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Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of the modern conservation movementeffort that became today’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), once wrote, “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.” Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say, “Take care of the soil and the soil will take care of you.”
It’s not just a matter of semantics, but rather of understanding.
When Bennett became the chief of the Soil Erosion Service in 1933, the nation was in the midst of one of the most devastating environmental disasters in our history: The Dust Bowl. This disaster was caused by two primary factors.
One was climatological: A prolonged (but historically normal) dry period followed an unusual period of above-average precipitation throughout the Great Plains. The wetter stretch prompted many landowners to convert grasslands into farmland because the climate, for a handful of years, seemed perfect for grain production. The resulting bounty was, indeed, plentiful. The combination of precipitation and carbon-rich soils (provided courtesy of thousands of years of perennial vegetation living symbiotically with herds of roaming bison) set the stage for a yield boon.
For a short while, times were good. Really good.
The second major factor was human-caused: The grassland-to-cropland conversion had a long-term negative impact on the soil itself. The plow that broke the plains also broke the ability of the plains’ soil to function as nature intended. Deep plowing and monoculture grain crops destroyed soil structure; it collapsed essential air and water pores in the soil profile and rendered the soil less capable of supporting microbiologic life and storing water. Farmers left their soil bare between crops, rather than keeping roots in the ground to keep it covered.
The process of plowing grasslands into cropland also depleted soil organic matter and reduced microbiological diversity so the once-healthy, living and life-giving soil was left unable to withstand the inevitable dry period that was to come.
When the rainfall patterns returned to normal, the soil was sick and fragile. Thirsty crops withered, wind whipped across the uncovered landscape, and the Dust Bowl ensued. As the crops failed, farm after farm went bankrupt. Dust storms enveloped the nation and its inhabitants as far east as Washington, D.C. What followed, as Timothy Eagan’s book title suggests, was truly the “worst hard time” for those who lived through it.
Farmers slaughtered livestock to reduce supply and drive up prices or sold, at a loss, what livestock remained on the farms they were about to abandon. By 1934, farmers had sold 10 percent of all their farms, and by 1937, more than one out of five farmers were on federal emergency relief. Those on and off the farm suffered and died from dust pneumonia, called the “brown plague,” caused by an increasing number of “Black Blizzard” dust storms.
What we know in retrospect is that the Dust Bowl farmers unknowingly mined the life from the soil and, in doing so, they undermined its resilience. Bountiful but short-term harvests came at a cost that no one at the time could have imagined.
Not much has changed.
During the past century, through an input-dependent, industrial business model, we too have mined the life and resilience out of our soil. It has taken us longer to do so, but as climate change provides the catalyst for more frequent weather extremes, we’re increasingly seeing the impact of the degradation of our soil resources on our farms and in our lives.
Overall, our soils are less able to store water or absorb heavy rainfall and, as a result, they’re more susceptible to periods of drought or flooding. (This one-minute video from the USDA explains why.) Our soils are also increasingly dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides just to sustain current levels of productivity. During heavy rains, many of those chemicals are carried into our rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they wreak havoc on our fisheries and estuaries.
According to researchers from the European Union Joint Research Centre, worldwide economic losses from soil erosion by water were estimated to be $8 billion annually. As a result, annual agricultural production is reduced by 33.7 million tons of food. Although USDA reports that cropland erosion rates in the U.S. declined 34 percent between 1982 and 2015, the average per-acre soil loss in 2015 was still an alarming 4.62 tons.
Weather extremes are exacerbating what the central, underlying problem: Most of our soils are sick, devoid of diverse microbial life, and unable to function at anywhere near their intended capacity. We’re seeing the heartbreaking consequences of what that means every day, especially in farm country.
Fortunately, there is genuine hope in healthy soil.
We know we can heal our soils relatively quickly and profitably, with practices that have been around for years. Soil health-improving regenerative agricultural practices including no-till planting, the use of cover crops, the integration of animals and beneficial insects, and diverse cropping rotations all feed and protect soil microbes, which in turn, feed and protect the crops that feed and nourish us.
Throughout the country we’ve seen the positive impacts of regenerative farming on an increasing number of farms like Gabe’s. In just a few years of implementing soil health-improving practices on his farm, for example, he tripled his soil organic matter, resulting in better soil function and fertility. His soil holds more water, which allows him to grow abundant crops, feed his livestock, and provide diverse wildlife and pollinator habitat—even in drought years. By nurturing life below ground, Gabe has enabled plentiful and diverse life above ground. Importantly, these regenerative agricultural practices are yielding a more productive, profitable family farming operation.
There’s also reason for optimism in the fact that a growing number of farmers, lawmakers, and other thought leaders throughout the nation recognize regenerative agriculture’s potential to heal the land, increase farm profits, improve food nutrition, and ameliorate the impact of climate change and extreme weather events.
Once we’ve recognized the fact that our soil is degraded, we must work together to address this systemic problem with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Our future literally depends on our ability to address this critical issue. Only by scaling up the adoption of regenerative agriculture throughout the world can we meet this pressing and existential challenge before us.
If we care for the soil, the soil will care for us.