Dirt Diaries: Soil Health Campaign Drives Underwear Digs Across Pennsylvania

800 450 Stroud Water Research Center

This August, people throughout Pennsylvania are participating in a coordinated archaeological dig — for underwear. Sixty days ago, Stroud™ Water Research Center and other member organizations of the Pennsylvania Soil Health Coalition buried cotton underwear as part of a soil health education campaign called Soil Your Undies. Now the 130 people who signed up for the challenge are carefully unearthing the underpants to see how much of the fabric remains. The less, the better, as decomposition is an indication of good soil health. 

In dry soil, the microbes go into a dormant phase and buried cotton underwear are not decomposed.
When soils are dry, the microbes go into a dormant phase and little decomposition occurs. Photo: Kelly O’Neill

Soil Health Coordinator Lisa Blazure says, “We’re also learning how important soil moisture is to this underground community.” This summer has had below-average rainfall in many parts of the state, and Blazure explains, “We’re not seeing as much decomposition in those locations.”

Soil microbes live within the thin water layer on soil particles and crop roots. They rely on that soil moisture to feed and move throughout the soil profile. When soils are dry, the microbes go into a dormant phase. Management practices — including well-managed pasture, no-till planting and cover crops — improve the soil structure, allowing rainwater to soak into the ground instead of running off the fields. Not only is this good for the crops and microbes; it’s also good for the local streams.  Less sediment and nutrients running off of fields and into streams helps to protect water quality.

The Stroud Center recognizes that to achieve healthy stream systems, it’s important to have well-managed, healthy watersheds which drain into streams. For the last ten years, the Robin L. Vannote Watershed Restoration Program has been working with agricultural landowners, encouraging them to be good stewards of the land. Advancing soil health education and practices is the latest effort. “Soil Your Undies is a fun and engaging way to start the conversation around which practices can improve soil health,” says Blazure.  It’s a win-win situation as these practices improve the farm’s land and overall resiliency, while also helping to meet water quality goals. 

Take Action!
Share something you have learned about #soilhealth with us on social media @stroudcenter or join us for an event in support of clean fresh water.