How to test your soil health with a pair of cotton underwear

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The results of a soil your undies activity after 60 days.

Pennsylvania soil health experts want you to soil your undies in June. No, not like that. 

“I love the reaction I get when I ask a farmer to bury a pair of underwear in their fields. It starts with confusion and always ends with a chuckle” said Lisa Blazure, Pennsylvania Soil Health Coordinator with the Stroud Water Research Center.

The soil your undies activity is a favorite of soil health educators everywhere as a way to visually show the results of healthy soils. Anyone can participate by burying a pair of cotton underwear in the ground and digging them up 60 days later. 

Healthy soils with lots of active bacteria, fungi, protozoa and insects will yield tattered and deteriorated undies at the end of the 60 days. While it’s a fun and kitschy activity, it has some real implications for your soil health.

“If you dig up the undies and they’re not very decomposed, that means you need to work on your soil health,” Blazure said. From there you can figure out what other management practices you can implement to get things going underground.

That can be things like avoiding soil disturbance whenever and wherever possible, using cover crops to maintain living roots and soil cover year round and maximizing biodiversity by growing a diverse number of plants. Healthy soils mean more productive crops, but also increase rainwater infiltration, reduce erosion and sequester carbon.

You don’t have to have a lot of acreage to participate. Blazure said you could do it in a corn field, a pasture, a backyard garden or flower beds around your house. Participants can sign up for the challenge from June 1-30 at pasoilhealth.org/soilyourundies to receive tips and reminders. 

The challenge is part of a soil health awareness campaign spearheaded by The Big Favorite, an undergarments brand headquartered in Philadelphia, and a number of Pennsylvanian environmental and agricultural groups including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, PA Soil Health Coalition, Pasa Sustainable Agriculture and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. 

When the activity is over after 60 days, participants can share a photo and information about their results on the PA Soil Health website. 

Blazure said June is the best time to start this activity as the soil is warm and moist and the microbes and insects within the soil are becoming the most active.

How to soil your undies

Step 1: Find a pair of 100% cotton underwear.
Step 2: Dig a hole big enough to lay the underwear flat, about 3-4 inches deep.
Take a “before” photo of the underwear, then cover the whole with dirt. Be sure to mark the area you buried the undies with a flag or stick.
Step 3: Mark your calendar for 60 days and wait.
Step 4: Dig up your undies and see what’s left. Take a photo to share your results.
Visit pasoilhealth.org/soilyourundies for more information or to sign up for the challenge.

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Rachel is a reporter with Farm and Dairy and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation beef and sheep farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts.

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