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Local farmers, gardeners try new way to test soil health in gardens and agricultural businesses

SUBMITTED PHOTO  - Lisa Kilders buried cotton briefs in June on property owned by the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District. She'll share the results during the Clackamas County Fair in August.Across the nation, and in a few countries outside of the U.S., soiling your underwear is gaining momentum. But not in the way you might think.

As part of the national Soil Your Undies Campaign, agricultural producers and gardeners are burying 100 percent undyed cotton underwear to test soil health. Cotton, being a food source for soil microbes, will degrade over a period of time if the soil is healthy.

So the Clackamas Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) is encouraging farmers and gardeners to participate in the local Cotton Brief Challenge, which is the same as the national Soil Your Undies Challenge. Participants will bury the cotton briefs 6-8 inches in the soil and wait two months to dig it up. If it isn't significantly degraded, then changes need to be made to ensure soil health.

In June, the Clackamas SWCD found nine agricultural producers and gardeners to participate in the challenge locally and will be sharing their results during the Clackamas County Fair that runs Aug.14-18.

"We're going to have an oak display to kind of educate people on the disappearing oak habitat so we'll have underwear and oaks," said Lisa Kilders, education and outreach program manager for the Clackamas SWCD. "We were always interested in soil health and finding different ways we can outreach to not only growers or agricultural producers, but homeowners because soil health is important to everybody."

Kilders said she came across the Soil Your Undies Campaign one day when she was researching soil health.

"It started in California with the Farmers Guild and they were looking for ways to bring awareness to the general public about soil health so they convinced their growers to start burying 100 percent cotton underwear and it kind of caught on," Kilders said. "It's a little humorous — something you don't hear of often. It spread across the Midwest and Canada — it's very big in Canada. … Then it jumped the big water and it's in England and Scotland too so it's been a big deal."

Clackamas SWCD, which owns property in the Beaver Creek area, is using it as a demonstration area for the Soil Your Undies Challenge. In early June, Kilders said they buried cotton briefs in areas where the soil varied: a pasture, a forested area, a garden without vegetation and a garden with covered crops.

"We'll hopefully be able to show (that) the more plant growth you have and activity on your soil, the healthier your soil is," Kilders said.

And soil health is important for a number of reasons.

Healthy soil requires less fertilization, it holds water and carbon better and it is important for producing healthy crops at a higher yield, among other reasons.

While there are specific soil nutrient tests to find out what the soil is lacking, Kilders wants people to know that burying cotton briefs is a completely different and unscientific test.

"This is basically just to get people to think about their soil health and if they find out they don't have a lot of biological activity then they need to do things to improve their soil health," she said.

The briefs are planted 6 to 8 inches in the ground — the root zone — because that is where most of the biological activity occurs and two months allows the bacteria and microorganisms a chance to degrade the underwear. The reason cotton briefs or underwear are used as opposed to a 100 percent cotton sock or similar item is because of the elastic — a material that won't degrade so people can locate their buried item.

Because it is summer the soil might be dry, so Kilders said to make sure to water the location where the underwear is planted, unless the area is irrigated.

If the underwear is dug up after a couple of months and looks the same as when it was buried — meaning the soil is unhealthy and there isn't a lot of biological activity going on — Kilders said there are some simple ways people can improve their soil health.

Rotating crops each year and having vegetation that grows in both cool and warm seasons is something to consider. The use of cover crops like peas and beans can help fix the nitrogen in the soil, and deep-rooted plants like radishes can help break up compacted soil, which allows for oxygen and water to flow freely.

"You see gardens that have a plant here, a plant there, and a lot of bare soil in between, that soil isn't really getting the nutrients," Kilders said. "(Also), anytime you have soil cover then you also protect the soil from wind erosion. … We have a lot of rain and the raindrops pound that soil and it's amazing (that) the amount of power in a raindrop can knock the soil particles apart and they can fly."

Kilders added that the water carries the soil particles into ditches and streams, which can cause problems for the aquatic system and animals, whereas healthy soil holds water better.

"It's not where the soil should be, it should be in your field and garden," she said.

And it is never too late to join the challenge. People can do it any time of the year and can send their results to the Clackamas SWCD. People also post their results online with the hashtag #ClackBriefs or join the national conversation with the hashtag #SoilYourUndies. Kilders also suggested that for more information or questions, contact the Clackamas SWCD at 503-210-6000 or visit their website, https://conservationdistrict.org/.

Reporter Clara Howell can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 503-636-1281.

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