In 2016, the science podcast Radiolab ran an episode called “From Tree to Shining Tree” about the mysterious, secret world of trees. With a jeweler’s magnifying glass, Roy Halling, a plant researcher at the New York Botanical Garden, who specializes in fungi showed reporter Jennifer Frazier thin white threads stringing out from the roots of trees. These strings are actually hollow tubes, a complex network of fungi that break down items in the soil, converting them into usable minerals that feed trees the nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium, potassium, lignen, and copper that trees need to thrive. In return, the trees give the fungi sugar, but when tree times are tough, the fungi release sugar back to trees. These long tubes link into a vast networking system that connects tree roots to tree roots.
When a tree is attacked — say by insects — or lacks for nutrients, it can use this fungal network to communicate, and when a tree is dying and dumping its carbon network, it uses the mycorrhizl network to send its nutrients out to nearby trees.
The existence of those fungal networks speaks to the profound complexity of soil and hints at the disruption that tearing, digging, and tilling render for lesser plants. Earthworms and decomposed roots build tube structures called macropores that facilitate rainfall soak and soil air exchange, improving future root growth. Soil aggregates and organic soil materials improve, improving the soil’s nutritional value to plants.
During the Great Dust Bowl, when soils had been tilled and cultivated repeatedly with monocrops, humans learned the hardest lessons about soil degradation and erosion. Eager to prevent another disaster, we’ve made strides in uncovering the mysteries of soil, water and ecosystems and improving soil conservation practices. Such efforts have helped farmers around the world feed over seven billion people while reducing widespread starvation. Local organizations such as Montgomery County’s Soil and Water Conservation District work at here at home to educate and promote programs that leverage the knowledge available to support healthy water, soil and environmental practices.
Once a one-man office, the SWCD expanded through the pandemic to two hard-working staff, Kristen Latzke and Sam Lovold, who earned state recognition this year. Running a two-person operation with multiple priorities set by their board of directors annually is no small feat. In addition to writing grants, they educate farmers, homeowners, local garden groups and others about their grant-based programs, distribute the funds, and keep their website updated and social media relevant to reach the rest of us.
To say Latzke and Lovold keep busy is an understatement. In the past year, they wrapped up a number of grant-based programs including a cover crop cost share program through the Lake and River Enhancement program. The cost share program helped farmers who’ve never planted cover crops to pay for them. The programs pays to educate farmers who may be leery of the value of cover crops about the nutrient replenishment of cover crops during the season that fields lay fallow.
One of the objectives for MoCo’s SWCD is to protect soil with the soil conservation initiative. The initiative leans on four pillars — to maximize cover, biodiversity and living roots, as well as minimize disturbance by encouraging no-till/strip-till method; plant diverse conservation crop rotations to replenish the soil; prescribe conservation buffers; integrate weed and pest management; aim for adaptive nutrient management; use precision farming technology, integrate livestock and manure; and use diverse, strategic cover crops. Farmers see healthy soil and higher yields if they follow these practices, but it’s a culture shift.
SWCD didn’t rest there. Another critical accomplishment was the pollinator patch they planted. Though only about 22% of U.S. bee hives collapsed in 2022, an improvement, believe it or not, on previous years, and though Indiana’s bee pollinators have been faring better than hives elsewhere, native pollinator patches and flowers remain critical to food supply health.
Then in the northern part of the county, SWCD helped a cattle farmer mitigate livestock illness and land damage by putting in a heavy use pad. Since cattle linger, as is their nature, grazing and trampling the soil, they create mud with imbalances in the soil’s nutrients, killing off plant life. Installing a heavy use pad begins with excavating the mud, a combination of wet dirt, excrement and urine, heavy in certain elements that are likely to run off into nearby areas.
Upon excavation, layers of fabric then stones of various sizes are layered to filter the run off. From heavy use pads to watershed management, SWCD works across the ecosystem. After all systems are complex. What’s in one — soil, water, or plant — affects another, so larger, long-term projects, such as improving water quality in the Sugar Creek Watershed — an area that touches on Tippecanoe, Clinton, Boone and Montgomery counties, make a profound impact. Presently the watershed, an area of land that drains into Sugar Creek, is home to significant imbalances of nitrogen, phosphorous and e.coli usually from farm runoff. Nitrogen cycles are closely related to animal excrement and phosphorous is related to urine.
To improve plant life, SWCD has worked with local groups to educate about and control invasive species. You may have seen signs that read “Invasive species containment in progress” and wondered what the species was. Most are landscaping plants that have escaped their gardens and spread rapidly in wooded areas. One, the Asian Honeysuckle Bush, which is now illegal to sell in Indiana, has quickly overtaken woodlands. This time of year, it’s nearly impossible to miss the Asian Honeysuckle, each bush is clinging to its green with pearl-sized red berries, that Latzke says birds love to eat. The berries attract birds like candy thrills a child. Though the bright red berries are beautiful, they lack nutrients; nevertheless the birds consume them, then poop the seeds all over the woodlands, where it’s toxic to the soil, and the bush grows so dense in the underbrush that it restricts the movement of animals.
Another invasive plant, the Burning Bush, remains profitable, which incentivizes lawmakers to keep it legal to sell even though it spreads quickly, eating up real estate for native plants, stealing nutrients and destroying biodiversity. Along with the Burning Bush, the Bradford Pear, once popular but pungent, along with periwinkle, vinca minor, a dark green ivy with shiny thick leaves and lovely periwinkle blossoms, are invading urban and rural spaces.
Educating farmers, gardeners and homeowners is part of the mission of the SWCD, whose two main employees find no shortage of work in improving our local water, soil and plant life. Two people cannot replace a robust partnership with all of us. The rest of us can help! Latzke offers a few insights from their education efforts.
First, test your soil before fertilizing or applying pesticides routinely. Your lawn or garden may not need more nitrogen or phosphorous and it will just run off or make your soil less effective for supporting native plant life.
Plant native plants rather what is the latest fashion in landscaping. Local plants tend to be better habituated to water fall, resist competition, give back to the soil, require less “weed” control or pesticides, support pollinators, and are less likely to invade woodlands.
Keep an eye out for education opportunities and follow SWCD on social media, Yodel or check their website (https://montgomerycoswcd.com) for an abundance of events and resources, including native plant sales, grant support for your farm or land. They provide a hub of contractors for drainage, water or soil testing, helping fight invasive species, wildlife control and rehabilitation, seeds and plants and even fencing contractors. https://montgomerycoswcd.com/contractor-list2/
Finally, the pair — Latzke and Lovold — will receive a much deserved state award and a showcase in Indianapolis in January. Cheers to a pair making Montgomery County a great place to live.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.