Preserve Life

“In a cornfield each tiny seed sprouts into a fragile seedling, subject to the calamities of weather and insects and disease. It struggles on its own to survive without any knowledge of the neighboring plants. But without its neighbors it wouldn’t survive. It would grow tall, blow over and die. Its own selfish drive to survive benefits its neighbors, as does theirs, and this results in a beautiful field of corn.”

I wrote this many years ago and posted it on the mudroom wall because our lovely niece, Heather liked it so much.

I often think of it, not only as a story of corn, but as a small part of the environment it describes and also as a metaphor for the world in general, or a family, or a community. Each scenario depends on self interest for survival of the whole.

In the case of the cornfield, the paragraph only scratches the surface. Under that surface are roots, bacteria, viruses, worms, insects, arthropods, nematodes, protozoans and fungi; all coexisting in mutually beneficial relationships. They eat each other, they utilize waste, they make pathways in the soil. Predators or partners, all this life is interconnected like the corn plants in the opening paragraph.

We rotate our crops in an attempt to interrupt the lives of predators of our corn and soybeans. But generally life in the soil is beneficial to our crops. Annual crops limit those benefits and I doubt I’m the only one who looks forward to the day we can harvest crops as useful as corn and soybeans from perennial plants, something machinery manufacturers likely dread. (Imagine the scientist dead on the laboratory floor, all his papers missing. Like Michael Hastings, he was on to something big.) Enough of that crazy talk.

Perennial crops wouldn’t just save annual planting. They would perpetuate the perennial life in the soil that serves the crops.

We had a 12 year old pasture that we sprayed and strip-tilled (with no fertilizer) last fall. We tilled a narrow band so the planter could put the soybeans in good contact with the soil. Because we killed the pasture plants last fall, we applied mycorrhizal fungi with the planter this spring. Mycorrhizae grow in the soil and up into plant roots in a symbiotic relationship. They make existing phosphorous and water available to the plants’ roots.

In a year like this, our yield (70 bushels per acre) wasn’t unusual. But the amount of time we spent tilling the soil was.

A lot of farmers were wrapping up soybean harvest last week. Already I see tillage done on erosive soybean stubble. I wonder why these farmers find it necessary. Is fuel so cheap they feel sorry for the Saudis? Are their planters so poorly designed they must murder soil life just to get the seed in the ground? What could they be doing if they weren’t driving back and forth in a farm field? Are clear running streams disgusting in some way? I suppose some of these farmers even travel to Canada on fishing trips to get away from the muddy water caused by their tillage.

As you drive through the country this fall and you see bare soil, realize a farmer has murdered his partners. He has thrown out God’s gifts that enable him to sustain society with nourishment. The tools we needed to tame the prairie have been made obsolete by technology. The productivity of the prairie soils was produced only with the activity of the life in the soil. Since we began reaping the benefits of the centuries of the work of these creatures, we have not allowed them to continue with that work.

In economics there is a term: creative destruction. It is time we reduce the destruction and increase creativity by living in God’s image. Leave the soil alone this fall, not to stave off the evil EPA, but to show some appreciation for what we have been given.

Thanks for reading and heeding. I can’t see writing these things and sending them out to Pluto or some other place where confiscated funds are deemed worthy of harebrained schemes.

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