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Results of the "Soil Your Undies" challenge on the Volsen farm in Minnesota. (Amanda Volsen)

We soiled our undies and you should, too

Did you soil your undies? Under normal circumstances a question like that would likely stir a puzzled reaction. Yet when it comes to an experiment to test your soil health, this question may bring a hearty response of, "Well, yes, I did soil my undies!"

Earlier this summer, our local soil and water conservation office put out the "Soil Your Undies" challenge. They encouraged local farmers to bury cotton underwear in their fields in order to produce a visual representation of the level of microbial activity in the soil. The idea is to bury the underwear in the top couple inches of soil and leave them undisturbed for a period of time. After the allotted time, you dig up the underwear to see how much of the material is still there. The soil that has the higher microbial presence will decompose the underwear to a greater extent. The less underwear left means a higher level of soil health.

We farm in south-central Minnesota and grow corn and soybeans and are adding small grains in as a third crop to our rotation. Over the past number of years, we have been transitioning some of our tillage practices and adding the application of cover crops. So when my husband heard about the challenge, he decided to join in, and he buried underwear in several of our fields. We were anxious to see how the changes we have made would affect the results of the challenge. After eight weeks, my husband went out and retrieved the underwear from the fields where they were buried, and we were quite pleased with the results.

As you can see in the picture, we had quite a broad spectrum of results. The underwear on the upper left was buried in a field that has been no-till for five years and has had cover crops for the past three years. The upper right was in a field that has had one year of minimal tillage and cover crops. In the bottom left, the field has had one year of strip till with a cocktail cover crop after third crop rotation of small grains. Finally, the bottom right was in a field that has had conventional tillage and no cover crop. We were pleased to see the high level of microbial activity in the fields where we have changed to more conservation-based practices.

No-till, strip-till and cover-crop practices require more planning and management, but we are seeing evidence of its benefits to our soil health. As we farm, we are not only concerned about today but we are also looking ahead to the future. My husband is the sixth generation in this family farm legacy, and we are hoping one of our four children will be the seventh. We hope that our farming practices in the present will set them up for success in the years to come.

Amanda Volsen grew up on a hobby farm in western Wisconsin, is a registered nurse at St. Mary's Hospital - Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and partners with her husband on their sixth generation farm near Wells, Minn.