Ask any organic farmer about their most valuable asset and most will swiftly answer “My soil.” It’s the foundation of the farm…and life itself. In his book The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, America’s poet farmer, Wendell Berry captures this truth:

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”

—Wendell Berry

When most of us think about the benefits of organic, the first thing that comes to mind is usually the avoidance of pesticides. But how can we farm without all the conventional agricultural chemicals? It all starts with a focus on building healthy soil, which builds healthy plants from the roots up, creating a healthy and balanced eco-system. In fact, the only way to succeed at organic farming is to build healthy soil—regardless of a farm’s size. The USDA Organic Standards require organic farms to maintain or enhance soil and water quality, while also conserving wetlands, woodlands, and wildlife. It’s what many in the organic movement have called “Growing in harmony with nature.”

Restoring and building strong soil isn’t easy and doesn’t happen overnight. Healthy soil comes from organic cultural practices and strict avoidance of conventional tools. Organic farmers refrain from using pesticides that kill not only the target pests, but typically beneficial insects and microbes, too. Because of the focus on soil, organic farms actually get more productive over time. Organic practices like crop rotation, cover cropping, and the addition of organic matter to the soil all work to create fertile soils with a healthy microbiome and good composition. The result is we see yields on our organic farms improving over the years and, in some cases, equaling those of conventional farms.

Research has demonstrated the benefits of organic farming for soil. A recent study published in Agronomy Journal found that the soils on organic farms retained water more effectively and were less susceptible to compacting. They concluded, “Overall, organic farming can improve soil physical properties in the long term and provide a strategy for farmers to enhance soil physical quality and agricultural sustainability,” the authors concluded. Other recent studies have shown that healthy organic soils with thriving microbiomes are better able to fight off plant disease (of course!)

Check out The Organic Center’s short video explaining just how organic farming promotes healthy soil:

And that’s the real dirt on organic.