This post relies heavily on the recently published 3rd edition of soil management by Magdoff-Van Es, which can be purchased from the USDA-SARE program.

The documentary Big River shows the Spring 08 soil erosion disaster in Iowa. Iowa farmer Chuck Pyatt summed it up when he said that Iowa has lost half its topsoil in his lifetime and wonders what happens when it is gone. There is evidence that this concern expressed in 1997 by USDA- ARS in bulletin 2279 is now being given much needed but belated and inadequate attention within USDA. Recently Secretary Vilsack in announcing the reopening of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) said that creating buffers around fields in the Missouri and Mississippi watersheds was necessary to stop wind and soil erosion. What about the rest of the field and the rest of the Country Mr. Secretary? In 1997 NRCS the agency directly responsible for preventing soil erosion defended an erosion rate of 5 tons per acre per year which was occurring on 40% of the cultivable farm fields in the US. Many other academic and farming organizations did the same. On what basis was dumping 25 ten-wheeler dump trucks of precious topsoil for every 100-acre farm field into our Creek ok? Certainly the disappearing oysters dying from sediment cover didn’t agree. The basic theory was that recently developed and widely implemented conservation tillage equipment which minimimally disturbed the soil, left sufficient amount of erosion protective crop residue on the surface which would rot into humus ultimately replacing the lost soil organic matter, often referred to as soil carbon. In a letter to the editor of the local paper a citizen voiced concern about the obvious erosion from the trenches coming from farm fields. The local head of NRCS came to the defense of farmers on the basis of their purchase of the above equipment at considerable expense. In 2007 S.A. Khan published a study (see references under soil), which showed that every Midwestern State save one was losing carbon or essential organic matter. This was followed by the Midwestern soil erosion disaster of 2008. Only diehards in the agribusiness sector are now defending the current soil management system.

Bulletin 2279 also pointed out that some areas of the world have tilled their fields for thousands of years and maintained their soil organic matter with minimal erosion. How do they do this? The USDA, coincidentally, recently released the third edition of Magdoff/Van Es “Sustainable Soil Management”. The theories expressed have not changed in this edition but there are many more examples of crop rotations used with economic success particularly involving increased pasture years in the rotation. Three basic principles are cited and emphasized to increase soil organic matter and reduce erosion.

1. Increased number of crops in rotation. While the study does not state this it becomes apparent that single crop and 2-crop rotations should be banned.

2. Increased live roots in the ground.

Points out that the standard corn/soybean rotation has an active rooting period at 37%  Adding a winter cover crop more than doubles the active rooting period to 76%

3. The principle source of soil organic matter is crop residue. Corn is one of a few crops with large residues. However, is it being returned to build soil or is it being used?  Corn silage extensively used in the Pennsylvania portion of the Chesapeake Bay watershed as cattle feed is an example of short changing soil management by using crop residue.

On April 1st I took a cross-country flight. Looking down at the great Midwest I saw the predominance of the color brown with a few patches of bright green. Huge areas of the US are greatly exposed to massive topsoil loss. Most of this farming is subsidized. Should taxpayers be forced to pay for poor management of our most important natural resource? Industrial Agriculture features the largest amount of tillage or disrupting of the planets surface the world has ever seen. There is huge inherent risk in disturbing this amount of the earth’s surface. Multi year rotations and organic inputs have proven effective. Industrial agriculture decided to cut corners and use monocropping and a two-crop system and it has not been successful. At the current rate of topsoil destruction our children already faced with a legacy of debt will be left with a legacy of unproductive soil and it’s consequences. The last thing I want is Government takeover of our Agriculture system but unless Corporate Agribusiness faces up to its responsibilities we will also lose this sector to government takeover and socialism.    Don Kerstetter



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