The Resource Cliff

By Eugene Glock

A low-till cornfield in Nebraska. (PrairieArtProject/ iStockPhoto)There has been much talk over the past several months about the fiscal cliff staring the United States in the face if our government could not address the revenue/spending problem. I think that our nation has been moving toward another more serious “cliff” over the past several years. That cliff is the degradation of one of our most precious resources—our soil. Unlike the fiscal “cliff,” which became evident over a relatively short time, we have been moving toward the soil resource cliff for at least a couple of decades. This apparently has been evident to very few people as little or nothing has been done on a national level to prevent us from inexorably moving toward the brink. In fact, our movement toward the brink has sped up dramatically over the past couple of years with the rapid increase in grain prices.

The movement gradually occurred with the advent of larger machinery to allow farmers to increase the size of their farms, a necessary action triggered by low commodity prices in relation to cost of production. If profit is measured in a few pennies per bushel rather than in dollars per bushel, one has to produce more bushels to make a living for one’s family.

We had developed soil conservation techniques over the years that were very effective when properly maintained. For at least 100 years, people planted windbreaks to help in controlling wind erosion. Under President Roosevelt, young men were paid to plant shelterbelts, very aptly named as they really do provide shelter. These windbreaks were not solely responsible for the end of the Dust Bowl, as a return to more normal rainfall was the major factor, but the windbreaks/shelterbelts played a role.

Among the most effective in controlling water erosion were contour farming practices with terraces and grassed waterways applied to gradually move the water from heavy rainfall events off the fields in a manner that did not move a lot of soil. This system was improved with the advent of parallel terraces, steep-back slope terraces and tile outlet drainage systems that eliminated the difficulty of maintaining grassed waterways. Included in the most effective systems were small dams that either held all the runoff or, in very heavy rainfall situations, restricted the flow to prevent damage downstream. The advent of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) took the most vulnerable land out of production and into a status that preserved the soil and also helped retain rainfall where it fell.

While these were all quite effective, the contour and terracing options were very difficult to deal with as machinery became larger. Consequently, many terraces and contour farming practices were eliminated. Just removing the terraces did not eliminate the “point row” problems created with 12-, 16-, 24-, 36- and even

48-row planters. This resulted in a return to north/south or east/west planting. With the use of no-till practices and slot-planting methods that disturb very little soil, erosion can be minimized, but there are too many instances where conventional tillage is still the preferred option to produce crops. This results in too much erosion if we are to leave highly productive soil for the coming generations. Before the crop prices increased so dramatically, land in the CRP eliminated water and wind erosion because of the complete grass cover. Land that could be farmed with a minimum of soil loss by using the best conservation practices for the equipment in use could receive payments from the Conservation Security Program (CSP) to help offset increased production costs incurred by using these soil-saving practices.

The advent of $7 corn and $15 beans put dollar signs in the eyes of many people. These dollar signs obscured the vision of soil washing and blowing away. It became profitable to pay the penalty and remove land from CRP and put it into production. If there was good water under the land, an irrigation well and a center pivot could provide the means of irrigating the land. In most cases where irrigation was installed, major dirt work was required to knock the tops off of ridges and fill in the valleys so the pivot could make a full circle without getting hung up. Of course there was no thought of applying terraces or other water erosion practices because it didn’t fit the machinery in use. Small erosion-control dams were removed as they made it hard to farm with the larger machinery in use.

In many other cases, shelterbelts and woodlots were, and are still, being bulldozed out to gain a couple more acres for crop production or to allow a pivot system to make a full circle. In some respects this destruction of trees is more serious than the breaking up of grass and the return to less than conservation friendly tillage practices. Terraces and other soil and water conservation practices and structures can be applied very quickly if the farmer sees the wisdom of using those practices. Our colleges and universities need to put emphasis on research and innovation to produce conservation methods that are compatible with our larger machinery. Research is also needed to determine why producers, who know about the necessary conservation methods, choose to ignore them. Government programs to help alleviate extra costs of conservation farming could very quickly be put in place if those in government began to see the urgency of maintaining the productivity of our land for the long term. However, it takes many years to see trees planted and grow to a sufficient size to slow down the velocity of the wind to provide protection from wind erosion. At the 2010 Water for Food conference, an individual from Monsanto assured the group that, although we will likely have a doubling of the world population by the year 2050, their research indicated that by about 2020, 300-bushel-per-acre corn will be the norm rather than the exception. I had the opportunity to visit with him individually after his presentation, and he admitted that those predictions were based on maintaining, and hopefully increasing, the productivity of our soil and finding ways to use our water more efficiently.

I have heard numerous “experts” quoted as saying that there will never be another “dust bowl” because we have so much more irrigation than was present in the 1930s. They are partially correct; we do have much more irrigation, but we also have a majority of dryland in this nation and even in Nebraska. Yet we saw evidence this past year of mini dust bowls. There were many instances of roads being closed briefly and other roads requiring a lot of caution to traverse them because of blowing dirt. One issue that I don’t think has been fully studied is how much impact on conservation is caused by the drive to develop fuels from crop residues. I’m sure there is a “safe” amount to remove, but I don’t think anyone has come up with what that “safe” level of residue removal is before there is additional damage to the soil. I think the impact on possible soil erosion, and the possibility of additional blowing dirt, which is erosion as much as water erosion, remains to be determined.

Understandably, producers have focused on profitability as they were squeezed for so many years. However, it is imperative that those producers take note of the need to preserve the resources that have allowed them to be profitable so following generations can meet the growing food needs of the world in a profitable manner.

I think the challenge can only be met if our private and public researchers concentrate on developing methods of production that do conserve our precious soil and water resources. While much damage has already been done, some of which is likely irreparable in the lifetimes of several generations, I have confidence that if the focus is on profitable, conservation-friendly production, we can halt further degradation and begin to repair what damage has been done and still provide profits for the producer. This change of focus on a national scope must occur very quickly or our fiscal problems will be dwarfed by our crisis of food production due to degraded natural resources.

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