NRCS invites farmers to ‘soil your undies’

Talk about a strange harvest.

Earlier this year, six Eastern Oregon farmers and ranchers agreed to bury pairs of cotton underwear in their fields and dig them back up later in the season as part of the “Soil Your Undies” challenge, organized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Not much remained of the tattered, torn and threadbare britches — and that’s precisely the point. The “Soil Your Undies” challenge was devised to illustrate the presence of tiny microorganisms like mites, bacteria, fungi and protozoa that make up healthy soil, and which devour the organic cotton fibers in underpants.

NRCS Oregon is now ready to roll out the challenge statewide, inviting any and all growers to participate in 2019.

“This challenge is no substitute for lab testing,” said Cory Owens, NRCS Oregon state soil scientist. “But it’s a fun way to start thinking about what’s going on in the soil.”

According to the NRCS, one teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than the entire human population on Earth. Working in concert, the bitty organisms are a critically important feature in soil, cycling nutrients for plants, storing moisture and helping to resist erosion.

Robert Hathorne, a spokesman for NRCS Oregon, said the more microbes break down undies, the stronger the indication of healthy soil.

“It’s a way to start thinking about what’s happening that causes soil health,” Hathorne said.

Six Oregon producers took the challenge in 2018, including Joe McElligott and Corey Miller, of Morrow County, and Woody Wolfe, Joe Dawson, Alan Klages and Mark Butterfield, of Wallowa County.

“They thought it was all pretty funny,” Hathorne said. “All of them had really strong results from what we found.”

The only exception was Butterfield, who was unable to find his underwear after sneaky cows stole the marker flag he had used to mark the spot.

Even McElligott and Miller, who farm dryland wheat in an area that receives just 9-12 inches of rain every year, found their undies were eaten down to just the elastic. Both growers use a no-till or reduced tillage system, leaving crop residue in the field to replenish soil organic matter.

Hathorne said the NRCS is hoping the results lead to more interest in the “Soil Your Undies” challenge in 2019. To participate, farmers should “plant” a pair of 100 percent cotton underwear at the beginning of the normal growing season, and leave them for at least 60 days. Send “before” and “after” photos, along with information about the farm and growing practices, to, or to any local NRCS office.