Lessons from the Dust Bowl

It won’t be long before the corn will be knee high by the Fourth of July. As we prepare our gardens and fields for planting, lets remember a moment in our nation’s history that shaped the way we farm today, the Dust Bowl of the dirty thirties. The Father of Soil Conservation, Hugh Hammond Bennett once said “What would be the feel of this Nation should a foreign nation suddenly enter the United States and destroy 90,000 acres of land, as erosion has been allowed to do in a single country?” I have a feeling if someone came in and destroyed our land much like Mr. Bennett said, we would be in outrage, an all-out war. We don’t need the help of invaders to destroy our land, we are doing a fine job doing so, without the cruel intentions of others.

 “Lessons learned only last a generation. Once a generation goes through it, moves on and passes away then we forget what they went through and what caused problems,” Parke and Vermillion county District Conservationist for the USDA Donald Donovan said.

Lesson from Lubbock, TX

Images from Lubbock, Texas in late 2012 appear to be developed with a sepia tone, but in reality they are the result of a dust storm. Donovan says we are likely in a period of drastic weather conditions. From no rain, to buckets of rainfall, the soil needs to be in a state to handle any condition, but this cannot be done without proper care. As a conservationist Donovan has been promoting improved soil health with the use of no till and cover crops, in a large effort to prevent a future dust bowl.

“When I am talking about unhealthy soil I am talking about soil that is tilled extensively; for example, worked over three or four times, then planted. One thing I think farmers have to understand is they are farming a degraded resource. If you look at the organic levels of the soil when it was converted to crop land, the organic levels are down to nothing and that is because it has been extensively tilled. If the soil has poor structure, rain will run right off of it,” Donovan said.

Indiana Runoff Takes a Permanent Spring Break

Runoff from here in Indiana is finding its way down to the popular Spring Break destination of the Gulf of Mexico. The runoff is causing Hypoxia, or oxygen depletion, an environmental phenomenon where the concentration of dissolved oxygen in the water column decreases to a level that can no longer support living aquatic organisms. Hypoxia occurs naturally in many of the world’s marine environments, but the occurrence in shallow coastal and estuarine areas appears to be increasing as a result of human activities.

“It is getting to the point where we have the technology to trace it back to individual counties. They can tell where it is coming from. As agricultural producers, I encourage the farmers I work with to be proactive and reduce runoff, because it is better to do it voluntary then to be forced into doing it through some kind of legislation,” Donovan said.

Steps to Better Soil

Farmers are not in this alone. We as consumers and constituents are all in this together. It is just as important to the non-farmer as it is to the farmer that we have healthy soil, so that we have an adequate and healthy food supply. Farmland is becoming developed, we have to produce food stock with the land we have or less. Therefore, the only way we can do that is to protect the soil health to increase the yield to produce food.

“Try to have a growing root on the soil for as many of the 365 days of the year as you can. It will help the biology of the soil and help keep cover on the soil to prevent dust bowls and to prevent erosion,” Donovan said.

Take steps like rotating crops, planting a diversity of crops and adding in covered crops are all practices farmers did before there was commercial fertilizer.  Furthermore, the average farmer in Parke County is between the ages of 55 to 60, an age where they are starring down the path to retirement. Those on the cusp of retirement Donovan says don’t see the need to spend capital to make changes if they will only be farming for the next 10 years or so.

“You can show them that no till and cover crops will produce a better crop, but they still think about how they farmed and how grandpa farmed. It is very difficult to get them to change,” said Donovan.

The battle of change is one Donovan will not fight. He chooses to spend his time educating those who will listen to the fact that we cannot depend on nature and weather to make the soil healthier, we have to change human behavior.

– Jane Santucci