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December 4, 2019

Industrial Farming: Celebrating World Soil Day

How to prevent farmland erosion while promoting sustainability.

Throughout history, industrial farming has played both an indirect and direct role in the degradation of soil health.

Farming practices that are used to increase productivity such as monocropping, heavy fertilization of crops, and excessive tilling, have contributed to the leaching of valuable nutrients over time.

With a shifting awareness on environmental health, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service Soils has created programs to help educate and promote the use of alternative, sustainable farming practices to sustain nutrient-rich agricultural land that supports vital microorganisms that are responsible for breaking down waste and creating essential nutrients for plant life.

In honor of World Soil Day, we’re taking a hard look at soil erosion and its impact on farming across the U.S. We’re also discussing what actions are being taken to promote soil health and reduce the breakdown of nutrients.

What is Soil Erosion?

One of the biggest threats to farmland productivity is soil erosion, or the deterioration of soil due to natural elements or intensive farming practices. Nature takes its toll by way of wind and/or water. Heavy winds can lift bits and pieces of the topsoil away, while heavy rainfall can cause flowing water to run off, taking soil sediments with it. If the rainfall intensity is greater than the soil’s intake capacity, or the amount of water it can absorb, it overflows.

Also to blame is the heavy man-made machinery that was introduced to farming in the 20th century. There’s an incredible amount of machinery disturbing the soil in modern farming: plows and harrowers breaking down the soil structure, tractors working wet soil and creating compaction, as well as the machinery that used to help harvest certain crops.

Though soil erosion is not always avoidable, certain practices can expediate the process. For this reason, responsible land management is critical to sustaining quality soil for future generations.

How Soil Erosion Affects Farming

In order to flourish, crops need soil that allows their roots take hold and spread out. It’s important that soil isn’t overly loose or compact, which can hinder their ability to grow. They also require soil to absorb and retain vital nutrients and moisture to support various stages of the growing cycle.

According to a study conducted by Iowa State University, soil erosion affects root growth, plow layer fertility, and soil water availability. “The loss of the topsoil can have considerable impact on yield, where nutrient availability, root growth environment, and soil water availability are essential for plant development,” says Iowa State professor Mahdi Al-Kaisi.

It Takes Time to Replenish Soil’s Important Nutrients and Microorganisms

Besides affecting the success of growing plants, soil erosion is alarming for another reason: it’s a hard-to-replenish resources. It takes between 500 and 1000 years for a single inch of new soil to form—and it’s diminishing at a faster rate each year. On average, American farmlands lose a total of 1.7 billion tons of soil, which equates to about $37.6 billion in lost revenue due to unusable land or productivity.

Soil erosion also impacts water quality. According to Ronald Vargas, secretary of the global soil partnership at the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, “Soil is not just useful for helping us grow food. [Soils] are key for storing water—good soil is like a sponge that soaks up the rain and keeps it there. It is important for recycling nutrients and storing carbon that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere.”

Four Effective Soil Conservation Techniques

Through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, farmers, ranchers, and landowners can find valuable resources like online guides, conservation programs and incentives, and local service experts to help make informed decisions on land management.

In addition, many farmers have adopted sustainable practices to preserve the quality of their soil. The following techniques are viable options to reducing your operation’s potential for soil erosion.

  • Windbreaks: To mitigate the damaging effects of strong winds, plant trees and shrubs in perpendicular rows adjacent to your crop fields. These will slow down the wind and protect your topsoil.
  • Cover crops: To enrich the soil with macro and micronutrients, shield the topsoil, and reduce compaction, plant cover crops between planting seasons.
  • Reduced tillage/no-till: By allowing the crops to stay in the soil (instead of plowing them at the end of the season), they will break down naturally and release nutrients in the ground. This both enriches the fertility of the soil and settles it in place. Tilling disturbs the ground and makes it more vulnerable to the elements, while no-till methods leave more residue on the surface/topsoil, helping it better withstand wind and water.
  • Contour farming: To create reservoirs that conserve rainwater, plant your crops according to the contour lines of the field instead of in rows.

Preserving Farmland for Future Generations

Easements offer landowners an opportunity to improve their soil health. Preservation, conservation, and recreation easements can help protect your farmland while possibly providing tax breaks to help offset the cost of vacant land. Knowing what your options is critical for planning for the future. As a nationwide land lender, we understand the challenges of farming and the obstacles farmers face. Learn how we create custom solutions for landowners and help them prepare for the long run. Speak with one of our lending experts today to learn more about our spectrum of loan options.

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