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Soil: Industrial farming leads to dead soil

Posted 1/23/2008 8:36am by Leaf Myczack.

Two weeks ago in my blog, I criticized the role of land grant colleges that teach industrial-type farming techniques, calling it bad soil science, and a waste of an Ag- student' s time and money. Higher education should be about using knowledge to improve our way of living with the Earth and with each other. After thousands of years of agriculture activity, one would hope that tillers of the soil had come to understand the life processes occurring under our feet. However, when viewing modern agricultural practices, the sad conclusion is that short-term profit has trumped good soil science.

"It takes time to do it right," is a familiar cliche that nonetheless is a valid truism. Doing it right does not usually lend itself to taking shortcuts and skipping steps.To maintain and enhance soil fertility requires a process that is compatible with natural laws. It requires unbiased observation, patience, and an understanding of what is at stake, both short-term and long-term. Those who practice natural organic gardening and farming display an earth-based awareness not found in the conventional farming arena.

The most widely used and concentrated source of agricultural related nitrogen is a potentially deadly inorganic chemical product called anhydrous ammonia. Worldwide, 109 million tons were produced in 2004, with 80% used in agriculture. It is most commonly produced from natural gas (methane) or liquid petroleum gas (LPG) (propane and butane) feedstocks. It must be kept under high pressure, is caustic, corrosive, toxic, can cause severe chemical burns, and requires special handling. It has been labeled the most potentially dangerous chemical in agricultural use today.

It is widely used because it once was a "relatively" cheap source of quick concentrated nitrogen. Although the price has increased considerably in recent years, farmers have grown dependent on it use. It is most widely used in the nation's "corn belt" because it can grow corn year after year, without the need for crop rotation. Corn is the foundation piece of American food production, with corn syrup sweetner being the leading ingredient of overly processed food. However, as one might expect from this type of chemical abuse, use of anhydrous ammonia leads to poor soil health, therefore negatively impacting human and animal health.

The relative health of the soil can be judged by the ability of the soil to digest organic material. When essential soil microbes are present in abundant numbers, the digestion rate is quite rapid. At our natural organic farm, garden plots must be frequently mulched as the organic cover material is constantly consumed into the soil at a rapid rate. A three inch layer of mulch will start showing patches of bare soil within six weeks during warm weather. By planting time in the spring, there is no trace of last summer's crop residue, having been organically incorporated into the topsoil without tilling or plowing.

On the other hand, I have walked in industrially farmed corn fields in early-summer. The new corn was waist-high, yet underfoot, the residue from the previous year's corn crop was plainly evident on the bare ground and showed negligible signs of decomposition. Digging in the plant-free soil between the corn rows revealed no signs of earthworm presence or activity. The soil lacked that earthy smell of humus, and was difficult to crumble by hand. Small gullies marked the sloped fields where rain had failed to soak into the ground, and instead had run off the land, eroding soil into the river.

Healthy soil does not stay bare for long, as native seeds and plants quickly re-establish a green cover. In our fertile plots, nitrogen-fixing beneficial white and red clover spreads like wildfire unless it is mulched back. It is our guarantee that the land will remain a vibrant life force, even if left fallow. Our healthy topsoil is too precious to lose to erosion or chemical degradation. We cherish it as the source of our very sustenance as food consuming humans.

farmer leaf