It’s barely May, but Aspen Moon Farm is bustling with fall harvest-like activity. The inclusion of seedlings in its offerings makes today’s farmers’ market preparations hum. At least half a dozen helpers line the long dirt drive up to the house, where owner Jason Griffith breaks for a sandwich in his enclosed patio. At 45, Griffith has been farming this plot of land in Hygiene, Colorado, for just a few years—but long enough to expand to 10 acres and learn some critical lessons.

“When I first started farming I was gearing all of my production toward ‘how many crops can I get out of this bed or that bed and how intensely can I plant?’” he says. That approach—despite organic and biodynamic cultivation—resulted in soil degradation,evidenced by diminished plant health and increased pests. Griffith reassessed his multiple annual harvests. “We realized we were going to wear that field out quickly. It was interesting to see how fast it could happen.” Wearing out the field is not unique—modern agriculture relies on synthetic chemicals for fertility, too often viewing soil simply as an inert growing medium. What’s unique about Griffith—as with other small-scale organic farmers dependent on nutrient- rich soil—is he chose to do something about it.

Doing something about it is indeed the recommendation of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Its 2015 report states that “33 percent of land is moderately to highly degraded.” In fact, the report reads, “the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition.”

For Griffith, the solution unfolded by reframing the farming effort. “It’s really just about changing the focus from the crop to the soil and what does the soil need so we don’t have to add a ton of fertility every year.” Reducing added fertilizers—natural or otherwise—meant giving scheduling priority to soil-building crops above revenue-producing ones. “Instead of setting up my schedule and saying, ‘I need to plant carrots, beets and all this stuff where I want, whenever I want,’” Griffith says, “I’m basically saying: ‘I need to have a cover crop in this field by this date.’” Then he determines what vegetables work in rotation. The result is a productive farm with a year-round focus on maintaining or improving soil fertility.

This emerging awareness often comes in three words: Soil is alive. And with that comes the breadth of reasons to take care of it. Hint: It’s not just about food.