Category Archives: soil

A Minnesota Writer Muses on Being Called “Anti-Farmer”

John G. White is a “somewhat retired” award-winning newspaper journalist from the state of Minnesota. Besides newspapers, has written for numerous magazines and is a free lance photographer. I was lucky to have discovered his writing and photography in this piece below, as he echoes my own thoughts and photography which I’ve done a few times on this site before, mine with a Nebraska perspective, his with a Minnesota perspective. Same song, different verse, or, if you will, same subject, different state.

His writing is enviable as he explains what he stands for when a farmer-friend accuses him of being “anti-farmer”. John was gracious to allow me permission to republish his post here. Please, I encourage you to visit his site, Listening Stones Farm – Life on the Western Minnesota Prairie.


Bygone Ethics


Recent rains have given us a rare opportunity to revisit the long-gone prairie potholes that were part of the original, post-glacial landscape.”

Recently a friend who happens to be a farmer asked, “When did you become so anti-farmer?”

After my initial surprise and denial, and later, after subsequently rolling through the countryside, I began to realize how my comments and rants could be taken in that manner. My growing up as a child and teenager was in a different era, when having a thick thatch of grass growing where water could create rills of erosion in a field was not only expected, but common. Also common was leaving a swath of anchoring vegetation along riverine embankments. I can also remember my father’s concern when Earl Butz, as Secretary of Agriculture, began preaching his “fence row to fence row” philosophy.

“That will ruin farming,” my father said. He meant the land, although it has also altered farming into a Catch 22 cash chase.


A recently “refurbished” grassland where the rocks were removed and the trees cut and piled.

Realize, please, that my father and I had many rifts and disagreements, politically and otherwise. Despite that, I grew to firmly respect his attention to real conservation farming practices as well as his trepidation on the Butz preamble.

My father lived long enough to watch as neighboring farms grew quite large over the hills of northeast Missouri where grass and grazing was a better ecological fit. He watched as abandoned farmsteads were leveled, burned and the ashes buried, and he watched as hedge rows were dozed along with tree lines and windbreaks. Fences were pulled, wires rolled, and posts, mainly hedge, burned. Forty acre fields became 80’s, and 80’s 160’s, causing him to sadly shake his head. Folks back in my home country now call this “Minnesota farming.”


“Where’s the grass? Tons of soils have washed off fields where rills and gullies were created by heavy rains and moisture.”

Yes, this is precisely the treatment of the land we see all around us. Industrial road grading equipment is used to extract glacial rocks from fields (which are then stored for sale in faraway cities to landscapers), and groves and farmsteads dozed and burned. Sod and prairie grasses, CRP land … all being plowed. Painstaking efforts are made with a blade to cut just enough of a two-foot deep furrow through fields to aid in the rapid flush of water. In many cases these furrows are too shallow to qualify as a legal ditch, meaning a mandate for buffer strips, and once cut, are carefully skirted by tillage equipment and planters. Cattails are allowed to grow … until hit by contact killing Roundup.

In fields already tiled, new and more efficient patterned tile systems are being installed. Although the technology is readily available that would allow farmers better water table management, the devices have been a tough sell despite years of positive presentations at many winter meetings. At least one watershed project had staffers basically begging farmers and landowners for a single demonstration installation … to no avail. Flush is seemingly the norm for managing water tables, not the holding back or storage of melt nor rain.


Shallow water escape routes are cut in fields that won’t technically qualify as a drainage ditch, therefore not mandated for buffer strips.

Hilly lands that should never have been tilled stretch for miles with no regard for erosion. In wet springs and early summers, like we’re having again this year, runoff water carries tons upon tons of soil off the higher land. We passed a field with corn nearly two feet tall in the valleys with spindly, four-to-six inch stalks poking up on the rest of the acres. “That’s where all the good soil has washed off to,” said Rebecca. Typically, 20 percent of a field has the healthy stalks. The rest? Will it qualify for USDA emergency subsidies?

Indeed, an observer can easily see the change in soil color and tilth … light tans compared to a rich darkness … in field after field, mile after mile. A keen observer can also tell that many are ignoring either the advice or statutes that call for grassed buffer strips along artificial drainage ditches, and any thought of a grass “waterway” would be considered absurd!

Most of us know by now that 99 percent of the wetlands are drained, with a like percentage of native prairie tilled. Where is the rage you see with the distant Brazilian rain forest?


The banks have held and the buffer strips on either side have kept both the field and the drainage ditch in good condition.

Driving through the rural byways in the winter months can just be sickening with mile upon mile of “snirt” — that dirty combination of snow and dirt. Overwinter cover crops are rarely planted, and any thought of leaving stalks to hold soils in place is basically unheard of. Our food supply is threatened in that one day fields will be barren of healthy prairie dirt. Realtor’s will be challenged to barker farms with no soil left to sell.

