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Dust_Bowl_-_Dallas,_South_Dakota_1936

Reversing a System of Soil Degradation

Monocropping, or planting of a singular crop in a large area, has been around since “cash crops” have existed. What better way to get a whole bunch of cotton, tobacco or corn all at one time? This method is highly practiced today in our agricultural system and is the main way food is grown for grocery stores and large processing plants. However, there are some major problems with the process, so let me explain by telling a little story.

Once upon a time, there was a forest, there were so many layers to this forest from the tall overstory trees, to medium sized shade-loving trees, moss and vines growing everywhere and a deep bed of leaf litter slowly decomposing below perennial bushes and annual self-seeding plants and flowers. You can find life in every corner and niche of this forest; from the edge of a leaf to hidden colonies under the soil. Everything is balanced and the circle of life is fully intact, everyone has a predator down to the teeniest tiny bug, and they all have a purpose or role to play in their larger ecosystem.

One day, giant machines come and tear the forest down, they take everything away from the trees to the leaf matter. Many fragile species die immediately due to sun exposure where they used to have a soft squishy dark home. After several weeks of the soil baking in the sun, almost all the life that used to thrive a short time before is almost gone. The machines come back and plant the entire space with corn after ripping at the earth with huge invasive tillers that destroy the soil structure and mycology biomass. At first, the corn grows very fast and beautifully, this was previously home to tons of life, so lots of those nutrients are still in the soil and freshly accessible after the tilling machine came through. Then all the bug eggs that were left in the soil explode at the opportunity to access food again. They eat everything as quickly as they can because their regular food is nowhere to be found and they are very hungry. More species die off, the food isn’t right for them, others who can digest corn reproduce in masses with all the readily available resources. Now we have one crop and only the bugs that eat it thriving in this environment. The corn starts to become devastated by the bug populations so a small airplane comes and sprayed the whole field at night. Bugs hide from the smelly choking spray in the deepest crevices they can find. Eighty percent of the population is wiped out as well as any other bugs that had managed to hold out this long. Then it rains and all the pesticide wash off the plants and follow the flow of water into the close by a creek that leads to the river. The rain also allows that twenty percent of bugs who hid, to get right back to reproducing in the residual spray….their offspring are now a little tolerant to the chemical spray. The chemical spray also seeped into the soil affecting the microorganisms who live there.

This process continues for 50 years, tilling exposed soils, planting one thing, spraying when bugs get bad, harvest and repeat. Every year the farmer plants a “more resilient” strain of corn that is supposed to produce a higher yield and ward off bugs. For some reason despite his efforts, his yields have been steadily decreasing for the last 10 years. So, let’s pick apart what’s happening.

These practices of farming are very dangerous and lead to events like the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and statistics show globally we are losing up to two inches of topsoil each year. Two inches a year is a lot and doesn’t even take into consideration the soil degradation and nutrient loss that will make our soils completely unable to support life in roughly 50 years.

Main Causes of Soil Degradation

  1. Exposed soil. We get sunburned in the sun, the soil microbiology also burns in the sun. Over time exposed soil will slowly turn into sand or a hard clay pans without life.
  2. Farming Chemicals. They too burn the soil and make it a toxic environment void of microorganism and only anaerobic (acid, smelly, and without oxygen) bacteria grow.
  3. Overgrazing. Natural grazing patterns allow animals to travel far away before returning to one spot.When this can’t happen plant life disappears and the soil becomes exposed or the only plants that thrive are the ones that cows won’t eat.
  4. Erosion. This is when the soil is washed away by rain into our water systems, it happens for a wide variety of reason mainly due to overgrazing, construction, and heavy machinery.
  5. Soil compaction. This is where the soil becomes extremely hard and rock-like, usually caused by large machinery and overgrazing.

So……is there anything we can do about it?!

YES! There is so much we can do to help, even doing a couple of the things I’m going to list below can help enormously. By mimicking the patterns of a forest and the ways it sustains itself, we can recreate healthy environments for microbiology in our soils and in turn bring organic matter and nutrients back.

Building Resilience & Restoration

  1. Cover that soil! Mulch of any kind (2-3 inches deep) from pretty store-bought, to leaves, and every straw can be used as a protective layer over the soil. It also holds onto moisture better so you don’t have to water as much. Add cardboard under mulch to jumpstart your local earthworm population, they will love you.
  2. Don’t spray. There are many organic, nature-friendly solutions to most bug problems in the garden or yard. Research and educate yourself first. Diatomaceous Earth works!
  3. Companion Planting. My favorite guide is by the Permaculture Research Institute. Diversity builds resilience and letting a couple plants go to seed attracts decomposers away from fresh plants to where they are actually needed.
  4. Support local farms. Especially important for sourcing meat, find a farmer or local retailer whom you agree with their practices.
  5. Build infrastructure. Infrastructure that holds in soils, like terraces and rows, dug into the contour of the land, lets the rain soak into the landscape instead of rushing away. Farming the water first always produces amazing long-term results.
  6. Compost. Probably the 2nd most important under mulching, composting is how we create new soil. And it’s something you can contribute even if you don’t have a garden at home. A forest like the one in the story above takes 100 years to make new soil. Hot aerobic composting can be turned from food scraps to soil in about 4 weeks. Holy cow that’s a huge difference! Don’t send our future soil to the landfill!

In short, we need to make some massive changes in the way we farm and mass produce food or we will be in big trouble in a couple generations. Support resilient regenerative infrastructure that helps create a world we want to be in, instead of the destructive totally unsustainable version we currently inhabit. We can create a better world, it’s one million percent possible if we only decide to work together.

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