Farmers like my grandfather cherished the soil. They learned most of the features essential to tilling soil from their forebears, from a lifetime of experience, and from living in community with other farmers. When the soil was “sour” (acidic), they knew it was time to apply marl, a whitish earth made up of decomposed limestone. “Sweet” soil (alkaline) required an application of sulfur. Some of the old farming lore stayed with my dad, who nostalgically recalled and repeated it to his boys. “You plant corn when the leaves of the oak are the size of a mouse’s ear.” “Healthy corn should be knee high by the Fourth of July.” He even tried to convince me that on hot August nights he could hear the corn growing! Then there was weather wisdom in rhyme: “Red sky at night, farmers’ delight; red sky in the morning, farmers take warning.”
Today, of course, farmers have the advantage of weather forecasts accurate up to 5 days or more in advance. They have soil-testing methods that can tell them not only the acid/alkaline level of the soil, but also how much of almost every other chemical and nutrient the land requires to grow the desired crop. Expensive farm implements can “read” the soil and, by a computer linked to global positioning satellites, adjust the application of fertilizer to the exact amount needed yardby- yard. The modern farmer has available to him almost everything to ensure that his crop is well nourished, bug free, weed free, disease resistant, and drought safe. If he has enough money, he can protect his crop from all but the most catastrophic “act of God.” Because of genetic engineering, he can grow sweeter sweet corn and more sugary sugar beets. He can plant corn that grows ever-larger ears and at just the right level above the ground to maximize the efficiency of his corn picker. One man can virtually sow and reap today what hundreds of farmers could scarcely accomplish a century ago. Therein lies the problem.
The Impact Of Technology. As technology improves and increases in scale and impact, soil is used more intensively than ever before. And as the cost of technology increases, small-scale farmers are either forced into cooperatives, or forced into selling their farms to high-tech farmers or large agricultural corporations. Big-scale farmers are not very interested in the old family-farm tradition where cash crops were grown on more distant acres, and subsistence crops and food animals were cared for closer to the house. Most farms a century ago were self-sufficient. With cows for milk, steers and hogs for meat, chickens for meat and eggs, a number of fruit trees, and an ample garden, even large farm families could care for themselves off the fruit of their own land and the sweat of their own hard labor. One farm family in my home church in the 1950s had 23 members: a prolific mom and dad and their 21 children, which included five sets of twins. Our own neighbors, who lived in an old farmhouse, were a family with 17 children. By the late 50s, however, the only evidence of a farm was their 2-acre garden. Our house and the surrounding houses had been built on old family acreage. Because the farm was close to the city, selling off land for houses became a huge financial benefit to the former farmer and his family—and a welcome reprieve from hard labor. None of the children continued farming. Most went into construction— sort of in self-defense. They were in the path of onrushing suburbia.
Around the city of Grand Rapids today, sprawling housing developments now occupy thousands of acres of former farmland—its topsoil either carted away or turned into landfill. Multiply this by thousands of communities across the nation and around the world that are experiencing rapid population growth. Seemingly lost in this modern land rush is the soil—which was the prize to be obtained in most other historic land rushes. The desertion of the family farm, in conjunction with the encroachment of “agriculturally-challenged” suburbanites on farmland, not only constitutes the greatest population movement in American history, but is probably the least considered and potentially most damaging threat to the soil.
I recently did a search for the location of the woodlot my grandfather owned and maintained by the gradual harvesting of mature trees. He sold them to furniture, boxboard, and wood-shaving (excelsior) factories in Grand Rapids. Examining the county records, I found the location and the purchase price of his lot: $2,000 for 40 acres. It was bought a couple of weeks after my father was born and sold for $4,000 some 13 years later. I discovered that the woodlot was located on a plat that I often passed: a new housing development with waterfront homes selling for $300,000 or more. Gravel had been discovered under the soil years ago, a huge pit dug, and finally a lake created. One could consider that to be the epitome of “soil loss.”
When the overtaking and destruction of farmland by residential, commercial, and industrial interests is coupled with the overtaking of farming by agricultural corporations, serious problems develop. This is in part because fewer true farmers actually work the land they live on and patiently manage on a seasonal cycle. Not much soil rests today under the watchful eye of people who cherish it.
The livelihood of the new farming technician depends on how much land he can engineer to provide a high yield that he can quickly get to market to obtain a good price; so that he can buy more and better implements and chemicals to provide an even higher yield in the future; so that he can increase his profit enough to improve his living standards that will allow him to buy all the food he wants, 24 hours a day, from the supermarket that has obtained its food products from all over the world expensively transported by ship, train, and truck to satisfy the desires of fussy consumers who want fresh and unblemished tomatoes, apples, strawberries, and grapes available to them every day of the year regardless of the season.
Whew! Trying to unpack all the implications of that run-on sentence would take a book and a dozen critical essays. Yet at the heart of these complex social, economic, and environmental issues is this reality: What we no longer appreciate and What we no longer appreciate and understand, we often come to abuse.
The Erosion Of Soil. We live as though soil is inexhaustible. The truth is that it’s not. A visit to the Web site of the US Department Of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service Resource Assessment Division tells the story in the United States. While technology in America is now reversing the cropland erosion crisis, as recently as 1997 in the major river watersheds of the eastern half of the nation, water erosion was reducing soil on 41 million acres at the rate of 5 tons per acre every year. Wind erosion in the western half of the country was taking an equal amount of tonnage from 40 million acres. And because of the heavy application of chemicals to the most easily eroded topsoil, nutrients, pesticides, and herbicides are riding the sediment to the sea, polluting almost all of the nation’s major rivers. These, in turn, have created serious fishery problems in our bays, estuaries, and nearby ocean waters. Other consequences create negative environmental and economic ripples throughout the entire globe.
We see the practical result of this in another set of sobering statistics: In the United States, 6 pounds of farmable soil is lost for every pound of food we eat. This is occurring in the nation with the most advanced farming technology in the world. In less developed nations, twice as much soil is lost per pound of food. In China, it’s three times that amount: 18 pounds of soil lost per pound of food eaten. Not too many years ago in parts of eastern Washington State, over 12 bushels of soil were blowing or washing away for every bushel of crop—giving us an entirely new meaning for “Washington”!
When you place the soil erosion rate next to the rate at which soil is formed— generously estimated to be a quarter of a ton per acre every year—you realize that the US is losing soil at a 20:1 ratio. According to some agricultural economists, as much as $42 billion is potentially lost per year because of erosion in the US. Worldwide, the figure is over $400 billion.