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Healthy Soil should be our New Year’s Goal
by LuAnn Rolling, District Conservationist
I would like to reflect on some observations of where agriculture is in 2020 as we prepare to launch into 2021.  I have a quote from Gus Speth, Co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, on my wall.  He says, “I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change.  I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

When I started this job, 38 years ago, I thought that the Iowa landscape would always be filled with prosperous farms and the communities surrounding these farms would always be thriving and viable. What I see is that after 70 years of market consolidation and the policies that encourage it, farmers are growing commodities because those are their only choices left. There are very few farms producing for local markets yet trucks full of fruits, vegetables and meat rumble through our state every day.

Hugh Hammond Bennett, the father of the modern conservation movement effort once wrote, “Take care of the land and the land will take care of you.”

During the past century, through an input-dependent, industrial business model, we have mined the life and resilience out of our soil. It has taken us longer to do so, but as climate change provides the catalyst for more frequent weather extremes, we’re increasingly seeing the impact of the degradation of our soil resources on our farms and in our lives.

Overall, our soils are less able to store water or absorb heavy rainfall and, as a result, they’re more susceptible to periods of drought or flooding.

Our soils are also increasingly dependent on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides just to sustain current levels of productivity. During heavy rains, many of those chemicals are carried into our rivers, lakes, and oceans, where they wreak havoc on our fisheries and estuaries.

Weather extremes are exacerbating what the central, underlying problem is: Most of our soils are sick, devoid of diverse microbial life, and unable to function at anywhere near their intended capacity. We’re seeing the heartbreaking consequences of what that means every day.

Fortunately, there is genuine hope in healthy soil.

We know we can heal our soils relatively quickly and profitably, with practices that have been around for years.

Soil health-improving regenerative agricultural practices including no-till planting, the use of cover crops, the integration of animals and beneficial insects, and diverse cropping rotations all feed and protect soil microbes, which in turn, feed and protect the crops that feed and nourish us.

Once we’ve recognized the fact that our soil is degraded, we must work together to address this systemic problem with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose.

Our future literally depends on our ability to address this critical issue. Only by scaling up the adoption of regenerative agriculture throughout the world can we meet this pressing and existential challenge before us.

If we care for the soil, the soil will care for us.

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