Midwest Farming Soil is Eroding – This May Be Why
The year was 1936. A severe drought overtook the Midwest, resulting in the loss of corn, wheat and other crops across broad swaths of land. The severe drought was devastating to farmers, but it was only just the beginning. The plants that died were all that was holding the rich, fertile soil down. With those plants gone, the midwests top soil was free to blow around.
The resulting “dust bowl” sent the Midwest’s topsoil into the air, causing pneumonia in children and stripping the land of vital nutrients. It was one of the most devastating moments in US history, but also kick-started soil conservation in a big way.
Soil Conservation Efforts Have Not Been Enough
In the last 160 years the Midwest has lost 57.6 billion metric tons of soil. Soil continues to be lost every year despite the conservation efforts put into place. It’s evident that despite adding windrows and leaving crop residue on the field are not enough.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts think modern farming may be to blame. When we plow fields and lay soil bare, we leave it vulnerable to be picked up by wind and carried away. It can take 1,000 years to gain an inch of topsoil, so every little bit matters.
The problem of soil erosion is complicated. We need to be able to farm large swaths of land to provide nutrition for the 8 billion people currently living on Earth. We can’t just stop farming for a few thousand years and hope the world fixes itself.
What we can do is change how we farm. Many farmers are already taking action to rebuild their soil and stop erosion. Here’s what they’re doing:
- Adopting no-till farming
About 21% of farmers have opted to stop tilling their fields altogether. They have found, either through accident or experimentation, that they get better yields and less soil erosion when they do so.
No-till is not only a great solution for soil erosion, it also saves a lot of time and money as well. This is a sensible choice to make, and is gradually catching on with other farmers.
- Employing Cover Crops
Bare soil is the enemy of soil retention. Planting crops for their ability to hold down soil, bore through crusts created by tractors, or put down nutrition in the soil are practical steps to improving soil.
Cover crops, and other methods like double cropping that achieve the same result, are only used by about 12% of farmers.
The Future of Soil
Farmers care deeply about their soil. Their livelihood depends on keeping it rich and in their fields. Those that have moved on to climate friendly methods are reaping benefits from it, but nearly 80% of farmers are not using these practices.
Part of it may be fear of change. Fewer crops means less pay, and each year always seems to be worse than the last. The National Farmer Union has put forward a solution that may help more farmers test the waters safely—paying them to do so.
With finances secured, they can experiment with climate friendly farming methods without the “What if” scenario of it failing and leaving them bankrupt. They also have an idea for who should behind that program.
They suggest that a member of the food industry should offer incentives to farmers to try climate friendly approaches to farming. The food industry buys the farmers crops, and so has a lot of sway over the farmers and what they do.
Soil is a critical part of our food supply, and regardless of who is behind it, adopting methods that aid in soil retention makes sense.