Bare earth, scorched earth: America's farms must return to roots

May 09, 2007|By Janet Kauffman

If you're in farm country, from the Appalachians to the Rockies, chances are you'll see fields laid bare as much as nine months of the year.

Look around, from fall to spring: Annual crops such as corn, soybeans, spring wheat and sorghum that grew in summer are gone.

The ground looks shaved, scarred, skinned.

And it is.

Bare earth - ground without cover, without rooted plants holding soils and building them - is not a natural condition in such places.

In its natural state, virtually all this ground would be covered with perennial plants, rooted year-round, leafing and dying in sequence, the soil constantly nourished, cooled, protected.

A field of bare soil heats up like a hot plate. Bare earth is soon enough scorched earth. The surface crusts and then cracks as moisture escapes. If rain falls, it flows off crusted areas, it gouges and erodes, and mud - which, of course, is soil - runs off. Wind adds to soil's destruction.

From bare fields each year flow and blow more than a billion tons of sediment and the pollutants bound to it, a degradation of America's soils and water.

"Stop the mudness!" is the slogan for a Great Lakes Commission sediment-reduction campaign. Sediment is the main pollutant in the lakes, as it is in almost all of America's watersheds, and agriculture is the major polluter.

The campaign offers this common-sense advice to farmers who see runoff from their fields:

Change your tillage practices; don't plow so much, especially in the fall.

Add a grass or legume to your crop rotation; keep more roots holding more soil.

Install buffer strips; plant trees and perennial grasses to filter sediment before it enters streams.

We're still losing stream buffers to bare fields, losing forested buffers where sequences of plants photosynthesize, recycle nutrients, sequester carbon, build rich soil pores and crumb structures - that spongy, dark soil that absorbs water. And stops the "mudness."

Bare-earth fields are so commonplace that people forget how recently - just a few generations ago - farmers tore off the green cover, plowed up pastures, quit using cover crops, and turned the landscape into row after row of annuals. Even the few months these crops are rooted and leafing, there's still row after row of bare dirt between all the plants.

People drive by cornfields in summer, or by miles of bare fields in fall, winter and spring, and they think, "Ah, the scenery looks so fine, so natural." But it's not natural.

Agricultural policy and practice must return to their roots - to rootedness - and cover the ground.

Farm policy should promote perennial crops, biodiversity, grass-based livestock production and reforestation of stream banks, hedgerows and wood lots. Agricultural energy policy should promote perennial crops such as switchgrass for ethanol production, not the bare-earth annual corn.

Pasture-based networks have grown up in a number of states, such as Project Grass in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, encouraging intensive rotational grazing instead of corn/confinement livestock operations. Even the federal government has a few perennial-agriculture research projects, such as the Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in West Virginia, studying pasture-based beef production and other grazed agricultural ecosystems.

But these are dots of green in an otherwise bare-earth landscape.

When we come to our senses and recognize greenery for what it is to us - lifesaving - our vision will change. We'll see bare ground as an assault, an offense. We'll see bare fields as degrading, to nature and to ourselves. Knowing better, we'll farm, and farm well. We may even be able to sit by a stream with a forested buffer, put our feet in the water and celebrate a world recovered.

Janet Kauffman works with Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan and teaches at Eastern Michigan University. She wrote this for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle in Salina, Kan.

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