One wonders where the crops will be grown, of how subsequent landowners and farmers will continue to “feed the world.”

Have we become so selfish as farmers that we can only think of today, of mining the soil for the most cash possible with crops with little direct food value and staunch government policy support?

If we’re blaming policy for the woes and goals of the tractor jockeys, then perhaps some teeth should be placed into the policy smile … a net zero erosion factor as a qualification for any USDA commodity benefits ­— mandated buffer strips on all riparian waters, including drainage ditches; grassed waterways; winter cover crops, especially following soybeans and sugar beets; an actual crop rotation that includes nitrogen fixing legumes; banning practices that threaten pollinators; and so forth.


Common to many ares around the prairie are “ghosts” of the old prairie potholes — wetlands — that perhaps should not have been drained.

Am I anti-farming? Or, am I simply someone concerned about a future that appears ever more ominous for a climate challenged earth that will be incredibly feeble environmentally for our children and grandchildren — indeed, for all future generations.

Am I anti-farming, or am I someone who simply wishes for the bygone ethics of conservation farming practices that promotes soil health and keep earth’s dirt in place?

Am I anti-farming, or someone who wishes to keep our people, our land and our rivers healthy, and in place for future generations. Surely this answers your question.


A beautiful buffer found in Chippewa County.

Monsanto Going Green: Using Bacteria and Fungi to Increase Crop Yields and Lower Inputs

BioAg Alliance, they are calling it, a venture to use microbes and fungi to enhance crop growth and yield, help with pest resistance, and reduce inputs like water. Monsanto paid Novozymes $300 million to partner in this “game changing” venture. Monsanto will do marketing and field testing. Novozymes will do the manufacturing.

Today, the headlines are everywhere about this announcement, but the articles all say the same basic, vague things. Here at B.P.A. let’s learn more.

First of all, this will rock the world of agribusiness stereotypes. People conjure up their own images of the company Monsanto, that goes without saying. Certainly, my own impression of the Danish company Novozymes is not so green, as I’ve seen the massive building which abuts the Missouri River in Blair, Nebraska, that turns out the enzymes used for ethanol production and sits next to Cargill’s massive corn processing plant, and I know what the park-like setting looked like before this industrial complex was there.

My initial reaction to this announcement is that this venture has enormous potential, is, as they are saying, a game changer, and, it is also very green. I suspect, also, that Monsanto doesn’t want to be left out of a future where the cost-competitive advantages of more sustainable production methods using fewer expensive inputs could take off. Using biologicals to enhance yields instead of chemicals has the potential to be a game changer that could help lower the input costs for farmers. Let’s hope.

This whole subject is HOT, HOT, HOT. It received little fanfare at the time, but earlier this year, the American Academy of Microbiology came out with a report, “HOW MICROBES CAN HELP FEED THE WORLD, 2013.” According to the report summary, improved understanding of plant-microbe interactions has the potential to increase crop productivity by 20% while reducing fertilizer and pesticide requirements by 20%, within 20 years. The ASM PDF report reads like a confirmation of Gaia hypothesis.

Here are a few quotes from the Monsanto and Novozymes spokespersons:

“…(this) represents the next layer of opportunity for growers to drive yield and productivity while helping the preservation of finite natural resources in our precious planet,” Robb Fraley, Monsanto’s chief technology officer said.

Novozymes CEO, Peder Holk Nielsen, said that to meet world demand, farmers must produce more food in the next 50 years than they have in the last 10,000 years while using the planet’s land, water and other resources wisely. Nielsen also said that harnessing the beneficial effects of microorganisms has “an untapped potential for biological solutions for agriculture. These products do work. … I believe we are rewriting agricultural history.”

While some of the articles covering this story today are saying this will be used for vegetable and fruit crops, the Novozymes website “BioAg Alliance” page shows photos of corn, soybean, and wheat fields.

The following is a direct excerpt from Novozymes website:

WHAT ARE AGRICULTURAL BIOLOGICALS?
Agricultural biologicals is an umbrella term for microbials, plant extracts, beneficial insects and other organic material used by farmers to increase crop health and productivity.

Microbial-based products are derived from naturally-occurring microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi. They are normally applied to seeds before planting, in-furrow or sprayed on crops, and they protect crops from pests and diseases and enhance plant productivity and fertility. With faster development cycles compared to other agricultural innovations, as well as broad geographic and crop applicability, microbial solutions offer tremendous potential to deliver sustainable, cost-effective solutions that can increase yield using less input.

Agricultural biologicals today represent roughly $2.3 billion in annual sales and have for the last several years posted double-digit percent revenue growth annually.

According to Nielsen, both companies already have products on the market and have been doing work on biologicals.

Next, let’s speculate on what, exactly all of these vague comments about game changing microbials are about.

