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A deeper dive into soils with Professor Jane Rickson

As we look towards World Soil Day on the 5th December, Professor Jane Rickson, one of the UK’s leading soil health experts, catches up with LEAF Technical Officer, Eleanor Marks to discuss the value of water retention in soils and the challenges faced by many farmers.

Pro­fes­sor Jane Rick­son is an aca­d­e­m­ic at Cran­field Uni­ver­si­ty (Soil, Agri­Food and Bio­sciences) in Bed­ford­shire and mem­ber of LEAF’s Board of Trustees. 

Eleanor: So let me start by ask­ing- How do you define soil water retention? 

Jane: When exam­in­ing soils and water, it is impor­tant to remem­ber the 3 Rs. The soil’s abil­i­ty to: 

- Receive water (from rain­fall or irri­ga­tion or over­land flow) 

- Retain that water in the soil pro­file (espe­cial­ly dur­ing droughts) 

- Release that water through infil­tra­tion (to avoid the risk of sur­face flooding) 

Soil water reten­tion is pri­mar­i­ly relat­ed to soil tex­ture and pore size; soil tex­ture is depen­dent on soil type; sands, silts, clays, or com­bi­na­tion of these.

Eleanor: What is valu­able about hav­ing soils that retain water well?

Jane: As well as hav­ing water avail­able for crops dur­ing droughts, soil water reten­tion is impor­tant in reduc­ing sur­face runoff and soil ero­sion. Healthy soils can receive, retain, and release that water down through its lay­ers by infil­tra­tion. Runoff on the sur­face is there­fore less severe com­pared to com­pact­ed soils that can­not hold, nor drain water through. Nutri­ents and oth­er agro­chem­i­cals are lost in sur­face runoff and erod­ed soil. With the cost of nutri­ents being so high, it’s like mon­ey flow­ing down the drain. 

Many farm­ers recog­nise soil as an asset that under­pins their busi­ness­es. Farm­ing approach­es have shift­ed from sole­ly pre­serv­ing this asset, to improv­ing it with regen­er­a­tive prac­tices. Our soils need to be made resilient to the extreme con­di­tions we are expe­ri­enc­ing, while grow­ing good qual­i­ty and quan­ti­ties of food and mate­ri­als. Regen­er­a­tive farm­ing ensures healthy and nutri­ent rich soils with good water reten­tion and car­bon stor­age capac­i­ty. Healthy soils keep farms in busi­ness so that rur­al liveli­hoods prosper. 

Eleanor: What do you think are the main chal­lenges farm­ing is facing? 

Jane: I think that farm­ing does need to adapt to extreme con­di­tions; hot­ter, dri­er sum­mers and warmer, wet­ter win­ters. These con­di­tions might require increased irri­ga­tion, flood man­age­ment, or even cul­ti­vat­ing alter­na­tive, heat tol­er­ant crops. How­ev­er, farm­ing can con­tribute to mit­i­gat­ing against cli­mate change, for exam­ple, through car­bon seques­tra­tion rather than focus­ing sole­ly on cli­mate change adaptation. 

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The full arti­cle is avail­able in our Inte­grat­ed Farm Man­age­ment Quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine, exclu­sive to LEAF mem­bers. Click here to find out more.