10 Things I Learned about Healthy Soils This Year

10 Things I Learned about Healthy Soils This Year

  • posted on: December 4, 2021
  • posted by: Rebecca Jordan
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Becca Jordan helps plant native species in the 21 Acres wetland in spring 2021.
Becca Jordan helps plant native species in the 21 Acres wetland in spring 2021. Photo credit Val McKinley.

Happy World Soil Day! Soil is the foundation on which all life on Earth flourishes. It’s essential as an environment for animals and insects, a home for plants and trees, and it keeps us fed in one way or another.

It’s also one of the great untapped solutions to solve climate challenges.

Becca here, and I thought I’d take this World Soil Day to reflect on what I’ve learned this year about soil health. It’s a privilege to be able to witness my colleagues and my community working hard every single day to make a difference.

The solutions that I’m seeing are often the practical applications of research like that from Project Drawdown. Project Drawdown seeks to collect data on a plethora of potential climate solutions, and though I’ve heard about the research for years, I finally started reading the original book on the subject.

Here are 10 things I learned this year about how our community is working to improve soil health, and what the Project Drawdown research has to say on the subject.

Farm Operations Lead Anthony Reyes explains the WSU cover crop trial on the 21 Acres campus.
Farm Operations Lead Anthony Reyes explains the WSU cover crop trial on the 21 Acres campus.

1. Regenerative Agricultural Practices


What Project Drawdown says:

Conventional wisdom has long held that the world cannot be fed without chemicals and synthetic fertilizers. Evidence points to a new wisdom: The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed. Regenerative agriculture enhances and sustains the health of the soil by restoring its carbon content, which in turn improves productivity—just the opposite of conventional agriculture.

What I learned this year:

So what does that buzzword “regenerative agriculture” actually mean? Farmer Anthony laid out common definitions and how we think about regenerative versus degenerative practices.

One thing I’ve learned from talking to farmers is crystal clear: Not all practices are equal. What works on one farm might be too costly or labor-intensive on another farm. Farmers are observers, scientists, adapters, and quick-thinkers. What’s important when implementing regenerative practices is to take specific land, soil, environment, and particular circumstances into consideration when figuring out which soil health solutions are going to work for any one farm.

Compost Finds
Some unusual finds in the compost bins.

2. Compost


What Project Drawdown says:

Nearly half of the solid waste produced globally is organic or biodegradable. Much of it ends up in landfills; there, it decomposes in the absence of oxygen and produces the greenhouse gas methane, which is up to 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a century.

Composting ranges in scale from backyard bins to industrial operations. The basic process is the same: ensuring sufficient moisture, air, and heat for soil microbes (bacteria, protozoa, and fungi) to feast on organic material. Rather than generating methane, the composting process converts organic material into stable soil carbon, while retaining water and nutrients of the original waste matter. The result is carbon sequestration as well as production of a valuable fertilizer.

What I learned this year:

During the Tilth Alliance conference this November, I had the opportunity to tour Sound Sustainable Farm, an affiliate and a site to purchase Cedar Grove Compost. If you live in King County, you know about Cedar Grove—that’s where all your household and restaurant food scraps go. Heaps of food scraps become heaps of compost, which are then an effective resource used on many farms to improve soil health and boost crop production. Reducing waste and improving soil health? Win-win.

But commercial composting isn’t the only outlet for food waste. On the 21 Acres campus, we work toward a closed-loop system for as much of our food waste as possible. While we do send some compost offsite (like compostable containers that need special facilities to break down), we first do what we can to reduce the amount being hauled away by composting food waste and farm debris onsite. Facility Manager Kelly wrote about the ins and outs of our waste stream here.

Because I work on campus, I have the opportunity to learn something new every day about what can and can’t go into recycling, what materials work best for our type of compost system, and how to make the most of our food waste.

21 Acres staff trek through the seven-foot-tall rye cover crop in early spring 2021.
21 Acres staff trek through the seven-foot-tall rye cover crop in early spring 2021.

3. Cover Cropping


What Project Drawdown says:

Alongside conservation tilling, cover crops are important because:

Conservation agriculture was developed in Brazil and Argentina in the 1970s, and adheres to three core principles:

1. Minimize soil disturbance: absent tilling, farmers seed directly into the soil.

2. Maintain soil cover: farmers leave crop residues after harvesting or grow cover crops.

3. Manage crop rotation: farmers change what is grown and where.

…Conservation agriculture sequesters a relatively small amount of carbon—an average of half a metric ton per acre. But given the prevalence of annual cropping around the world, those metric tons add up. Because conservation agriculture makes land more resilient to climate-related events such as long droughts and heavy downpours, it is doubly valuable in a warming world.

What I learned this year:

If I could say two words about this year, it’s “cover crops!” On the 21 Acres farm, we use cover crops (and even participated in a cover crop study with WSU) to reduce weed pressures, boost forage for pollinators, sequester carbon, hold soil between plantings, and most important—help fix nitrogen in the soil for future crop production. Cover crops have a plethora of benefits. This year, we even got to walk through seven-foot-tall rye stands and see for ourselves how it suppressed weeds and laid the foundation for the season’s food crop production.

