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posted by janrinok on Thursday March 12 2015, @09:45PM   Printer-friendly
from the otherwise-known-as-how-we-used-to-do-it dept.

Erica Goode writes in the NYT that no-till soil-conservation farming, a movement that promotes leaving fields untilled, “green manures” and other soil-enhancing methods, is gaining converts as propnents say the technology mimics the biology of virgin land, to revive degenerated earth, minimize erosion, encourage plant growth and increase farmers’ profits, “It’s a massive paradigm shift,” says Ray Archuleta, an agronomist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the federal Agriculture Department, which endorses the soil-conservation approach. Neatly tilled fields have long been a hallmark of American agriculture and its farmers, by and large traditionalists who often distrust practices that diverge from time-honored methods. Tilling also helps mix in fertilizers and manure and loosens the top layer of the soil. But repeated plowing exacts a price. It degrades soil, killing off its biology, including beneficial fungi and earthworms, and leaving it, as Archuleta puts it, “naked, thirsty, hungry and running a fever.” Soil health proponents say that by leaving fields unplowed and using cover crops, which act as sinks for nitrogen and other nutrients, growers can increase the amount of organic matter in their soil, making it better able to absorb and retain water.

One recent study led by the Environmental Defense Fund suggested that the widespread use of cover crops and other soil-health practices could reduce nitrogen pollution in the Upper Mississippi and Ohio River basins by 30 percent, helping to shrink the giant “dead zone” of oxygen-depleted water in the Gulf of Mexico. But the movement also has critics, who argue that no-tillage and other methods are impractical and too expensive for many growers. A farmer who wants to shift to no-tillage, for example, must purchase new equipment, like a no-till seeder. Even farmers who enthusiastically adopt no-till and other soil-conservation methods rarely do so for environmental reasons; their motivation is more pragmatic. “My goal is to improve my soil so I can grow a better crop so I can make more money,” says Terry McAlister, who farms 6,000 acres of drought-stricken cropland in North Texas. “If I can help the environment in the process, fine, but that’s not my goal.”

 
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  • (Score: 5, Informative) by Thexalon on Friday March 13 2015, @02:40AM

    by Thexalon (636) on Friday March 13 2015, @02:40AM (#157104)

    First off, thanks for your perspective.

    The primary concern of the hippie-types, in my experience, is about making sure that the land remains arable in the long-term. I understand that short-term financial pressures make that an extremely difficult issue to even consider dealing with, but when you see phenomena like soil depth depletion across the entire breadbasket of the US, that's a ticking time bomb that potentially affects everybody.

    So, with your farmer experience, what policy change would you want the hippie foodie types to lobby for that would actually give you the breathing room to consider all the options you just said were too expensive? I could imagine banking, price supports, trying to break the processor/distributor monopsony that controls prices of most crops in most areas, and a bunch of other measures that would make farming more profitable and leave you more able to invest in the future of your farm, but that's not the same as knowing what you need.

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  • (Score: 1) by nitehawk214 on Friday March 13 2015, @03:02PM

    by nitehawk214 (1304) on Friday March 13 2015, @03:02PM (#157298)

    I would say the hippie-types should be concerned with long term soil quality. As should everybody, really. Even the agribuisness megacorps should have a vested interest in keeping soil in good shape for long term productivity. (though I am sure they are only interested in short-term profits and government subsidies)

    But the hippie-types I have met are more concerned is GMO. I doubt many of them care where their food comes from as long as it has the no-GMO sticker on it. Some have told me "I am so much healther now that I have gone organic!" I tell them, "Yeah, you are cooking your own food instead of eating at McDonalds, of course you are healthier."

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    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @04:42PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @04:42PM (#157347)

      > But the hippie-types I have met are more concerned is GMO.

      It's kind of sad you turned this story about soil-conservation into an opportunity to rant about your completely unrelated pet peeve.
      Keyword matching is not a good method for contributing to a discussion.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @10:20PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @10:20PM (#157532)

        next up: a plan by Monsanto to splice systemd into gmo so that farmers have to use it whether they like it or not.

        mhaw haw haw haw world domination is ours.

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @05:04PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday March 13 2015, @05:04PM (#157356)

    First off, thanks for your perspective.

    You're very welcome.

    The primary concern of the hippie-types, in my experience, is about making sure that the land remains arable in the long-term. I understand that short-term financial pressures make that an extremely difficult issue to even consider dealing with, but when you see phenomena like soil depth depletion across the entire breadbasket of the US, that's a ticking time bomb that potentially affects everybody.

