I have been remiss about writing, but when a friend sent me a news article about what some farmers from Europe are doing, I felt the need to return from my sabbatical and share my thoughts.

As extension personnel we discuss soil health with farmers and gardeners as a way of increasing productivity and sustainability. Soil health is more than the amount of nutrients in the soil, though that is important. Complete soil health takes into account all the microbes, fungi, bacteria, nematodes, earthworms, and more. Measuring soil health can be tricky; however, some farmers across the big pond have discovered a method of measuring soil health that can be easily replicated in our area. Their method is a little unorthodox but has some additional benefits. This scientific method they have developed can aide in cleaning out your dresser and/or reduce your laundry load. Farmers across the pond are burying their skivvies to test the health of their soil.

When I heard of their unique testing technique, I wondered, who came up with this? I am guessing it may be the one doing the laundry. Someone took one look at the undies and said, "I’m not doing it anymore,” went and buried them. In disgust the owner of the underpants went out to recover them and a scientific discovery was made. (Just my theory)

This is the procedure that has been developed. You start with cotton underwear, cotton not rayon, polyester, or nylon. The material of the unmentionables is the basis of the testing procedure. Step two requires manual labor. You bury the Fruit of the Looms. (This is not an endorsement for Berkshire Hathaway.) When you bury the underwear, do not bury them to deep. Stay in the topsoil and above the clay pan. Third, wait two months before trying to recover the underpants. If the Fruit of the Looms are still intact, your soil health may be lacking. If all you find is the elastic waistband, your soil is healthy and ready to be productive.

The reasoning behind this experiment is relatively simple. Soil is composed of living organisms made up of fungi, bacteria, microbes, and others. These organisms break down organic material and convert it into a form that is available for plants to use. A soil is healthy if it has high organic matter content and a large number of organisms to break the material down. The faster the underwear is broken down and consumed by the organisms, the healthier the soil.

The amount of organic material in the soil has a direct effect on the water holding capacity of the soil. It has been shown that increasing soil organic matter increases the ability of soil to absorb rain water, rather than having it run off. As the organic matter in the soil increases, the plant-available water increases. Organic matter readily absorbs water and holds it until needed by plant roots. It has been estimated that for every one percent increase in organic matter in the soil, the plant-available water in the soil increases by 25,000 gallons per acre. During the rapid growing phase, corn in southeast Kansas uses about a quarter-inch of water per day. So every four days, a corn crop needs an additional one inch of soil water. Soils with greater amounts of organic matter would both increase the amount of water held in the soil and increase the water available to that growing corn crop.

Coming from an area with limited topsoil, being able to increase the water holding capacity of our soil is a tremendous advantage. Increased microbial activity in the soil also enhances the plants ability to absorb needed nutrients. So how do we increase organic matter and microbial activity? One way is reducing tillage to the soil. Every time we till the soil, we are reducing organic material, breaking down soil structure, and disrupting plant root and fungal hyphae networks. Another way is adding organic material to our soil such as compost, litter, manure, etc. However, those materials can be loaded with nutrients, which may be problematic. Adding nutrients to the soil is not bad, but just like eating too much candy will give you a stomach ache, overloading the soil with certain nutrients can cause issues for plants as well.

K-State does have a soil testing lab that can test for organic material, nutrients, soil pH, minerals, and more. From the results, a plan can be developed to help your land reach its maximum potential. Although, if you have some underwear you really don’t want to wash, you may try burying them and test the health of your soil. The bonus to all of this is that if your undies are already soiled, you are also increasing the nutrient value of your land. As life continues, keep looking between the barb wire.