“Conservation is getting nowhere because it is incompatible with our Abrahamic concept of land. We abuse the land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. There is no other way for land to survive the impact of mechanized man.” Aldo Leopold
Although our recent drive to the ROC at the University of Minnesota-Morris for a pollinator presentation was artistic in a way, this wouldn’t be a good day for America’s “Original Conservationists.” This is a self-chosen term our farm brethren speak with pride when speaking at environmental proceedings and politicians like to use at farm shows. You have to wonder if these self proclaimed “Original Conservationists” or “True Environmentalists” — as some of billboards broadcast — see the effect prairie winds have on their prized investment. Those winds have created sastrugi-like snow waves, or perhaps you would prefer calling them snow dunes, along the roadways and almost all of them were highlighted with swirls and patches of fine particles of dirt.
As we drove we continued to gaze at the miles upon miles of snow ridges and waves accented by prairie dirt along the fall-plowed fields, interrupted here and there by a few farmsites, patches of restored prairie, or in the rare fields where corn stalk residue was still standing. Only on those few select areas were drifts the color of snow. There was a sad but unique beauty where the dune edges carried outlines of soil-paint blackness as if applied by a makeup artist.
Soils are taking a beating throughout the broad Mississippi River Basin it seems. On a drive home from a recent visit to Missouri most of the fields from northeast Missouri through Iowa and into Minnesota had telltale evidence of snirt (“sn” from snow, and the “irt” from dirt). Tons of topsoil. A field near Raymond, Minnesota, had lost so much wind-blown soil that only the tracks of the Burlingon-Santa Fe Railroad provided border between the shoulder of Highway 23 and the actual field. Land Grant Universities and other sources, from Kansas to Canada, and from Indiana to Montana and the Dakotas, are publishing emergency actions for farmers that include mulching with straw and manure, or by some form of mid-winter tillage. It’s much too late for sensible cover crop options, or in leaving crop residue in place.
Those “conservationists” typically will blame a lack of snow cover for the wind blown erosion rather than take personal responsibility for making sensible preventive measures.
One of those soil specialists, Dave Franzen, of North Dakota State University said in an article published in Farm Progress Magazine, “I am astonished how many growers think that most of the (soil lost from) wind erosion ends up in their ditch, and all they need to do is scrape it out and put it back onto the field. The ditch silt is only a small fraction of the soil lost. Most of the soil lost to wind travels for hundreds and thousands of miles. Ocean researchers track the buildup of sediment on the ocean floor over time. Wonder where the sediment comes from? Your fields.”
Franzen expressed dismay that farmers were taking out field wind breaks, especially if they don’t plan to leave a lot of residue on the surface of their fields in the future. Such is the case in the Minnesota prairie where miles of piles of former field windbreaks and groves await burning. While more land is laid open for more corn to be planted, little is left to prevent wind erosion.
Between the snirt and the demise of bees and other pollinators because of a changing plant profile due to commodity mono-cropping and the use of Bt-flavored GMO crops with built-in systemic insecticides, our “original conservationists” would take a major beating on this cold, windblown day. Conservation-minded people would care more for their topsoil and for the bees and other pollinators absolutely necessary for growing their crops. Yet we saw no cover crops and very little crop residue left from the fall harvest. Winds were rumbling across the prairie in gusts to 40 mph, lifting particles of exposed topsoil in their wake. When this settles, the snirt we saw will be covered by more snow and topsoil.
With land being sold for more than $8,000 an acre you would think our Original Conservationists and True Environmentalists would care more for their investments. You would think they would also care about leaving precious topsoil for a future generation … like the next one, if not for those who come after.
As for the bees and other pollinators, this is a topic for another discussion.
“The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.” Franklin D. Roosevelt
Although my husband, daughter and son-in-law who farm try to conserve soil via cover crops, minimum tillage and windbreaks, very few of our Renville County farming neighbors do so. Our small acreage seems insignificant. It is discouraging to see the ridges of snirt along our roadways.
In NW France, Bretagne (Brittany) on fields that are on a narrow area of land near La Manche (English Channel) I was surprised to notice large thick walls around all the farmland, I think a great deal of this was an anti erosion measure, otherwise they would lose it in the high winds right into the sea. This needs to be more standard in the US.
Thank you John, for telling it like it is.
Very good article. I live in NE Mo but I’m from Iowa, I know exactly what you are talking about. My father farmed in Iowa & he always believed in wind breaks & saving the soil. He is one of the few, good farmers left!