Photo and video courtesy of Terra Brockman.
A fierce north wind was driving tiny ice needles into my face as I pulled over to the side of a country road near my home in central Illinois. The wind nearly tore the door off the car as I leapt out to get a closer look at the white-caps on what seemed a lake, but was, in fact, a fall-plowed, black-dirt cornfield. I watched in horror as the same wind that was whipping up white-caps and prickling my face drove mud-laden water into ditches and culverts. From there, I knew, it would rush down streams and rivers. What had taken millennia to build up would now be lost to agriculture for millennia.
All of this took place during the last few days of 2015, designated the International Year of Soils by the United Nations. I was on my way to my brother Henry’s farm but kept stopping to leap out of the car and into the icy wind, compelled to document the loss that no one else seemed to notice: the loss of the very source of all our sustenance, the soil itself.
Adding to my distress was the knowledge that I was watching history repeat itself. I looked at the past and saw the future: the sad eyes and hungry bellies of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these farmers, future generations who would not be able to feed themselves from this land. This depressing history, and likely future, is detailed in Edward Hyams’ “Soil and Civilization,” and David Montgomery’s “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations.” These authors and many others have described how rich soils led to abundant food, wealth, and the rise of great civilizations. Yet once people removed trees, grass, and other protective vegetation, cultivated soil erodes, and civilizations fell.
This pattern has repeated itself time and again, from Mesopotamia, to Ancient Greece, to the Roman Empire, to China, to Europe, through European colonialism, and then to the “New World,” and the American push westward. We appear to be well on our way to the predicted downfall: over the past 150 years, 70 percent of the world’s agricultural soils have been blown or washed away. At this rate, we have less than 100 years before all our fertile soil, the basis of all plant and animal life, is gone. One U.N. official put the figure at 60 years, meaning that your grandchildren or great-grandchildren will inherit Midwestern land as barren as the deserts of the Middle East, themselves once a fertile Eden.
Perhaps it is because erosion happens slowly, over many generations, that we ignore it. Yet the concept of erosion and its consequences are well-known, and easily conveyed. As a farm wife explained it to me, let’s say you’ve made a lovely yellow cake with chocolate frosting. And you have a passel of children. One after another, they stealthily run a finger across the top of the cake, lick off the frosting, then smooth over the furrow left behind. No one is the wiser, until sooner or later a child realizes there’s no longer enough frosting left to hide the damage.
Unwittingly, many farmers are like these children. They go out into their fields each spring, and their tractors smooth over the gullies and eroded areas. But here’s where the analogy breaks down, because once the topsoil “frosting” is gone, there’s no yummy cake below. In fact, once the topsoil is gone, that land’s food producing days are over, and that farm family is gone forever.
Thankfully, David Montgomery offers a few examples of people who maintained their soils and civilizations generation after generation. For 5,000 years, until “modern agriculture” arrived in the 20th century, farmers in some parts of China kept their land productive. Even today, farmers in Peru’s Colca Valley use terraces cultivated for more than fifteen centuries. How do they do this? Montgomery explains that “Like their ancestors, they maintain soil fertility through intercropping, crop rotations that include legumes, fallowing, and the use of both manure and ash to maintain soil fertility.”
Those techniques will be familiar to any organic farmer, and to any person with a passing knowledge of agro-ecology and restorative, resilient agricultural practices. Indeed, Montgomery sees in these practices hope for the future. As do I. Along with many members of my family and community, I have seen how organic farming builds soil and produces delicious and nutritious foods. I will never forget running into a conventional cornfield (we were running because night was falling, and a storm was coming) with my organic farming neighbors. They had been asked by an absentee land-owner if they would farm their inherited 80 acres organically. My neighbor Denny scooped up a handful of soil, sniffed it, then let it filter through his fingers. He finally slapped his hands against his jeans to clean them and to punctuate his conclusion, “Yep, it’s dead.” Then a sly grin: “But we can bring it back to life.”
Bringing soil back to life is what organic farmers do. And in doing so, they start a virtuous circle spinning. From living soil comes fertility that grows healthy plants that feed healthy animals (including us). And those healthy animals (excluding us!) provide tastier and more nutritious meat, milk, and eggs. The healthy microbial life of the soil not only makes it better able to grow food, but the “glue” of micro-organisms helps hold it together, prevent erosion, and sequester carbon. And so one good thing leads to another, and then another, expanding ever-outward in concentric circles of good.
For all of these good reasons, it’s important that every year continue to be “the year of the soil.” As Chief Seattle so accurately and memorably put it: “We are part of the earth and it is part of us … What befalls the earth befalls all the sons [and daughters] of the earth.”