Agriculture Must Change, With Different Skills and a New Attitude Required
An opportunity came along last summer to do some good for the Earth and at the same time engage in a form of distraction late in my working life. Owners of a piece of property a distance from our family farm in western Minnesota reached out and asked if we were interested in renting 120 acres that was coming out of the Conservation Reserve Program.
They found us based on what they heard we had done on our own farm, located west of Willmar in Chippewa County. We have in the last three decades converted a small 320-acre crop farm into a cattle and hog operation that sells all the meats produced directly to stores and individuals. I told them I would only use the land for grazing.
The land is damaged, as is all land in agricultural use. Because it is on glacial till with a gravel subsoil and steep slopes, it is designated by the government’s Natural Resources Conservation Agency as highly erodible. The damage is stark. As a measure of the trend in agriculture in the 30-plus years this farm has been in standing, unused grass, it is possible to step down from the property corner a vertical distance of at least 6 feet to the corner of the adjacent corn field. This drop is a crude measure of row crop agriculture’s breathtaking soil loss to the creek below in that time.
Later, I was to discover even earlier damage, swales hidden in this neighboring field that hadn’t been tilled in decades. The swales caused the pickup to buck and roll as I drove from one area to another through standing grass. I could feel with my feet where the farmer, the ancestor of the current owner, had planted corn on slopes far too steep half a century and more ago, and created gullies that carried soil to the bottom….
For Earth to remain viable for human habitation for more than a few decades, agriculture must change.
Move toward perennials
It must give up its centuries-old fascination with annual crops like wheat and corn, and begin the study of how perennial plants fit food production. Perennial plants, properly managed as under a good planned grazing regimen, incorporate atmospheric carbon into the soil as organic matter, thus beginning to reverse centuries of burning off carbon through tillage. Even carefully planned rotations of annual plants without tillage will not safeguard soil and build organic matter like a good stand of perennials.