This Earth Day, it may be the earth right under our feet that matters most. While we do not think about it often, our soil impacts almost every element of our daily lives, from the food we eat and the water we drink, to the health of our local economies. Just ask any farmer, who will tell you that healthy soil is good for farms, farmers and farming communities because it leads to more productive farmland, cleaner water and a stronger agricultural economy.
Here in the Midwest, row crops like corn, soybeans and wheat are the cornerstone of the region’s economy, generating more than $120 billion in revenue annually. But, over the decades, growing these crops has taken a heavy toll on farms and the quality of the water that surrounds them.
Since the mid-1800s, agricultural soils in the U.S. have lost up to 60 percent of their original carbon content. This has altered the Midwestern landscape by exacerbating loss of key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that farmers add to the soil in the form of fertilizer. These nutrients are essential to growing soybeans and corn but are often unintentionally lost to rivers and streams, where they become pollutants and waste farmers’ money.
Today, in regions like the Mississippi River Basin, up to 40 percent of all streams are impaired, many from excess nutrients. Ultimately, these nutrients end up in the Gulf of Mexico and create ‘dead zones’ where fish and marine life can’t survive.
But this isn’t just about the environment; it’s about our economy. Losing nutrients into rivers and streams is bad for farm economics, and long-term profitability and prosperity of farms. However, many farmers have found that environmentally-friendly tactics that improve water quality also build soil health and also their bottom lines.
Farmers like Will Glazik in Paxton, Illinois have taken to planting cover crops – one of several sustainable farming practices that reduce nutrient loss– on his 240 acre corn and soybean farm. Cover crops control weed growth and help the soil hold water, so the land is less likely to experience drought. This farming practice ultimately makes the earth more resilient and less likely to cause pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorous to enter rivers and streams. Healthier soil means healthier crops, and for Glazik and other farmers, that has meant healthier profits.
Cover crops aren’t the only innovative technique farmers are using to take care of their land and water. Many farmers are changing their fertilizer use to save on cost and reduce the risk of losing nutrients. Farmers are shifting the rate of fertilizer application as well as timing to keep key nutrients in the soil where crops can access them. As more farms adopt these practices, it is increasingly clear: conservation pays.
Last week, lawmakers in Washington began debate over this year’s Farm Bill, which has for years funded the valuable programs that help farmers implement conservation practices. But the draft Farm Bill introduced in the House would eliminate the country’s largest conservation program – the Conservation Stewardship Program – that currently offers support and resources to farmers on 70 million acres of farmland across the country. The disappearance of this landmark program would limit farmers’ access to funding and technical assistance to improve water quality and soil health. Ultimately, this means more pollutants in our rivers and streams and a weakened farm economy.
When we look at the earth all around us, it’s clear that it’s time for conservation to move from the edge of the field to the heart of agriculture. We must support farmers’ efforts to understand and implement those conservation practices that will not only help their soil thrive, but also help their farms profit well into the future.
When it comes to preserving the farming heritage that is so integral to this country, the answer is right beneath our feet.
About the author: Mcdonald leads the Walton Family Foundation’s Mississippi River conservation initiative.