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Facing soil crisis, US farmers look beyond corn and soybeans

Facing soil crisis, US farmers look beyond corn and soybeans thumbnail

Shovel in hand, Duane Hager heads for his cornfield and digs up a shovelful of dirt, revealing wriggling earthworms. Although a pelting rain has soaked his gray T-shirt in seconds, not a single puddle lies in the field or in the cow pasture beyond – a sign of vigorous, uncompacted earth.

“If you have soil that is healthy and balanced, it translates into your animals,” says the Kellogg, Minn., dairy farmer.

Across the American Midwest and Plains, small groups of farmers are looking at their most important resource – the soil – and contemplating big change. Their grandfathers and great grandfathers planted trees for windbreaks and planted along the contours of the slopes rather than up and down them to reduce soil erosion. Their fathers began leaving crop stubble in their fields to improve moisture retention, and some gave up tilling the soil altogether. Now, the new generation of producers is looking underground to try to replenish their soils, and they’re doing it by growing something in addition to corn and soybeans. The new farm bill, which President Trump signed on Dec. 20, includes measures that could help popularize the idea.

“Mainstream agriculture, they just don’t get it,” says Jerry Doan, standing by a mix of 20-plus cover crops from low-lying legumes to tall stalks of millet on his farm in Sterling, N.D. “You have got to feed the biology of the soil.”

It’s an international problem, with a third of the world’s soils already degraded, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization estimates, due to everything from erosion and salinization to untreated urban waste and mining.  Here in the United States, a big concern is commercial agriculture, where evidence is growing that decades of an exclusive corn-soybean rotation has caused farmland to lose nutrients and its ability to hold and filter water.

The effects reach far beyond the farm to waterways and the grocery store. Because farmland doesn’t hold the nitrites and nitrates produced from fertilizers and herbicides, they leach into the water and find their way as far as the Gulf of Mexico, creating state-sized areas of low or no oxygen, which kills fish and other marine life. What’s more, the commercial vegetables at the grocery store have fewer nutrients than in the 1950s, according to several studies, in part because the soil has fewer nutrients they can take up.

Story Hinckley/The Christian Science Monitor
Duane Hager, owner of Hager Farms, a dairy farm in Kellogg, Minn., has been embracing healthy soil practices, such as limited fertilizer and no till, for years. On a rainy summer afternoon, his efforts pay off: There is no flooding, or even large puddles, anywhere in his field.

Farmers have tried to minimize the environmental damage by using GPS and soil analysis to fertilize only areas of fields that need it and by creating buffer strips between crops and ditches and waterways, so the nitrates and nitrites stay put.

But “we are not going to fix water quality with just fertilizer [reduction],” says Sarah Carlson, strategic initiatives director for Practical Farmers of Iowa, a nonprofit helping producers build resilient farms and communities. “We need other products with more roots.”

In the Midwest and Plains, that means finding something to grow in addition to corn and soybeans.

“We’re always going to grow corn and soybeans but we need other stuff,” says University of Iowa water expert Chris Jones. “We need a third crop in Iowa really badly.”

Seeding ‘hotspots’

Farmers are experimenting with growing cover crops on their fields, such as barley or oats, during the winter season. The Land Institute in Salina, Kan., is pushing perennials, such as Kernza, an intermediate wheatgrass it developed and trademarked. That way farmers wouldn’t have to plant new crops every spring. Still others are calling for a return to a mix of animal and crop agriculture that used to predominate in rural America.

“My grandfather started contouring, my dad started no-till, so I wanted to do this,” says Darrell Steele, a farmer in Iowa’s Washington County, who’s experimenting with 10 acres of barley, which he mixes into the feeds for his 2,000 hogs. “But when you put these things in, you take a hit. In the off-season, the ground is on the couch eating Ho Hos. But when you start putting this stuff in, it’s like telling the ground to run a marathon. It’s going to stumble and fall at first.”

That’s a problem for many producers, whose thin margins make them reluctant to make big changes if their yields are going to fall, even temporarily. Another challenge: Making the switch can be costly. For example, continuous no-till and low-till farming, which decades of studies have shown improve the soil and reduce costs, is still used on only 1 in every 5 acres of US cropland, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). One big reason: It requires farmers to invest in completely new equipment.

Then there’s the cultural barrier: Farmer communities tend to be conservative.

“That peer pressure, that is huge,” says Kristin Brennan, state soil health specialist at the Minnesota office of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “No one wants to be the weird farmer with lots of Kernza.”

Still, there are exceptions.

“Where we see it really taking off is where you have a community of farmers,” says Ms. Brennan. “We call them hotspots.”

Washington County, which has the most acres of cover crops of any Iowa county, appears to be one of those communities. Farmers tour each others’ farms. Mr. Steele, the local hog producer, says he tried barley on the advice of a fellow farmer. At least once a week, he talks to Steve Berger, a Washington County farmer who has gained national attention for his use of no-till cover crops. “We all do our own thing but it’s teamwork, too.”

“In this neighborhood you just have a bunch of really conservation-minded folks,” says Tony Maxwell, a district conservationist for the NRCS.