Somewhere in the mix, one might expect them to use Mycorrhiza:

I’ve defined Mycorrhiza here previously, in this brief summary:

Mycorrhiza, which means “root-fungus” grows in healthy soils and functions symbiotically with plants by enhancing the uptake of phosphorus and other nutrients. The fungus attaches to plant roots, increasing the root surface area which comes in contact with the soil. It excretes enzymes which allow it to dissolve soil nutrients, and extends the life of the root. Mycorrhizal fungus greatly amplifies the ability of plant roots to uptake and reuse phosphorus.

This fungus increases the drought tolerance of plants and can reduce water needs by 25 percent. It increases the fruit and flowering of plants while reducing the need for water and fertilizer. It also enables plants to grow in salty or contaminated soils and increases the temperature stress tolerance for plants. It helps protect plants from disease, and helps store carbon in the soil. Mycorrhiza has the potential to bring poor and degraded lands back into cultivation.

It is possible to encourage mycorrhiza growth in soils by adding compost to your garden soil, by not using synthetic chemicals, using minimum tillage, rotating crops, and growing cover crops. By cold composting, or mulching your garden with shredded leaves each fall, you can promote optimal Mycorrhizal fungi growth. Or, it can be purchased and added directly to sterile potting soils, or degraded soil.

Novozymes says they already have a product that coats seeds with a fungus “that grows along the plant’s roots and produces phosphates, promoting growth and saving chemical fertilizer.” UPDATE: This product, called JumpStart uses the bacterium penicillium bilaii.

Another root-colonizing, helpful bacteria is Rhizobacteria, which form symbiotic relationships with plants, and are generally thought of as important to biofertilizer producers. Rhizobacteria help with nitrogen fixation, and thus enhance plant growth. Inoculating them onto seed can encourage them to colonize the root zones of plants. The rhizosphere, which is the ecosystem around the roots of plants, includes many microorganisms. There are subsistence farmers in India, for example, who know how to use these bacteria to their advantage, according to a friend of this site who also works on similar products.

More thoughts…

In Joel Salatin types of farming methods, soils are already teaming with plant growth-enhancing microbials. And today, some sustainable farming advocates are finding that by using multiple varieties of seeds in cover crops, as on this North Dakota farm that I’ve featured here before, these microbials take off and do save water and fertilizer inputs while producing great crop yields. Useful microbes already exist in healthy soils and there are methods which encourage them to thrive. Today’s industrial agriculture system is not one of them. It would make so much more sense to work with Nature’s wisdom, rather than destroy it and then try to rebuild it.

Some say that the ubiquitous microbials need to be specific for the region and location to match the soils and environment unique to the region. Many say that the life world which teams beneath our feet in soil is a future frontier, a mystery yet to be explored. In healthy soil, there seems to be an infinite variety of microbial life. This whole subject is ripe for discovery, as it relates to carbon storage, too.

Many scientists, smaller companies, and individuals have been studying these microbes for a long time, and some already have products on the market.

It is encouraging to see that the future of industrial agriculture is taking a new direction towards sustainability. Good seeds with sustainable practices sounds like a winner to me.

UPDATE: I recommend this Forbes article for more specific information about this venture between Monsanto and Novozymes.

***

Additional Reading:
Novozymes infographic “What are Agricultural Biologicals?”

Mycorrhiza Proves Valuable in Qatar’s Saline Soils

TED Talk: Phosphorus Fertilizer Should Be Replaced with Mycorrhizal Fungi

PBS Video on Qatar’s Food Security Innovation

Hot 5: March Temps. Steiger Fuel Efficiency. Mycorrhiza for Soil. Soybean Supply. Agricultural Trade.

Smart, Innovative Farmers in the Dakotas

Is Humanity Really Going to Starve to Death in Twenty Years Because We Will Have Run Out of Potash and Phosphorus Fertilizers?

Urgent Legislation Needed to Pass a National Sodsaver Provision for Entire U.S. Lands

Above photo taken by my North Dakota photographer friend, Rick, who provided the following caption, “This was Native Prairie (in 2011), recently broken up and planted to corn.”

K.M. Note: The following is a cross-post from the USDA NSAC, as I feel the subject matter is so important. This is a major Ag policy problem that must be addressed. Where is our Secretary of Agriculture’s voice on this subject?

USDA Report Shows Prairie Loss Across Country
September 27th, 2013
A new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Services Agency (FSA) shows that grasslands, woodlands, and other non-cropland are being rapidly converted to cropland across the country. In just one year (2011-2012), nearly 400,000 acres were “broken out” for crop production.

We have known for years that prairie acres are being broken out in the Midwest and plains states. What is particularly important about this new data is that it clearly shows that we are losing grassland across the entire country. In fact, the top ten states for loss of non-cropland include Texas (3), Florida (4), California (7), and Georgia (8).

