Rolling Our Land To Death

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I sat in a farmhouse one afternoon last month as a hot wind lifted rich topsoil from surrounding fields. On the drive in, I’d noticed a surprising amount of rill erosion on newly tilled cropland—surprising because recent rains had not been all that intense and the fields were not unusually steep. Out of the blue the farmer I was visiting said, “These big rollers are a bad deal.” That simple statement says more about the state of soil conservation in the Upper Midwest than a thousand environmental studies or preachy farm magazine editorials. The recent popularity of the “rollers” the farmer was referring to is one more nail in the coffin of a common ag country claim: “Give us high commodity prices, and we’ll give you conservation.”

During the past several decades, whenever the topic of promoting—either through policy carrots or regulatory sticks—stewardship on farms came up, promoters of industrialized agricultural systems said conservationists had it all backwards. Instead of pushing conservation on farms first and foremost, people concerned about environmental degradation should make raising commodity prices a priority. Only when corn is going for $5 a bushel and soybeans $12, goes this argument, will farmers have the funds available to invest in good conservation.

In some ways, this argument makes sense. If farmers can’t make a living, then they aren’t going to be around to invest in anything, let alone conservation. And investing in good conservation isn’t cheap. Just changing your tillage system so more soil-saving residue is left on the surface of a field can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Knowing that farmers need rewarded for their efforts to be better stewards of the land is what prompted the Land Stewardship Project to get involved with the local, community-based food movement several years ago. Farmers were telling us that the conventional marketplace simply was not compensating them for the extra care and management stewardship farming requires.

But the fact remains that every time prices for row crops such as corn and soybeans spike up, the land suffers. It’s not that crop farmers are intentionally out to trash the land—far from it. But they know what goes up, must come down, particularly in a business as buffeted by economics, weather and politics as farming is. They need to take advantage of those high prices while they last. Unfortunately, that often means farming every last square foot of land as intensely as possible.

So instead of investing in conservation during times of high commodity prices, farmers tend to invest in items and systems they think will help them squeeze as much profit as possible out of a very fickle market. Corn is now going for over $5 a bushel, soybeans are hovering between $12 and $13. We haven’t seen such an extended period of profitable prices in perhaps a generation. Pile on top of that a federal crop insurance program that assures profitability on even poor-yielding land, and the evidence is clear: corn and soybean farmers are making money.

So what are they investing in? Land, for one thing, which helps explain eye-popping prices being paid for rural real estate. But they are also investing in tillage equipment like never before as more acres are turned over, including many acres formerly set aside in the Conservation Reserve Program. Particularly hot pieces of equipment on crop farms these days are land rollers—basically long steel drums that can be pulled across fields, leveling the landscape. Farm field rollers originated in Canada several years ago and later became routine in North Dakota and northwest Minnesota. Now they’ve moved south. (For a dust-filled video of a roller in action, click here.) Rollers can range in price from $17,000 for a 20-footer to $65,000 for an 85-foot model. Iowa State estimates you can have your land custom rolled for on average $6.55 per acre.

What are farmers gaining from this investment? Basically a harvest time that’s potentially less hard on equipment and people. Rolling is particularly effective in soybean fields, where it can push down rocks and flatten tight, compacted balls of corn roots left over from the previous year. Corn root balls? It turns out the latest unintended consequence of GMO technology is that corn root balls are not breaking down as quickly. Corn that’s modified to resist insects cannot benefit as much from the decomposition services bugs offer after harvest. I guess we need a new GMO-related acronym: DRC— “decomposition-resistant corn.”

Smoothing over bumps in the field means farmers can run their combine cutter heads closer to the ground, capturing every last bushel of an increasingly valuable crop. The combine driver doesn’t get as stressed out raising and lowering the head, which is a big deal. This may provide a bit of a yield boost, but it’s pretty insignificant. Of seven rolled test plots the U of M’s Jodi DeJong-Hughes studied in 2010, only one produced an increased yield, and that was 1.7 bushels per acre at best.

But running a rock through a $300,000 combined can ruin a farmer’s day, or year, in a real hurry. I suppose a rural sociologist would say that rollers are yet one more result of smaller families and fewer farm families on the land. My four siblings and I spent many-a-day picking rock on our southwest Iowa farm. As a write this, I have one of those rocks sitting on my desk, its scored surface a timeless testament to the countless discs, plows and harrows that worked it over.

The problem is, rolling the ground doesn’t just smooth things over, it pulverizes them, making for a table-top effect and destroying the micro-diversity on the surface that can help soil resist being eroded. It basically crushes soil aggregates, leading to less water infiltration and increased wind erosion, according to soil scientists.

This isn’t a theoretical problem. The May 31 edition of Agri News included a troubling package of stories on how concerned farmers, conservation technicians and scientists are over the increased amount of soil erosion southern Minnesota experienced this spring. Some of the newspaper’s material harkened back to the Dust Bowl: a front page photo showed a farm ditch near Faribault choked with eroded soil; one reporter described soil blowing across four lanes of traffic near Owatonna; and the newspaper’s editorial for that week was titled, “Erosion disaster can’t be ignored.”

The experts quoted for the story blamed an increased amount of intense tillage for this year’s high erosion rates. Farmers are simply trying to squeeze every last bushel out of that high-priced land, and leaving more residue on the field’s surface can cause a yield hit.

“I have not seen the landscape look so black and so exposed as it does this spring,” said Daniel Arndt, manager of the Steele County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Arndt, DeJong-Hughes and others quoted in the articles talked extensively about how big of a factor land rolling has become in increased soil loss, particularly on fields that aren’t necessarily considered high erodible. That’s the scary thing: one expects to see erosion on steep hillsides. But like the rill erosion I saw last month, there are more reports of lost soil on land that really shouldn’t be eroding.

In early May, Sibley County crop and livestock farmer Darrel Mosel described to me how normal spring rains caused “unimaginable” erosion on area fields that did not have much of a roll to them. “We may be washing away 400 years worth of dirt,” he told me. “It doesn’t seem to take much to cause erosion problems.”

Mosel blames the increased loss of soil on land that’s not, or shouldn’t be, considered highly erodible on the lack of crop diversity and bigger fields. And he adds one more cause: “One recent cropping technology that I think is bad is rolling land.”

No, higher commodity prices do not result in more conservation on the land. The sad fact remains that the marketplace can push people down ethical paths they don’t want to travel. As LSP co-founder Ron Kroese once said: “The tragedy of American agriculture is that many people are farming at odds with their own values.”

Unfortunately, government policy can be just as effective at separating farmers’ values from their actions. That’s why it’s particularly troubling when programs like crop insurance lack even basic conservation compliance provisions, and why the U.S. Senate’s Farm Bill proposal—an anti-conservation money train for mega-crop operations—is nothing short of an embarrassment, one that could cost us for generations to come.

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