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Soil your undies

‘We started digging up the underwear and the underwear was one with the soil. There was very little material left. Just the elastic waistband.’

-Messenger photo by Kriss Nelson
Underwear displayed at the Humboldt County NRCS office shows different reactions to the biology of the soil in which they were buried. Burying 100 percent cotton underwear is a simple way to test for soil health.

HUMBOLDT — After seeing a farmer from Ontario, Canada soil his undies on YouTube, Doug Adams and Gary Hammitt decided they would like to see themselves and other area farmers soil their undies, too.

In this case, however, soiling your undies doesn’t mean what it usually does. This is, literally, putting your underwear in the soil.

“It’s another way of seeing what is going on in your field,” said Adams, a soil conservation technician with the NRCS office in Humboldt. “Based on how active the biology is in your soils.”

Last spring, Adams and Hammitt, a soil conservationist the NRCS office, replicated the #soilyourundies trial with 10 pairs of underwear on nine farms in Humboldt, Kossuth and Webster counties.

“The idea is the microbes in the soil see the cotton as just another source of carbon,” said Adams. “The more active the biology is, the more underwear is going to disappear over the period of time.”

-Submitted photo
Doug Adams, soil conservation technician with the Humboldt County NRCS, buries a pair of underwear for Dave Gerber of LuVerne last spring as part of the Soil your Undies project.

Shortly after planting was completed last spring, Adams said they took the 100 percent cotton underwear and buried them 2 to 4 inches deep into the soil.

“You just dig a spot the size of the underwear to be able to lay flat, put the underwear in with the elastic tab up a little bit so you can come back and find it, but you should put a flag there to help mark the area,” said Hammitt.

Adams said the soil your undies test can be done anytime in the growing season, but suggests waiting for any tillage or planting work to be done so they can be left undisturbed for several weeks.

They waited about eight weeks before digging up the underwear.

“The first pair we dug up was in a cover crop field — been in cover crops for two years,” said Adams. “He had still been doing tillage ahead of his first cover crop, but this was his first cover crop of a no-till field.”

The results were surprising.

“We started digging up the underwear and the underwear was one with the soil,” he said. “There was very little material left. Just the elastic waistband.”

Hammitt, Adams and the farmer were very impressed with the changes in soil structure in that short time of using cover crops and no-till practices.

“We are finding soil structure can really improve pretty fast once a farmer quits tilling it,” Adams said. “And with the addition of cover crops it accelerates that speed of change.”

“The farmer was surprised with the number of earthworms in that field too,” added Hammitt.

Research has shown earthworms create an increase of nutrient availability and bring other benefits such as stable soil structure, better drainage and more.

That same producer tried the soil your undies project in another field.

“We went from that farmer’s field up to his other field that was just in first year no-till soybeans,” said Adams. “The only thing different was missing the cover crops.”

The results weren’t as impressive as in the first field.

“When we dug up the second pair, I couldn’t believe it,” Adams said. “You could almost wear that pair of underwear.”

That was definitely an ah-ha moment for the producer.

“The farmer said he could feel and see the difference of the soil in the two fields. It really opened his eyes,” Adams said. “I don’t think he had really taken the time until we went out and were actually digging up the underwear and then you could really see the difference.”

Hammitt said they noticed burying the underwear in corn fields brought more results.

“We tended to see more decomposition on those,” he said. “I think that was mainly due to the fertilizer feeding the biology of the soil as well. It really kind of boosts up the biology.”

Because of the overly wet conditions, Adams said in one situation, although the field was an active no-till field, when they dug up the pair of underwear it was just dirty and basically left untouched.

“The biology just pretty much just left the soil,” he said.

Adams said if you would like to try to soil your undies, but don’t want to spare a pair of underwear, the test has also been done with handkerchiefs.

“Just use anything that is 100 percent cotton,” he said. “But the underwear is something that is pretty easy. It’s something kind of fun and catches people’s eye to start asking questions.”

The results of last year’s project are displayed on the all at the Humboldt County NRCS office. The display shows a wide array of different rates of deterioration of the underwear.

“With the display hanging on the wall, people will be standing at the counter and they notice a pair of underwear hanging on the wall,” Hammitt said. “It’s great way to introduce conservation to people that we normally wouldn’t get up to talk to.”

The soil your undies project is just one of the projects Hammitt and Adams can credit for the success in the rise of cover crops and other conservation practices in their county.

“It’s getting more attention. More interest,” said Hammitt. “Our cover crop numbers are up this year because it has more people curious and with the cost share there is a lot less risk for farmers to try it. I would have to say you can attribute some of that to the soil your undies program.”