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Ecosystem Services from Living Plants

By December 10, 2019July 14th, 2020No Comments

By Ray Archuleta • Greensboro, North Carolina

Ray Archuleta is one of our all-time favorite “soil guys”. He is a Certified Professional Soil Scientist with the Soil Science Society of America and has over 30 years experience as a Soil Conservationist, Water Quality Specialist, and Conservation Agronomist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). During his tenure with the NRCS, Ray served in New Mexico, Missouri, Oregon, and North Carolina. After his retirement from the NRCS in 2017, Ray founded Soil Health Consultants, LLC, and Soil Health Academy, LLC, to teach Biomimicry strategies and Agroecology principles for improving soil function on a national scale. Ray also owns a 150-acre farm near Seymour, Missouri that he operates along with his wife and family. To learn more, please visit Ray’s website: https://soilhealthconsultants.com

Ecology is the science of interconnected relationships between organisms and their environments. One of the most ecologically influential organisms on our environment is plants. Without plants, life could not exist on Earth as plants impact all four of the critical ecosystem processes that sustain life. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes of soil science is teaching that plants and soil are separate ecosystems, but in reality, they are the same ecosystem. Without plants you cannot call soil…soil — which by definition, denotes life! Soil without plant and microbial life is just geology – dirt and rocks! Soil is the intimate union between biology and geology. Plant-soil life is the most powerful geological force on the planet and without it, these four life sustaining ecosystem processes would not happen and earth would be a lifeless planet.

If farmers, ranchers, and agriculturists are going to make a sustainable living on the land, it is critically important to understand how the four ecosystem processes function and how critical plants are to these systems. These four processes daily provide services that are critical to all of life on the farm, ranch, and other natural ecosystems, and indeed it is not overstatement to say that all life on earth depends on these keystone cycles. These four processes are interconnected and cannot function properly without each other. If one of these processes is missing or compromised, then the other processes will not function properly, which will diminish ecosystem services and reduce our ability to produce feed, fiber, and food for a growing world.

Capture Solar Energy

Plants capture the sun’s energy through photosynthesis and convert this light energy into chemical energy which is then transformed into carbon-based molecules which nourishes and sustains almost all living organisms on the planet. 6CO2+6H2O = C6H12O6 +6O2 is the most important piece of chemistry in the world! The simple carbon sugar glucose molecule formed in photosynthesis is the basis for our entire food chain… and having breathable oxygen as a byproduct is not bad either! Ancient people used to call plants, “the mouth” of the soil, because without plants the soil does not eat. Plants are the primary conduits of life sustaining energy which is used to feed the biological life in the soil, which in turn feeds us!

Nutrient Cycling

This process occurs when plants exude their myriad of photosynthetically derived carbon-based molecules through their root systems to feed a plethora of soil organisms. In return, this soil biota community mines, extracts, modifies, and delivers nutrients and minerals from the soil matrix and “trades” it back to the plant in exchange for carbon based food. Additionally microbes (rhizobia and others) can convert inert atmospheric nitrogen into plant available nitrogen that allows a plant community to grow and thrive. Plants and microbes are responsible for over 90% of natural nutrient cycling, availability, and production for living organisms.

Water Cycle

As plants and microbes collaboratively modify their mineral habitat, they create super biotic glues that aggregate sand, silt and clays to create a porous structure which allows the infiltration of water. Infiltration is the key to the water cycle and its importance cannot be overstated. Plants also increase infiltration through root channels and protection from the kinetic energy of rain drops. The amount of rainfall a farm receives is irrelevant if the rain does not infiltrate into the soil. Many droughts are partially the result of poor infiltration. Additionally, plant evapotranspiration is a key part of the water cycle as 40% of our inland rain comes from plants and soil creating humidity.

Community Dynamics Through Biodiversity

Diversity of plants, insects, microbes, and other organisms are responsible for transporting energy, nutrients, and mass from one organism to another. Biodiversity is the foundational ecosystem services to which our human well-being is intimately linked. No feature of Earth is more complex, dynamic, and diverse than the biosphere, the layer of living organisms that occupy our soil surface and chemically unites the atmosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere into one environmental ecosystem within which millions of species, including humans, have thrived. Diversity is a conduit or a transport mechanism to all living organisms on the planet. Plants create an architecture of habitat and biodiversity facilitates the self-healing, self-regulating, and self-organizing mechanisms for all natural ecosystems. Diversity creates health and resilience in biological systems and without diversity of plant life, it is impossible to achieve diverse soil life.

It is important to understand that financial stability can only be accomplished through ecological viability. Simply said, “grow more green plants, if you want to be in the black”. Growing more plants will require cover crops. Our farms/ranches must run on new sunlight (capturing solar energy with plants) not on ancient sunlight (petroleum-based inputs). Planting diverse cover crops are not optional as these plant communities facilitate life! The more you feed your soils with diverse plant communities, the more ecosystem services the soil will provide, including nutrient cycling, healthy plants/animals/humans, resilience against drought with increased water holding capacity, less erosion, reduced flooding, stabilized climate, decreased pest pressure, and reduced pesticide usage. These are but a few of the rewards for investing in systems that leverage the power of ecosystem services.

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