The agriculture industry faces a number of growing challenges. The loss of pollinators and pollinator habitat is making it difficult to grow certain crops. Intensifying scrutiny is being placed on emissions and water pollution caused by farmers. An increasingly global economy causes unexpected demands and market price shifts. The list goes on.
But there’s one problem that poses a bigger threat any other: the loss of healthy soil.
Without healthy, available soil, it is impossible for farmers to meet the growing demands of consumers. This isn’t a new problem, nor is it unique to our society. Damaged and eroded soil is considered to be a contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Empire. The same could be said about other civilizations before them.
It’s hard to imagine an America without healthy soil. Our fertile farmland has long been a part of our identity and heritage. And yet, the truth still stands…
We’re Running Out of Soil
American is losing topsoil 10x faster than it’s being replaced. This is especially problematic considering it takes approximately 500 years to develop 1 inch of topsoil naturally. If something doesn’t change, we could be out of top soil within 60 years. To make things worse, food production actually needs to increase 60% by 2050 to meet growing demand.
A lack of healthy soil isn’t a future problem. It’s a present problem.
US agriculture loses $44 billion every year due to erosion. Once fertile states like Iowa have less than half the topsoil they did a century ago. Much of the topsoil that remains isn’t as strong as it needs to be either. With the current state of soil health, some believe another dust bowl could hit as early as 2025.
Considering the last Dust Bowl displaced a billion+ tons of topsoil, this is a very serious issue.
What’s Causing the Problem?
There’s no singular cause to our soil problems. Rather, there have been systemic issues that have slowly but steadily been whittling away our supplies. It starts with erosion.
The removal of natural buffers has contributed to an increase in both wind and rain erosion. Much of our best farmland was originally plains covered in thick, tall grasses with pockets of trees and small forests throughout. The establishment of farmland and cities removed much of this native vegetation, increasing winds and leaving soil exposed.
Similarly, exposed soil lacks protection against rain. When the rain comes, it begins to wash away the soil. Without any buffers to stop this runoff, the soil ends up in local water supplies (which causes problems of its own).
However, soil health also plays a critical role in erosion. Unfortunately, much of today’s farm soil is weak and unhealthy. Establishing the same crops year after year drains soil of nutrients without giving time for them to be replenished. Crop rotation can help combat this, but it comes with some limitations and hurdles. Many farmers simply don’t have the time or resources to implement it.
Instead, many turn to synthetic fertilizers. While this can help in the short term, it can actually further damage soil in the long run.
Other common farm practices such as tillage also cause damage when overused. In fact, tillage negatively impacts just about every metric used to determine soil health. No-till farming and reduced-till farming can help. Implementing them does require some extra effort and equipment at first, but once they’re a part of your farming operations, they can actually save you time and money in the long run.
We Must Protect the Soil We Have
It’s estimated that a third of our world’s soil is degraded. We can’t wait for it to replenish, and there are no alternatives to replace it with. We have to make the most out of the soil we still have. The good news is sustainable farming practices are working.
Actions like establishing cover crops and limiting tillage have helped lower soil erosion by more than 40%. For those who don’t have the time or means to implement sustainable practices on their own, there is still hope. There are a number of programs and incentives available to provide financial assistance and compensation for promoting sustainability and restoring natural habitat.
The leading option for over three decades has been the Conservation Reserve Program.
In exchange for taking marginal land out of active production and establishing native vegetation, farmers receive market-based rental payments, as well as reimbursement for a portion of the establishment cost. CRP has proven highly effective at protecting soil and restoring its health.
Since 1985, CRP has prevented 9 billion tons of soil from eroding.
If you’re interested in enrolling in CRP, we can help. FDCE takes the busywork out of CRP, allowing farmers to focus on their land and their crops while earning a profit and restoring health to damaged soil. Contact us today to learn more about what we can do for you.