A Recipe for Soil Disaster: Flooding + Today’s Farm Policy
“Soil is more important than oil and is as much a nonrenewable resource.”
Back in March, I wrote one of my most popular posts ever, titled “Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.”
The article began like this…
There was much of interest in the post, but one important piece of information was this…
Well, as it turns out, somebody is paying attention, because last week I received a file of photographs from North Dakotan Rick, who calls himself a concerned Prairie Photographer. He has documented for us the erosion of newly converted “HEL” or highly erodible land to cropland in North Dakota and calls this story an ongoing disaster.
The photos he sent are great examples of poor farming practices spurred on by today’s government policy which encourages all out monoculture crop production from fencerow to fencerow. Combined policies of crop insurance and mandated (still increasing) use of corn and soy for biofuels are causing this destruction to one of our nation’s most precious resources, its topsoil.
Unfortunately, this resource is located in flyover country and civilizations are known to take topsoil for granted until it is gone. Chalk it up to human nature. U.S. cropland is somewhat akin to a factory these days, with the motive of ever-increasing efficiency made possible through mechanization and fossil fuel inputs. High productivity as the driving motivator is shortsighted, however, because when you lose your topsoil you lose your productivity.
Climate scientists predict more weather extremes like droughts and flooding, and these photos were taken following heavy rains in the region. I encourage you to click on the photos to enlarge them to more fully view the extent of the damage.
(Click to enlarge.)
According to the photographer, the above photo shows a field which covers one-half section in central North Dakota that was “broken out” of CRP last fall. This spring it was seeded to beans. He found blue/green treated bean seeds all over. The photo looks into the ditch and field from the Hiway.
(Click to enlarge.)
This photo shows the same field from another side. When you enlarge the photo, notice the gullies in the top of the hill.
(Click to enlarge.)
This field, also in central North Dakota, was taken recently following 3-6 inch rains in the region over a few days. What is missing in these fields (in all of these photos) are grassed waterways and buffer areas which would have mitigated the topsoil erosion.
(Click to enlarge.)
The photographer had this to say about the above photograph: “Please note that the wetland (in left center of photo) received a foot of new topsoil!! Pretty soon it will pond no water and then it can too be farmed!”
Next, let’s look at a map to see the unique geographic importance of this region in North Dakota where these photos were taken.
This is called the Prairie Pothole region which is extremely important habitat for waterfowl, migratory birds, and aquatic invertebrates. By paying farmers an adequate sum to retire these highly erodible lands, we could preserve both the land and the wildlife of the region.
Other Regions Also Saw Flooding
By doing a Google search, I found that the states of Iowa, Illinois, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Vermont each have had recent news items about flooding and heavy rains which washed out seeds and required replanting. Anytime you hear “replant” in the news, and it seems we’ve been hearing it a lot lately, think topsoil erosion, because rain that washes out seeds also washes the topsoil away. Farmers dislike the costs, as new seeds are expensive, and they often have to reapply fertilizer which has also been washed away. In some cases, taxpayer subsidized crop insurance covers replanting expenses.
Today’s policy is not what farmers want. A 2010 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll revealed that two-thirds of Iowa farmers said they should be required to conserve soil on highly erodible cropland regardless of whether they participated in federal farm programs.
Soil is a Global Issue
As the world’s leading farm commodity exporter, the rest of the world should pay attention to our farming practices, too, as they play a role in the future food security of the entire planet. In yesterday’s news, a timely Aljazeera report out of Reykjavik, Iceland, ties in well to this post. Iceland lost nearly all of its topsoil, and, consequently its wealth due to overgrazing and other unsustainable practices decades ago. A “peak soil” meeting held there expressed concern because of the fact that “In the past 40 years, 30 percent of the planet’s arable land has become unproductive due to erosion.”
Reykjavik, Iceland – Soil is becoming endangered, and this reality needs to be part of our collective awareness in order to feed nine billion people by 2050, say experts meeting in Reykjavík. And a big part of reversing soil decline is the use of carbon, the same element that is helping to overheat the planet. “Keeping and putting carbon in its rightful place,” needs to be the mantra for humanity if we want to continue to eat, drink and combat global warming, concluded 200 researchers from more than 30 countries. “There is no life without soil,” said Anne Glover, chief scientific adviser to the European Commission. … Iceland relies far less on agriculture now and the harsh lessons of poor land management of the past are irrelevant to the 90 percent of Icelanders who now live in urban areas. “The public isn’t supporting land restoration,” Halldórsson said. “We’ve forgotten that land is the foundation of life.”
Here in the U.S., we should surely know better. We have no good excuses to overproduce farm commodities and then turn around and create an artificial demand for them — at the cost of our precious topsoil.
If flooding becomes more and more frequent because of climate change, that means that today’s U.S. Ag policy and industrial farming practices will lead to a more rapid loss of topsoil in our farm country, especially in conjunction with government policy plans which continue to decrease Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acreage. Add a little drought-induced blowing dust into the mix and Hugh Bennett will surely turn over in his grave.
Is anybody paying attention?
UPDATE: I’ve written a “Part 2″ here: More Updates on Soil Erosion in Iowa and the U.S.