    The funny thing is that I want the land to be arable (or at least healthy and productive, depending on its best use) in the long term as well. Why? Because if it isn't, I go broke. I would think that this would be obvious, but a lot of people assume that farmers are only out for a quick buck. If I wanted a quick buck I'd sell my land and move.

    As for soil depth, there are definitely problems there. However, the solution has to involve building soil and doing so is not broadly compatible with current farming practices for a whole list of reasons - but again, a lot of it comes down to government incentives. If your best financial shot is to plant the same rowcrop year after year after year and soak everything in artificial nutrients, then the fact that the ground is mostly an inactive growth medium is a sad side-effect, not an intended goal. However, that doesn't mean that every tilled acre is losing depth either. I know one farmer not far from where I am who tills once every year or three, and his soil is fantastic. What he does is to avoid killing the soil ecology, and he grazes cattle on it. His product is beef. The dung of the cattle and the roots of a varied pasture help foster the growth of his soil layer.

    So it is possible, but it depends on what you have to do to keep paying the bills.

    So, with your farmer experience, what policy change would you want the hippie foodie types to lobby for that would actually give you the breathing room to consider all the options you just said were too expensive? I could imagine banking, price supports, trying to break the processor/distributor monopsony that controls prices of most crops in most areas, and a bunch of other measures that would make farming more profitable and leave you more able to invest in the future of your farm, but that's not the same as knowing what you need.

    The first thing I would do is ditch the farm subsidies. Just stop them. Like, tomorrow. Is that too early? I like tomorrow. Because the subsidies largely go to big farmers or politically connected farmers or big, politically connected farmers. I would, in the same act if possible, remove or drastically reduce price floors. The reasoning behind this is that if we are going to have more involved stewardship of the land, we need more and smaller farmers doing more varied things. If nothing else, it reduces the monocrop catastrophe scenarios. Uniformity is a terrible weakness in a biological engineering sense (and modern farmers are just that: biological engineers - we just don't get to call ourselves engineers). I'm not too worried about the distribution monopsonies, but I would tear up a lot of the regulations which effectively create those monopsonies. An example is how difficult it is to get offal. It's perfectly good food, and people who raise their own livestock or live in other countries think the FDA and USDA are crazy to make it so hard to recover organ meats from healthy animals. Reduce and simplify the regulations, and cut the agencies down to size. The government is the real middle man here, when it is consumers who should be thinking about what they shove in their faces. (No, I'm not a big fan of the fast food franchises.)

    Another recommendation, and this one is a lot more radical, is to find a way of reducing the undue influence of urbanites on farming practices. With the best will and the most loving heart the majority of urbanites are ripe for recruitment, based on their natural, humane tendencies and bottomless ignorance of farming practices, for all sorts of crazy political schemes which end up screwing producers terribly. An example: the ban on farrowing crates.

    Yes, it looks terrible, doesn't it? A sow all trapped in that tiny pen, can't turn around, can barely roll over, for months at a time (although not her whole life). Do you know why? Because sows will often roll over onto, and crush their offspring who are tiny and vulnerable. They will also often indulge in some cannibalism because even pigs thinks pork is tasty. I guess the interests of the sows trump the interests of piglets in the minds of people who want to ban farrowing crates. From the farmer's perspective, each dead piglet is a drain on production, which is a drain on profit, which means either higher prices at the point of sale or commercial death. I predict that piglet production in California will drop like a rock, while instead they will buy piglets from out of state, ship them to California, feed them up and then sell them there - more CAFOs, more shipping costs, more oil burned, and for the farmers who still hang in there raising their own, more dead piglets crushed or eaten by their mothers.

    But a huge victory for animal rights, so ... yeah, woo. Or something.

    So my more radical idea would be to create city-states. Wyoming wouldn't need it, but Seattle can run itself along with Redmond and the other surrounding urban zones. San Francisco and Oakland likewise. Cut NYC out of NY. I don't want to tell city dwellers how to run their lives, and I'd appreciate it if they would return the compliment. Because every time you look at those regulations (all passed in the name of food safety, of course) you find a sort of shadowy, composite figure of a suburban mom wringing her hands about her precious little children without any real understanding of the unintended consequences of her/their policies.

    But yes, one of the worst things to happen was the deliberate consolidation of so many small farmers. More eyes on the land means more productive outcomes.