The Way to Dusty Death

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The May 26 Minnesota Crop Progress Report contains a troubling note: “Strong winds eroded soils and damaged newly emerged crops in some areas.” That’s Dust Bowl talk, and like the Dirty Thirties, we can’t blame it all on natural causes. A lack of diverse crop rotations is making our land more vulnerable than ever to extreme weather. Unfortunately, recent actions at the Capitol could send even more soil airborne.

There is no doubt weather patterns are not cooperating with getting farm country covered in green this growing season. A huge swath of central and southwest Minnesota—the heart of the corn and soybean region—is in the midst of a drought. And it’s getting worse. The USDA’s topsoil mositure map for May 26 rated 27 percent of Minnesota’s  land “short,” and 11 percent “very short” of moisture. By June 1, the map showed the “very short” region spreading west from the Twin Cities region like a waterless blob. Now, 31 percent of the state’s land is “short” of topsoil moisture, and 19 percent is “very short.”

Of courese, extreme northwest Minnesota has the opposite problem: too much rain, and in some cases farmers have been forced to burn cornstalks in the field in a desperate attempt to get ready for planting. The extreme southeast corner of the state seems to be getting the right amount of rains at the right time.

But reports out of our state’s cornbelt are troubling: farmers are talking about dust storms the likes of which they haven’t seen in decades. Remember those pair of 90-degree days we had a couple of weeks ago when the wind blew and blew and blew? It was like the Upper Midwest’s version of the Santa Ana winds. The fact that they did not blow up a significant rainfall at such a key time in the planting season, was devastating. Moisture was sucked off the land and it didn’t return.

In the midst of those hot winds, Redwood County farmer Paul Sobocinski simply stopped his field work one day and drove around the neighborhood to take it all in. Sobocinski started farming 1976, and he told me recently he had never seen wind erosion so bad.

“So much soil was moving that it made me sick,” he says. “One neighbor had his road ditch fill up with soil, and he had to dig it out with a skid steer. Half his woven wire fence is buried.”

Sound familiar? Such descriptions can be found in  images and historical accounts from the Dust Bowl, such as Timothy Egan’s excellent The Worst Hard Time.

Let’s not get carried away: things need to get a lot worse before we’re seeing erosion so bad that whole cities are engulfed, entire fields go airborne and children die of “dirt lung.” As a result of some of the lessons learned from the Dirty Thirties, we’ve made a lot of progress in conservation tillage and other farming methods that keep the land in place.

But what’s worth noting is that like the Dust Bowl days, many people are dismissing this recent round of severe erosion as a natural phenomenon that’s out of our control. Like lightning and tornadoes, soil filling ditches is just what happens when Mother Nature decides to misbehave, goes this thinking.

As Egan and other writers have pointed out, the belief that the Dust Bowl was a totally natural disaster dominated society’s thinking to such an extent that we almost missed out on the opportunity to do something about it. It eventually became clear that plowing up perennial grasslands and replacing them with water-hungry crops in places like the High Plains was a recipe for disaster once dry weather patterns set in. A lot of windbreaks and other conservation measures were put in place as a result of this realization. The Dust Bowl also helped cast doubt on the environmental (and agronomic) sustainability of indiscriminate use of the moldboard plow.

Sobocinski, who is also an LSP organizer, sees similarities to today’s situation. Too often agricultural experts, policymakers and even farmers are assuming that the extreme erosion that results from drought (or severe thunderstorms, for that matter) is as natural as the weather event itself.

But he sees it differently. Some erosion is always inevitable. But Sobocinski couldn’t help but notice that the farms that have dropped diverse crop rotations within their fields were eroding the worst. Over the years, these farms have replaced pasture, small grains such as oats or rye and even hay ground with corn, soybeans and sugar beets. Pasture and forages can offer year-round protection to the soil. Small grains can help protect it earlier and later in the growing season while building up the health of the soil. Annual crops like corn cover the land at best four months out of the year—and they require a lot of inputs, including water, to thrive.

As livestock have left family-sized farms and demand for corn-based ethanol has climbed, soil-friendly rotations have evaporated. In some parts of southwest Minnesota, at least 90-95 percent of farmland is planted to annual row crops.

It’s the same all over the Midwest.  A Journal of Soil and Water Conservation study found that farmers surveyed in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota made little use of cover crops such as rye, despite the widespread acknowledgment that they are good for the soil. Only 11 percent of surveyed farmers had used cover crops in the previous five years.

In Sobocinski’s home county, for example, more than 248,000 acres of corn was harvested in 2007, up 20,000 acres from 2002. Those additional row-cropped acres have come at the expense of pasture, hay and small grains, and that’s a problem, says Sobocinski, who raises corn, soybeans, small grains and alfalfa on his 240-acre crop and livestock farm.

“The best scenarios I see is when a farmer has grasses, small grains, corn and soybeans in a mix all planted in one tract of land,” he told me. “The worse scenario is where one tract of land is planted all to one crop.”

Soil scientists like Gyles Randall have been warning for years that the trend toward increasingly less diverse (or nonexistent) crop rotations is not sustainable. Monocropping makes the land (and farms) less resilient in other ways—pests and diseases thrive  in such simplified systems.

Meanwhile, the scientific evidence is piling up that diverse cropping systems not only build soil quality, but can help make row crops like corn better able to withstand extremes like drought (boy, that’s sounding good about now).

The trend toward fewer rotations preceded the recent ethanol boom (and will likely outlive any crash in that market). Federal government policy that rewards monocultural row cropping and penalizes diversity can take much of the blame. That’s why it’s so important that new Farm Bill initiatives like the Conservation Security Program reward soil-friendly farming systems that rely on diverse rotations.

It’s also why we need to shift livestock off of specialized factory farms and again make them a consistent part of diverse, family sized agriculture—it doesn’t do you much good economically to raise hay or grass if there are no animals nearby to add value to those plants.

But use of cover crops and diverse rotations has also dropped because of a major information gap that exists in farm country. Our land grant university system and government agencies like the USDA and Minnesota Department of Agriculture have a bumper crop of data available on how to raise row crops. But details on successfully establishing more diverse plantings are hard to come by.

That’s too bad, because there are a lot of good ideas to be gleaned from the past, before chemical agriculture seemed to make diverse rotations a luxury. Even better, we’re seeing some new ideas on utilizing diverse rotations and crop rotations coming out of places like the Rodale Institute and even the University of Minnesota.

But that information is not getting to farmers as much as it should. Another recent Journal of Soil and Water Conservation study concluded that more needs to be done to translate the decades of cover crop research into practical information for farmers.

That’s why Sobocinski and other farmers concerned about the lack of diversity in our cropping systems find it so ironic that the same week half of southwest Minnesota was airborne, decision-makers in Saint Paul were gutting initiatives that can help keep that soil closer to home.

As we reported here, the Senate and House Agriculture Finance committees shaped an Agriculture Finance Bill that cut the annual budget of the MDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Demonstration Grant Program from $160,000 to $100,000. And then Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a line-item veto pen to it and eliminated one year of funding, making for an almost 70 percent overall reduction in this program.

This is a crippling blow that has a proven track record of promoting soil-friendly farming. Farmers who qualify for these grants are able to do the kind of on-farm research that they would normally never have the resources to undertake. The results of this research are reported in the internationally-respected Greenbook.

The Greenbook has done plenty to take the mystery out of diversifying cropping systems for farmers—sustainable as well as conventional.

“While lawmakers and the Governor crippled programs that have a proven track record of making farming more soil-friendly, they maintained funding for pet projects like fertilizer research,” says Sobocinski. “Meanwhile, the soil flies.”

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