industry trials.

The secret is in the soil. And unlike conventional farming, which decimates soil life with toxic synthetic chemicals designed to kill plant and insect life, organic farming techniques improve the soil’s ability to absorb and hold water. Organic agriculture is about providing plants with a support system so they can thrive.

Fertile soil, rich in organic matter and microscopic life, acts like a sponge, holding on to more water during shortages and keeping it from running off during heavy rains. Rather than total crop failure in times of stress, organic plants can rely on the soil to provide a measure of balance. Organic farming can successfully produce food even during extreme weather conditions.

Of course, organic farms aren’t impervious. Organic growers across the nation are also struggling to keep their thirsty fields alive, but chances are they will be better equipped to weather this storm (or lack thereof) because they have focused on building good soil.


Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to Rodale Institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced Rodale Institute’s research efforts, as well as launched “Your 2 Cents,” a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project presenting to over 15,000 people on the effects of Global Warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a long-time organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, and driven a team of oxen.


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11 Responses to The Secret Is in the Soil

  1. James Early July 26, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    This is so well said. I am sharing it. The Soil says it all.

  2. Phyllis Wells July 26, 2012 at 5:25 pm #

    This article shows organic farming produced more during drought than conventional farming practices, (GMO)

  3. Marty Jamieson July 31, 2012 at 11:20 am #

    As a Texas Master Gardener, it is important to provide reliable, timely information and to learn from each other.

    Please continue to provide accurate and unbiased information for us.

    More and more information on the value of compost is beginning to be published and we all are continuing to learn and share.

    Garden on!
    Thank you all!

  4. ian macmillan August 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

    Superb article and i certainly concur with its relevance. Activated microbial soil management.

  5. Sharon McCain August 2, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Well Said. I am strongly against GMO and strongly for Organic Gardening and have been a member of Oklahoma Organic Gardening Association for well over 20 years(before Organics was popular). If we don’t take care of the soil our gardens won’t take care of us. Thank you

  6. Hephzibah October 17, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Thank you for sharing.
    Halleluyah for watchmen.

  7. dk May 21, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    This says a lot for Organic farming and I thank Coach Mark Smallwood and the Rodale Institute for sharing this information.

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