Book Reflection: Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery (Part II)

Book Review Part I here.

Conveniently for me, I had finished Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David Montgomery, a professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, shortly before The New York Times published a relevant article, “Farmers Put Down the Plow for More Productive Soil“.

This article on modern no-till farming ties in well to what the latter chapters of the book addressed. Rather, it is one potential resolution to a history of farming follies.

The United States took things another step further—and has since taken a step back, and another step forward, and another step back—than ancient and European societies when it came to poor soil husbandry.

While Europe already had limited land but plenty of labor, the new colonies had LOTS of lands and not so much labor (until slavery became popular). From the beginning, people farmed cheaply and when the soil couldn’t support adequate crops the farmers bought the new cheap property. The civil war didn’t become imminent until the federal government told the plantations they couldn’t have slaves in the West.

Iconic USDA photo from the American Dust Bowl that was also used for Dirt’s cover.

The same land-grab mentality led to the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s—after which, the government had soil scientists educate farmers about plowing with the contours of the land, rotation farming, and—come on, we’ve known this for thousands of years and we still “forget”. Every major agricultural civilization started with the same soil principles and eventually altered to those that were easier in the short run but ultimately became one of the reasons for their demise. Uh-oh, we are talking about a current society now, aren’t we?

Fast forward to the 1970s and the soil conservation policies made from the American Dust Bowl were revoked so enough crops could be exported to India during their dust bowl, and later to the USSR for their dust bowl—India had a famine during Russia’s dust bowl because the surplus from the United States when to the USSR.

A humorous example of a modern plow, which tears up the entire field where the crops will be planted, but even once the crops grow the majority of the acreage is exposed. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Brown Cradlehall.)

These days the choice in crop farming revolves around high-energy farming of industrial farms that use more than twice the amount of fertilizer plants absorb and do not invest in soil quality and the high-labor agriculture of organic farming. The “high-energy” of conventional farming would be specialized machinery, oil-based fertilizers, and genetically engineered plants to deal with soil conditions that healthy soil would mediate such as drought, viral and bacterial infections, symbiosis, and nutrient absorption via mycorrhizal fungi and soil bacteria.

Edward Faulkner, a guy from the 1930s, wondered why we till when nature grows without it and agriculture keeps losing soil, all of its nutrients and beneficial biota. It is funny because there are plenty of USDA and academic studies comparing agricultural practices, soil fertility, and long-term economic benefit. “Conventional” agriculture has higher costs in both financially and long-term viability of the land they farm but higher short-term yields. “Alternative” farming has lower yields (by 1/3) and more labor cost (by 1/3…ironically) with long-term success because of the healthier soil. Acre per ace both methods average the same net profit.

Edward Faulkner’s infamous book on the effects of tilling in the agricultural ecosystem.

Granted, even though soil treatment waxed and waned with the rise and fall of major civilizations (a player in the boom-and-bust), almost all civilizations developed plows and tilling, and thus embarked on a set timeline before they lost their soil. Mesopotamia is still famished from their agricultural boom thousands of years ago—soil takes a millennium to recover a few inches while even conservative farming with tilling can cause the loss of several inches per decade. North America still has another 40-85 years before we hit bedrock.

Shame that soil degradation doesn’t make the news often. I suppose old news is not technically news, but history. History likes to be repetitive like how in a video game one character can simply restart an infinite number of times, however many times the player does not like the direction that game was going….We can sort of doing that in the real world, but instead of fresh starts societies must cope with old data.

Crop Residue
Abandoning nonprofitable remains of crops on the ground offers additional protection to the soil from both wind and water. (Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program.)

Featured photo of a no-till-practicing farm courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program.


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