The West Fork of the Cedar River winds through our farm. It is filled with silt from the tilled fields around us. That’s too bad. But the saddest part is the wasted time and God’s creatures who were put here to make our lives better. The unappreciation of a generation for soil that is now only considered a medium to support plants while imported ingredients feed them as if in hydroponics, instead of a complete system of life. Then there’s our new neighbor, who tore up 50 acres of grass to plant organic soybeans as if organic were a more ecological alternative to no till with some chemicals or hay. Oh well.
I hope some of you will respond with questions and especially arguments if you think I need some education on this. I’ve changed my mind before and am always ready for new ideas. Thanks for reading and sharing with others if you will.
Our Friends in the Soil Deserve Life
Mostly what I did in school was look out the window and wait for the bell. I still do a little celebration if I notice the time is 3:15. I was in huge California schools and that probably contributed to the feeling that I was merely moving down an assembly line.
But then I had Mr. Hurst for Biology. Biology was great. It had the universality of math with the excitement of life. We did collections of plants, insects, and sea life. Mr. Hurst, also the football coach, seemed to like academics and coached to subsidize that instead of the other way around. He stayed after class to have little debates with me.
It was kinda weird for a high school kid in Newport Beach to grow spinach but my mom made salad out of it, with bacon. Now I’ve had that habit for 50 years.
I never dreamt back then I would grow things for a living. But here we are, retired from 40 years of row crops, yet unable to tear ourselves away from the cattle. Life is precious. In Iowa, soil is precious. Thinking back to that sand in Newport and in visiting with people from distant places who visit our farm, I could never express enough the appreciation I have for Iowa soil.
We hear more about the soil these days. I listen to Hort Day on public radio and also read articles about “regenerative agriculture.” I see “organic” sections in the stores.
The organic fad has been a boon to my organic farmer friends although the difficulty of the management must deliver rich rewards. It is rather silly to claim this or that result from chemicals that may have effects on distantly far off generations. But as is happening in South Dakota, erosion is visible today. I’ve actually seen photos of road ditches filled with wind-blown soil. Our drainage ditch was just dredged of our neighbor’s soil for the third time since we moved here.
Gunsmoke Farms is General Mills’ 53 square miles of South Dakota farmland being converted to organic production. They plan to use all that land to teach other farmers “how to implement organic and regenerative agricultural practices.”
I do mean to rain on their parade. Organic and regenerative could only mean first you destroy the soil structure and life in the soil, then you put it back. It sounds like the traditional joke about workers digging a hole only to put the dirt back in.
The people I hear on Friday’s Hort Day on IPR are in a tight spot. Since they favor organic production, the more scientific aspect of soil makes for a major contradiction. To get a crop, competition must be limited. Limiting that competition from weeds requires tillage if it’s done on a scale to provide food for the masses. A day’s work can undo much of 450 million years’ worth of building the soil.
My friend Leonard from out West introduced me to mycorrhizal fungi. He developed its use in land restoration projects. Like in a lot of things the unseen is often more important than the seen. A large part of the soil is made of phosphorus. That phosphorus in unavailable to the plants unless converted to a usable form. The mycelium of that fungi grow through the soil and even up into plant roots delivering otherwise unavailable phosphorus.
A 6.9 million pound dragline digs the material in Florida. It is made into a slurry, filtered, scrubbed, washed, dried, shipped, and spread. All this energy is spent so farmers can spend time and energy killing the life that will deliver phosphorus for free.
Mycorrhizal fungi is only one of thousands of living things that work for farmers if left alone. Like in many facets of our world, if left alone it will keep giving. It is a noble goal to eliminate the unknowns of chemical farming, but eliminating the known hazards should come first, especially when it reduces costs as well.
Is there a term to describe non-tilled soil? I think “organic” is a bit of fraud as there remain many insecticides, organic, inorganic, and synthetic that can still be used (https://bit.ly/3bZJI69).
What about genetically modified seeds to plant new, annual crops? Do you have an opinion on the use of these materials and how might they harm the soil environment, if at all (genetic “drift” for example)?