I had the special privilege of talking to Farmer Anthony about cover crops—why we use them on our farm, benefits to the environment, and barriers that farmers face. That conversation resulted in not only 21 Acres’ first podcast, but a 1-page resource document with all you need to know about cover crops.

Graphic sticker that says: We Live and Die by the Cover Crop (21 Acres)

P.S. You’re going to love this free sticker to shout about your love of cover crops. Stop by the 21 Acres campus whenever we’re open to get yours for free!


Neha Krishnakumar poses with a friend next to their homemade biochar kiln on the 21 Acres farm. 4. Biochar


What Project Drawdown says:

In ancient Amazonia, the waste disposal method of choice was to bury and burn. Wastes were baked beneath a layer of soil. This process, known as pyrolysis, produced a charcoal soil amendment rich in carbon. The result was terra preta, literally “black earth” in Portuguese. Today, terra preta soils cover up to 10 percent of the Amazon basin, retaining extraordinary amounts of carbon…The output is twofold: fuels that can be used for energy and biochar that can be used to enrich soil.

What I learned this year:

This is where I get to shout out just how lucky we are to have a motivated climate community. Neha Krishnakumar, a local high school student and longtime volunteer, just received her Girl Scout Gold award by building a biochar kiln and educating our community (me included!) about how biochar can support soil health. Burying the organic material not only boosts crop fertility, but also is one of the many strategies to sequester carbon. Check out the video Neha made below to learn how to build a biochar kiln in your own backyard.


21 Acres volunteers work to restore wetland ecosystems by removing invasive species.
21 Acres volunteers work to restore wetland ecosystems by removing invasive species.

5. Restoring Wetland Ecosystems


What Project Drawdown says:

[Coastal wetlands] provide nurseries for fish, feeding grounds for migratory birds, a first line of defense against storm surges and floodwaters, and natural filtration systems that boost water quality and recharge aquifers. Relative to their land area, they also sequester huge amounts of carbon in plants aboveground and in roots and soils below.

Coastal wetlands can store five times as much carbon as tropical forests over the long term, mostly in deep wetland soils. The soil of mangrove forests alone may hold the equivalent of more than two years of global emissions—22 billion tons of carbon, much of which would escape if these ecosystems were lost.

What I learned this year:

Our Pacific Northwest coastlines are vital. But, hey, Project Drawdown—don’t forget inland wetlands! Other types of wetlands are just as critical and can provide as many ecosystem services as coastal wetlands. In fact, wetland conservation across the United States could help meet Biden’s 30×30 goals while sequestering carbon.

Instead of fish, staff and volunteers on the 21 Acres campus are working to restore wetlands adjacent to farmland to protect amphibians and other native creatures. Defense against stormwater is a major benefit to having a managed wetland on campus—in our lowland environment, area farms are often seasonally flooded, sometimes with record-breaking flooding events. Wetlands can help mitigate the damage. Frequently-spotted wetland locals, such as mushrooms and native plants, also help fix nitrogen, boosting adjacent soil health and improving soil quality for current and future plants.

If you are ready to get as hyped about wetlands as I am, check out this one-page resource with all you need to know about wetland restoration as a climate solution. Check out the videos below to see our wetland in action earlier this February.


Anthony Reyes shows three farmers about weeding practices for seedlings on a regenerative farm.
Anthony Reyes shows three farmers about weeding practices for seedlings.

6. Land Access


What Project Drawdown says:

If all women smallholders receive equal access to productive resources, their farm yields will rise by 20 to 30 percent; 100 to 150 million people will no longer be hungry. When agricultural plots produce well, there is less pressure to deforest for additional ground, avoiding emissions.

What I learned this year:

Globally, there is a significant gender gap in who has access to farmland resources; how much farmers are paid; and who has access to education and technology.

Here in the United States, the gap might not be as great, but it still exists. There’s also a clear racial and economic divide in who has access to farmland; who can apply for grants to continue farming in a sustainable way; and who can afford to maintain small farm businesses.

I’m proud to continue learning from women and BIPOC farmers who are growing food despite these barriers. Earlier this year, Farm Market Team Member Mary wrote about many of the women farmers who are continuing to keep us fed in the Sammamish Valley, and some of the history around farming in the United States.

Another thing I learned this year: equity in the food system is not a one-time charity project. It is an essential growth process in our communities that will continue to not only keep us fed but to have an impact on climate change. As we saw at the onset of the pandemic, the security of our food system is not guaranteed. By increasing affordability, education, and access to land for smallholders, we can have a more stable food system where all have access and responsibility to steward our soil health.

21 Acres Bee Club volunteers show off a full hive of bees during routine care.
21 Acres Bee Club volunteers show off a full hive of bees during routine care.

