SALEM — Brenda Frketich grows a variety of specialty crops at her family’s farm in the Mid-Willamette Valley, from tall fescue and perennial ryegrass to fresh veggies and hazelnuts.

But perhaps the most unusual “planting” came on May 6, with a pair of comically oversized cotton underwear.

Frketich, who runs Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, Ore., buried the enormous tighty-whities as part of the “Soil Your Undies” challenge, a campaign organized by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to demonstrate healthy soils.

The Marion Soil & Water Conservation District recruited about a dozen female farmers around the area to join the challenge, including Frketich, who took turns with her young sons Hoot, 4, and Auggie, 3, digging into hard ground at the edge of a fescue field.

Once they had a hole 3 inches deep, they finished burying the underwear and marked the spot with a bright orange flag. In 60 days, they will return to see what, if anything, still remains of the britches.

The idea is that tiny microbes and bacteria in soil will devour the organic cotton fibers, leaving them tattered and threadbare. The more deteriorated the undies, the healthier the soil.

“I just think it’s a neat idea,” Frketich said. “I think it’s something people can relate to.”

Meredith Hoffman, conservation planner with the Marion SWCD in Salem, said she wanted not only to highlight soil fertility in the Willamette Valley, but also the growing influence of women in agriculture.

“These women that run these operations, it is their livelihoods,” Hoffman said. “These women play key roles. They’re out there deciding agricultural practices.”

The latest Census of Agriculture shows the number of women who were “primary producers” — defined by the USDA as the person who makes the most decisions for the farm or ranch — rose 69.6% nationwide between 2012 and 2017, from 288,264 to 489,000.

“I feel like our generation has been lucky,” said Frketich, who took over Kirsch Family Farms from her father, Paul Kirsch, in 2012. “We’ve been given a lot of opportunities that weren’t realized in past years.”

Alexa Weathers, a fifth-generation farm manager at Willamette Mission Farms in Gervais, Ore., also took over her family’s hops and hazelnuts operation about a year ago, after graduating from Oregon State University in 2016 with a degree in agricultural sciences.

Weathers agreed to take the “Soil Your Undies” challenge, recognizing the importance of rigorous soil testing to ensure healthy crops.

“I’m interested to see how fast the microbes in the soil will degrade the cotton. That will really show how well the soil is working to promote the growth of our hops and hazelnuts,” she said. “It’s really important what’s in our soil, and how well it’s working for us.”

One teaspoon of healthy soil contains more microbes than there are people on the planet, according to the NRCS. The agency recommends four steps to healthier soils, including avoiding soil disturbance wherever possible, planting cover crops, maximizing biodiversity in fields and maximizing living roots in the ground throughout the year.

The Willamette Valley is home to more than 200 different types of crops, Hoffman said, but not would be possible without fantastic soils.

“Farmers know that if you don’t have soil health, you have nothing,” she said.

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