Seed business co-founder, Keith Berns, put together a historical synopsis of soils and presented it to a group of farmers recently who gathered in Iola, Kan. to learn what the future of agriculture has in store. “Sometimes we must step back, to step forward,” he said.
Today, I wanted to share some of the insightful, eye-opening information Berns shared. I hope it causes us to rethink the soil rebuilding process before all of us. The following is a portion of his presentation, “When pioneers headed west in the late 19th century, many settled in the tall grasslands of the semi-arid Midwestern and Southern Plains of the United States. Prosperity followed in the decades after settlement. More people settling led to the breaking up of more grassland.”
In 1909, Professor Milton Whitney, Chief of the Bureau of Soils, said these damaging words, “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the Nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.”
Later, Hugh Hammond Bennett, first Chief of the Soil Conservation Service, would offer a rebuttal to Whitney’s thought process, “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation could be put into a single brief sentence.”
Berns said in his presentation, “With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops in 1931. However, overproduction of wheat coupled with the Great Depression led to severely reduced market prices. A post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques as a way to increase profits. Between 1925 and 1930, more than five million acres of previously unfarmed land was plowed. Overproduction of wheat, coupled with the Great Depression, severely reduced market prices. Farmers were unable to earn back their production costs, so they expanded their fields in an effort to turn a profit. They covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural, drought-resistant grasses and left unused fields bare. On the heels of this expanded production, multiple years of severe drought and strong winds led to the greatest human-made ecological disaster in modern history – The Dust Bowl.”
“The Soil Erosion Service (SES) was formed in 1933 and established demonstration projects, but was limited in funding and scope and would expire in June of 1935. The Yearbook of Agriculture in 1934 announced, ‘Approximately 35 million acres of formerly cultivated land have essentially been destroyed for crop production . . . 100 million acres now in crops have lost all or most of the topsoil; 125 million acres of land now in crops are rapidly losing topsoil.’”
Bennett again addresses the serious soil loss situation, “Now, we have the evil with us on an enormous scale, and the nation may as well gird tightly its belt for a continuing battle against this process of land wasting, that is if we are to avoid the eventuality of becoming probably the world's most outstanding nation of subsoil farming – which of course generally means bankrupt farming on bankrupt land.”
“Political in-fighting and turf wars threatened the momentum that Bennett was making. On March 20, 1935, Congressional Hearings on soil erosion coincided with one of the largest dust storms to date and the storm itself was rapidly approaching Washington D.C.,” Berns relayed.
The year 2021. There’s no excuse. We can do this. “It is time to change the way we think and move beyond prevention, tolerance and sustainability,” Berns said. “Today in the United States there are 900 million acres of farmland. The majority of these acres have experienced significant degradation and loss of productivity. How often do we hear the statement, there will be 10 billion people to feed by 2050?”
What steps should we take? Berns begins with a simple overview, “Soil is created at the intersection of plants, biology, water, and carbon. Here are the basic principles of soil health to implement: cover crops, no-till farming, soil armor at all times (soil covered with living roots), beneficial insects, and properly managed livestock.”
In closing, Berns put out a call to action, “We can do better. We can rebuild. We can restore. We can regenerate. We have the tools, and we have the people, and we are gaining the national momentum we will need to do this soil restoration on a large scale.”
There is no shame in needing to learn something new and there are many farmers and ranchers beginning to realize next steps need to be made. Berns’ call to action states – let’s rebuild, together! We can save the land and ourselves. I know it.