7. Supporting Pollinators


Admittedly, in my research, I couldn’t find much about pollinators on Project Drawdown. But after what I’ve learned from our volunteer beekeepers and garden stewards, I knew I had to add this to the list.

Pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat; they’re essential to our food production, yet their services are often taken for granted. Between pesticide use, habitat loss, and a changing climate, native pollinators and the quintessential honeybee are on the decline.

I’ve been fortunate to witness volunteers—from Woodinville Garden Club, Songaia, BEEvesting, our weekly work parties, Earth Day volunteers, and the Bee Club—building resilient native plant ecosystems where pollinators thrive. These gardens and hedgerows adjacent to farmland help pollinators like birds, bees, butterflies, and other beneficial bugs (the 4 Bs!) find crop flowers and help pollinate them. It was also gorgeous to have our south-facing berm covered in poppies, yarrow, and other native flowers this year, serving an ecosystem function as well as working with degraded soil. Thank you volunteers (human volunteers and our animal partners) for those precious bites of food!

Barry Febos discusses how farmland can be a carbon sink.
Barry Febos discusses how farmland can be a carbon sink on a 21 Acres LEED Building Tour.

8. Carbon Offsets


What Project Drawdown says:

[S]oils are, in large part, organic matter—once-living organisms, now decomposing—making them an enormous storehouse of carbon. Land can therefore be a powerful carbon sink, returning atmospheric carbon to living vegetation and soils. While the majority of heat-trapping emissions remain in the atmosphere, land sinks currently return 26% of human-caused emissions to Earth—literally.

What I learned this year:

If we’re to make an impact on our rapidly changing climate, we not only have to seek to reduce our carbon outputs, but we have to sink carbon that currently exists in the atmosphere.

Did you know that you can purchase carbon offsets for your carbon footprint through your local utility provider or through regenerative farms? I found this article by former Energy Manager Barry to be a great resource to local carbon offsets. Many programs locally seek to harness the power of soils to draw down carbon. Support to these programs help keep land stewards in the business of improving our ecosystems while drawing down carbon.

Anthony Reyes leads volunteers through dry-farmed tomato fields in the summer of 2021.
Anthony Reyes leads volunteers through dry-farmed tomato fields in the summer of 2021.

9. Dry Farming


What Project Drawdown says:

Irrigation dates back to roughly 6000 BC, when the waters of the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates were first diverted to feed farmers’ fields. Today, agriculture consumes 70 percent of the world’s freshwater resources, and irrigation is essential for 40 percent of the world’s food production. Because pumping and distributing water requires large quantities of energy, irrigation is a source of carbon emissions.

What I learned this year:

There’s no doubt that for most types of farming, drip and sprinkler irrigation is essential. Plants need water; it’s that simple.

But not all of that water has to come from irrigation. It can also come from groundwater. I learned more about this while helping to grow our second year of dry-farmed tomatoes on the property.

The practice of dry-farming is ancient and by necessity; in hot climates, farmers didn’t often have the luxury of watering crops as access was impossible (and today, plain expensive). In modern agriculture, the practice became popularized in southern and central California, where dry-farmed tomatoes became a chef favorite for the intense, sweet candy-like flavor.

An extra bonus for those water-conservation minded folks? Dry-farming your tomatoes can save up to 330,000 gallons of water per season per acre! Check out this video from volunteer Liz Ostasiewski where we deep-dive into dry-farmed tomatoes.

Pasture-raised hogs take a bath break on the 21 Acres farm in the summer of 2021.
Pasture-raised hogs take a bath break on the 21 Acres farm in the summer of 2021.

10. Pasture-Raised Animals


What Project Drawdown says:

Managed grazing involves carefully controlling livestock density and timing and intensity of grazing. Compared with conventional pasture practices, it can improve the health of grassland soils, sequestering carbon.

What I learned this year:

COVID-19 exposed the many gaps in our food system—particularly for meat-eaters. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the solution to a more secure food system is to have food production in the hands of as many farmers as possible.

Enter Masra Clamoungou, a hog farmer who ran pigs for the second year in a row on campus. Pasture-raised meat not only addresses many of the viral safety and ethical concerns of CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations)—it can also help address climate challenges. Despite processing bottlenecks in King County, small farmers like Masra are working to reduce weed pressures on farms, improve soil health through fertilization, improve animal quality of life, and improve consumer access to meat during a time when that’s not always a guarantee.

Soils are essential year-round.


Join our quest to continue learning as a community about these and other solutions to climate challenges that we face together.

About Becca Jordan

Becca Jordan is our Operations Manager at 21 Acres. Becca connects with visitors and keeps 21 Acres communications running smoothly. She has a variety of background experience, from science fiction writing and art to education, technical theatre, and costume design to horse care. She’s passionate about learning new things about the natural world and social and climate justice. In 2015 Becca participated in the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and graduated with an MFA from California Institute of the Arts in 2016. Becca originally hails from Escondido, California. Her favorite parts of the Pacific Northwest are the ancient trees and the plethora of life around every corner.