The Senate version of the farm bill addresses this issue by including a national Sodsaver provision. Understanding that federal crop insurance decreases the risk of planting crops on non-cropland, the Senate bill limits the taxpayer subsidy for insurance premiums on land that is broken out from native grassland.

Crops planted on converted grasslands are subject to frequent loss; yet in its current form, the large federal subsidy for crop insurance premiums encourages this type of risk taking. Unfortunately, the House version of the farm bill includes only a watered-down regional Sodsaver provision that is limited to the Prairie Pothole Region of the United States. As these data very clearly demonstrate, grassland loss is a national issue, not a regional issue.

As the farm bill process moves forward, legislators from Texas, Kansas, Iowa, Florida, California and elsewhere in the nation should be wary: while producers may be taking advantage of high crop prices and taxpayer-subsidized insurance premiums today, several years down the line there may be little to no grassland left to support ranchers and hunters, prevent flooding and soil erosion, sequester carbon, and protect wildlife populations.

Given the ever-changing dynamics in Washington, it remains unclear whether or not Congress will be able to finalize a five-year farm bill reauthorization before the end of the calendar year. If it does, the final bill must include a national Sodsaver provision, as contained in the Senate-passed bill. Even in the case of another farm bill extension, however, a national Sodsaver provision is critical. We have now seen what one year of production subsidies and high crop prices looks like: 400,000 acres gone. This is a snapshot what is to come if we do not limit conversion incentives to protect this critical resource.

See my previous posts:
Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.
A Recipe for Soil Disaster: Flooding + Today’s Farm Policy

3 Picks: Monarchs Disappearing, Feeding Frenzy, Nature Outlook


Monarch caterpillar on milkweed
Flickr CC photo by Benny Mazur

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Monarch Butterfly Habitat Under Siege: By Tom Spears. “Journey North, an American group that adds up migration observations from the public, estimates that monarch numbers have fallen 80 per cent from 2012. And a University of Ottawa biologist think an even larger decline is possible, up to 90 per cent. … Milkweeds are the only plants on which monarch can lay eggs and are also a food source for them. Pesticides ‘are wiping out their host plants over really large areas, like the whole American Midwest. So it’s cutting off the migration at the knees, and cutting off the return migration (in fall) in the same way. The number of butterflies that overwintered (in Mexico) last year was really small’….”

2) Book: Feeding frenzy – The new politics of food: By Paul McMahon. “He believes that sub-Saharan Africa is Ground Zero for many of the food production challenges discussed in this book but goes on to write, ‘Sub-Saharan Africa has enormous potential to increase production with more than 750 million hectares of suitable land that could be brought into production and the potential to triple yields…’”

3) The Journal Nature has a special Outlook issue on Agriculture and Drought: Two articles you might be interested in reading are “Water: The flow of technology,” by Katherine Bourzac; and, “Microbiome: Soil science comes to life,” by Roger East.

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.

3 Picks: Iowa Soil, Feed Industry, Vaclav Smil

Below, are today’s three chosen agricultural-related news picks.

1) Following the worst soil damage in decades and an expanding dead zone in the gulf, Iowans can’t keep farming the same way: John Gilbert, a Hardin County Iowa farmer, speaks up for the soil and the integrity of the whole farming system in this opinion article for the Des Moines Register. “What happened all over the Midwest so far this year was some of the worst soil damage in decades, if not generations. Our current situation is not sustainable. We cannot continue to treat our soils like dirt.”

2) The feed industry is consolidating rapidly and turning to technology: Aidan Connolly explains that the global feed industry is changing rapidly and meeting challenges in price and supply through innovation and technology. “With the number of feed mills expected to halve within a decade, feed sales valued at over US$350 billion, and the feed industry being the major user of corn, feed grains and soy beans, any changes will have a significant impact worldwide. … In the European Union between 2005 and 2010 the feed mill size has increased from approximately 10,000 tonnes to 50,000 tonnes per feed mill per year, with the number of feed mills shrinking from a level of 10,000 to 2,000.”

3) ‘Harvesting the Biosphere’ – Bill Gates on Vaclav Smil: Andrew Revkin tells us of Bill Gates admiration for agricultural writer Vaclav Smil. (K.M. Note: I own this book, “Harvesting the Biosphere,” and am part way through it. I agree with Gates entirely that Smil makes for very dry reading, but is most knowledgeable about agriculture, and energy, too.) “Today we harvest crops for four main purposes: to feed animals, feed humans, generate fuel, and make paper and construction materials. Smil shows how out of all these, the first two are responsible for the biggest impact on the biosphere. About 12 percent of the Earth’s land mass is now devoted to farmland.”

This news post was written and compiled by K. McDonald.