Year-round living roots are the heart of the ECO farming production system, says Jim Hoorman, Mercer County Ohio Extension specialist. Living roots support 1,000-2,000 times more soil microbes than soil without growing roots, and healthy microbial populations recycle many nutrients and improve the soil, he says.

ECO farming integrates a variety of conservation practices to mimic nature, including:

  • Continuous no-till
  • A diverse cover crop to strengthen soil biology;
  • Best management practices

“In an ideal soil, we have 45% mineral – the sand, the silt, the clay,” Hoorman says. In an ideal soil, we like to see 5% soil organic matter. The other 50% is actually pore space (25% air and 25% water).”

After a century or more of intensive cultivation, 60-80% of our soil organic matter is gone, he says, and most soils now only have 1-3% soil organic matter and much less pore space due to soil compaction.

Ray Archuleta, conservation agronomist with the National Resources Conversation Services in Greensboro, NC, says, “(Tilled) soils are dominated by bacteria, which stay in a compacted state and use carbon inefficiently, allowing nutrients to leach out of the soil.”

No-till systems with a continuous living cover stabilize carbon loss, he explains. Soil porosity and water infiltration increase.

A diverse mix of cover crops is a very powerful tool when it comes to rebuilding soil organic matter and porosity because of the multiple species working together to activate soil biology, Archuleta says.

He recommends Austrian winter peas and radishes with grasses, such as hairy vetch or cereal rye, to rebuild the soil.

Every plant has a chemical signature to attract the right microbes to carry out metabolic function, he says. These enzymes help increase nutrient cycling in the soil. Diversity of plants equals diversity of microbes.

“The best weed control a farmer can have is another plant,” he says. “Diversity can keep a single weed or disease from becoming dominant.”