Spring is an excellent time for farmers, ranchers and gardeners to focus their attention on the soil below them. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service says a spring check-up of a soil's health gives clues to the ground's ability to feed plants, hold water, capture carbon and more.

"No fancy equipment is required. Just grab a shovel to dig a little and learn a lot", says Doug Peterson, NRCS state soil health conservationist.

Small farmers, large farmers, organic farmers and even home gardeners can all benefit from this simple discovery project of one of their most important resources. And in the process they can reap big rewards for their crops and the environment around them, Peterson says.

Peterson suggests the following steps to investigate soil health:

LOOK‹first at the soil surface which should be covered with plant residue, providing organic matter and preventing erosion. Dig into the soil and observe the color and structure. It should be dark, crumbly, and porous--rather like chocolate cake. Healthy soil is full of air holes, live roots and earthworms. Poorer soils are lighter in color, compacted or unstructured, and lack living roots and critters.

SMELL‹Healthy soils have a sweet earthy smell, indicating the presence of geosmin, a byproduct of soil microbes called actinomycetes. These microbes decompose the tough plant and animal residues in and on the soil and bring nitrogen from the air into the soil to feed plants. An unhealthy, out-of-balance soil smells sour or metallic, or like kitchen cleanser.

TOUCH‹Soil should be loose and it should crumble easily, indicating a porous texture. This holds water better, making it available for plants and stemming flooding and runoff. In healthy soils, roots can grow straight and deep, allowing plants to reach nutrients and water they need to produce food.

"We are blessed with productive soils in Missouri," says Peterson. "We want to keep them that way and even build them where possible."

In addition to the vital production values of soil health to individual farmers and gardeners, Peterson explains that healthy soils have clear impacts on many of the larger agricultural and environmental issues of our day from sustainable food production to water quality to mitigating climate change. Healthy soils hold, filter and regulate water, mitigate drought and flooding, reduce runoff and erosion, cycle nutrients, sequester carbon and suppress weeds and pests naturally. For all these reasons NRCS has recently launched a nationwide effort to "Unlock the Secrets in the Soil."

For more information about soil health, visit http://www.nrcs.usda.gov, or contact your local NRCS office.