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Are we plowing our soil to death?

After studying the carbon cycle it becomes clear that the soil is the foundation of all life on earth. The quality of the soil determines the quality and quantity of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. The quality of the soil determines not only our prosperity but also, the quality of our physical and mental health. If we let the quality of the soil degrade to any degree, the life it supports will degrade along with it.

The above statement is a logical fact that can be proven. The proper balance of air, water, mineral and organic matter (energy source) determines the quality of the soil.

The minerals in the soil are from decaying rock. The organic matter in the soil is from decaying once living entities. You need both in the proper combination for good soil structure and nutrient level. All are important, but water is the most critical problem we face right now.

Having the opportunity to work for other farmers as well as on our own farm during the big drought of the 50s I learned the value of fertile soil and it’s relation with water for productive crops.

For years I watched farmers put on more and more NPK with little extra production. At the same time their crops seamed to be effected by drought stress more and more. Each year the plants required more water than before to sustain the same production. This always puzzled me. But, with study and time I learned.

With every opportunity I talked to farmers and agriculture extension agents. I studied many books, magazines, agricultural and science publications. I attended and even spoke at farm conferences trying to learn the true secrets of sustainable farming with unpredictable rain patterns. I remember my grandpa saying, years ago, they used to make a crop on the same fields year after year, now it takes irrigation to grow anything. His reasoning was, “the land is wore out”. If Grandpa had had the soil tested he would have seen the decline in the organic matter. Organic matter in the soil is the most important factor and simplest answer to water conservation. Land is worn out when the organic matter is depleted.

A big farmer told me, when figuring his water pumpage and the rainfall divided by his corn production, it took 4,000 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn. If this is correct, the farmer is really growing hydroponically They are just using the soil as a median to anchor the roots. Most of the fertilizers are water-soluble. The soil microbes (if there are any left) have little say in how the nutrients are fed to the plants. The soil, on many farms, doesn't have enough energy for the microbes to do their job of processing the fertilizers to a form and balance the plants need.

Energy is the key factor. Nothing can start in motion without a source of energy. The energy we use, the food, gasoline, diesel, coal or wood all came from the sun. We get a generous supply beamed down daily. But only the green leaf is able to collect the sun’s energy for long-term storage.

The soil’s energy supply is held in the decaying organic material and humus reserves. The soil’s percent of decaying organic matter and humus together should be between 3 and 8 depending on the local environment. Most farmland organic reserves around the world are low. Critically low. Here in Texas, the organic content of the Rio Grande Valley soils are almost all below 1 percent, some as low as two tenth of one percent.

In the mid 80’s I was asked to talk on composting at a Natural Food Associates meeting in Wisconsin. The banquet speaker at that conference, an EPA scientist, made the statement that, “we could easily offset all the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels if we would just increase the organic content of our farm land one tenth of one percent each year”. How strange. That is the exact amount the no-till farmers, under the USDA guidance see their organic content go up each year.

Our farm soils are way below their original organic content. Where did the soil carbon go? Is it in the air?

I quickly learned to know and visit these USDA scientists. They tell me they have non-irrigated, no-till farmers, in a low rainfall year taking money to the bank while the conventional farming neighbor across the fence has complete crop failure.

This could be the answer. Nature never turns the soil upside down, why should we? The foliage of plants, the leaves, stems, bark and all is a different structured material than the roots. The above ground portion was designed by Nature to stay on top as a mulch. It decays at a different rate, requires a different environment, and it requires more oxygen to decay.

Tilling exposes much of the micro soil life to the sun where it can be destroyed by the ultra-violent sunrays. Also, oxygen supply beyond the normal allows the decomposers to feed on organic material faster than normal. Instead of building carbon in the soil, tilling oxidizes organic matter to the atmosphere as CO2 to cause the excess we now have.

Joe Bradford, one of the PhD's researching no-till with the USDA explains earthworms and other soil life do the only tilling the soil gets in a natural environment. We need to create those conditions so the soil can again be tilled naturally.

I readily agree with Dr. Bradford on no-till, but how is it done? Will farmers accept it? Most farmers, me included, love to plow. Lets take a closer look at no-till.

Note; No till farming doesn't mean you never till. There are times when deep chiseling is necessary to break up compacted soil because of having to be on the land when too wet. Chisel when soil is dry, it shatters it better and does much less damage to the soil life.

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last updated:  February 3, 2004