Provisions of the new farm bill, which encourages farmers to plant cover crops and use soil-sensitive crop rotations and grazing techniques, suggest that awareness of the problem is growing. “We had a lot of strong champions this past year for legislation related to soil health,” says Alyssa Charney, a senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a Washington-based alliance of grass-roots sustainability groups. “There’s a growing interest for sure.”

 

CS Monitor



7 Comments on "Facing soil crisis, US farmers look beyond corn and soybeans"

  1. makati1 on Sun, 30th Dec 2018 6:37 pm 

    So, farmers are going back to the old methods> Crop rotation and soils conservation? Too little too late, I think, but a good idea.

  2. Go Speed Racer on Sun, 30th Dec 2018 10:29 pm 

    Farmers are conservative?
    There is so much bullshit fake news
    coming out of CNN, just use it for fertilizer.

  3. Davy on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 6:19 am 

    The story is familiar for any of the monoculture grain belts in the world so there is no need to summarize the story. I preach real green. This means localism and adapting and connecting to planetary cycles and harnessing the web of life as support not as an adversary. I am doing permaculture multispecies grazing system now coupled with supported and protected natural areas. The natural follow areas are 3 to 1 so in effect most of the land I husband is natural. I maintain wood lots for fuel. I also manage some ground for hay. I use chemicals very little and lately not at all. I do use diesel and depend on transport. My goal would be to involve more animals in my operation and deal locally with my production. As it is now I have to deal with others regionally within my State of Missouri and some dealings with surrounding states. I am dependent on the delocalizing effects of globalism. I am stuck with fossil fuels especially with transport and supply of goods. I have gone renewable with a hybrid power system that utilizes solar and the grid. I plan on adding a wind component down the road.

    I am preaching to those that do have some marginal room with their farming operation to embrace real green. This means localism, seasonality, and embracing the demand management of power intermittency. This is not only electric power it is also with food and water gathering based upon the seasons. I have a couple of acres of garden, orchard, and grapes. I would like to have more animals for transport and fertilizing. Currently the animals in the grazing system fertilize the fields but I would like to utilize more of that manure with the small areas I hay. Currently I must spread chemical fertilizer on hay ground eventually. I am hitting areas for hay and moving on with fallow periods which reduces the fertilizer needs but taking production off fields requires fertilization.

    My operation is really not for profit because I maintain stocking rates too low for a business to be profitable but the infrastructure is there to treble my size to make a small profit. Currently this is an experiment and a doomstead effort. My grazing system and food from the natural areas offer food to get me through a collapse process mild to moderate. Most farmers don’t consider this but it is not hard to do for a farmer to incorporate prep efforts. Most country people are somewhat prepped anyway. This is about those who can using the status quo to leave it and in the process reconnecting to our human roots. Turn your back on who we have become as a goal seek. What I mean here is become a hybrid of what we once were and what we are now. Very few can leave what we have become so this is not about transcendence this is about a transformation. It is about behavior and the resulting wisdom guiding a new lifestyle that connects to nature and the local community no matter how disrupted and marginal. If you can relocate and if you can reskill but if you cannot take what you have and find meaning.

    One could write a book on real green but the first requirement is attitude. Once you readjust your thinking and actions the rest fall into place. You will according to your local and your skill set make your impact on a new way of life in tune with the collapse process we are in. This is not about being a special one who survives it is about acceptance of the possibility of death but with hospices for that process but also lifeboats of hope. It is about being a constructive part of the ecosystem instead of a destructor. Ecosystems cycle in a way that we have climax and succession. Constructive and destructive events both natural and geologic occur. This is about adapting per your local with this process and living as best you can within it and ultimately dying there like it always has been. Some of you may become migrants especially the young and the strong but for those older like me it is about making your last stand. It is about commitment and dedication to your place. It is about building a microcosm that is a mini monastery of knowledge, skills, and development. It is a kind of microclimate within a harsh world of storms and drought.

  4. Chico on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 9:38 am 

    Thomas Robert Malthus

  5. Sissyfuss on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 10:17 am 

    And not a word of the disappearance of small family farms being swallowed up by the corporate mega farms that answer to their shareholders with short term methods producing maximum return. The farmer feeds the world while the corporate farms feed their bottom lines.

  6. makati1 on Mon, 31st Dec 2018 6:13 pm 

    Sissyfuss, and when the corporate farms go down, so goes the US food “independence”. Eventually the soil will not even grow healthy weeds. It certainly doesn’t grow healthy food. Most of the micro-nutrients are long gone. Nothing is returned to the soil but oily products which have nothing healthy to add. Most American farm soil is sand with oily additives.

    The US is dying. Nothing will save it now. All of its resources are being stretched to their limits. That is why it is trying to plunder other countries. The rich want more. Fuck the serfs. I’m enjoying the collapse. Perhaps this is the year? We shall see.

    Happy New Year!

  7. majece majecet on Thu, 3rd Jan 2019 9:12 am 

    If you want to write the best college thesis, try to check https://get-thesis.com/blog/winning-college-thesis out. Here you can read more about it

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