So a soil scientist steps up to a conference microphone about to deliver a one-hour talk and my first thought — “is 8:30 in the morning too early for a nap?” But not so.

What a great talk given by Henry Janzen, a long-time researcher at the Agriculture Canada Lethbridge Research Centre to open the annual Canadian Forage and Grassland Association conference in Calgary in mid-November. His message was not just for beef producers but also grain, oilseed and pulse crop farmers as well. Look after the soil.

Geez, not necessarily a new theme either, but in a simple, yet eloquent, and often poetic manner Janzen described without the benefit of complex graphs and tables “you probably can’t read from the back” that soil is the foundation — not just of farming but of life. If we don’t have soil, we don’t have anything, so it is important to keep it healthy and productive.

Janzen’s talk was woven around the increasingly common term being bandied about by producers and conference agenda writers — soil health. What is that? What does that term mean? Exactly what is a healthy soil?

“Soil health is lovely term with plenty of allure,” says Janzen, but he added there is no simple definition. Much like beauty it may be defined in the eye of the beholder. Janzen says a healthy soil has to viewed within the context of the particular ecosystem wherein it is found, and there are many factors which can affect that ecosystem.

The concept of soil health depends on what the soil is being used for — its function and functionality, says Janzen. Some of the soil functions include food production, biodiversity, filtering, and aesthetics. Food production in simplest terms is farming; biodiversity is about a complex mix of trees and other plants providing habitat for other creatures; filtering is taking impurities out of water for example; and aesthetics, well that’s about supporting some landscape we as humans find appealing. When thinking about functions and systems he says it is important to evaluate soil health over the entire landscape — “don’t just look at fields or plots or patches, but also study the margins, wetlands, fence lines, wastelands and hedges,” he says. “Also look at the hidden places where many land functions are performed.”

Janzen stripped it down to the basics. The sun is the only source of energy for humans and animals. To use that energy, humans need to eat something that converts that energy into a usable form — a beef cow, carrots or wheat flour come to mind. And to capture that energy in the first place we need plants — trees, grass and crops. Janzen cited dozens of quotable sources “photosynthesis remains the most important energy conversion in the biosphere” and “a process that imbues carbon from the air with energy from the sun and fuels all living things” and the “land as an energy circuit” and soil “the eternal circuit.”

So it comes back to a vital element of soil health: plants, maintaining ground cover. Plants need a healthy soil and a healthy soil needs plants. And if we as humans are going to survive we need both as well, healthy plants and healthy soil.

Grasslands (trees, grass, a wide diversity of plants) were around for millions of years before humans showed up. Plants produced energy and protein, but they also returned (or recycled) carbon to the soil, which kept the billions of soil bacteria, microbes and fungi healthy and ultimately kept the soil productive.

Janzen says the challenge is to look at the function or use of the soil and aim to keep it healthy and productive. Pure grassland systems tend to be recycling systems, while livestock and crop production systems tend to be users — they remove nutrients that need to be restored or replaced.

Janzen says it’s important for farmers to tell their good stories, stories that are hopeful, and talk about wise and affirmative management. It’s important “to convince society that land matters.”