Soil Conservation and Planning
The expected continuation of human population growth coupled with climate change is a major challenge confronting the scientific community and policy makers: How do we secure sustainable agricultural activities and at the same time prevent further land degradation? Intensification of agriculture improves agricultural activity and water-use efficiency but also appears to be a leading cause of global biodiversity decline. Excessive use of tillage and agrochemicals in intensive agriculture has led to soil erosion, reduction in soil organic-matter content, soil water-holding capacity, decreased above- and below-ground biodiversity, and leaching of sediments and agrochemicals into nearby ecosystems. In areas in which there is extensive use of artificial irrigation to support crops, salinization and sodification can be additional causes of soil degradation.
Conservation agriculture (CA), an approach to agricultural practices promoted worldwide by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), ensures the preservation of productivity and food security coupled with reduction in the negative impacts of agriculture on soil health and the environment. This approach has three main pillars: minimum soil disturbance, permanent organic soil cover, and diversification of plant species by crop rotation and use of service (cover) crops.
Given the high demand for plant biomass to feed livestock, the Mediterranean (dry summer) climate of Israel presents a major challenge in attempting to establish a permanent organic soil-cover regime, especially for field crops. This soil cover is a central foundation necessary for successfully instituting all aspects of conservation agriculture, including weed management, maintaining and improving soil structure and organic matter content, and reducing soil erosion, evaporation, and daily amplitude of soil temperature. To address the important challenge of building sufficient organic soil cover and thereby boost soil health, long-term experimentation is planned as part of the Model Farm. The plan is to recycle chopped crop residue, spread it on the soil surface and incorporate it with the cover crops that will be grown as part of the rotation with cash crops.