FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Bare Earth is Scorched Earth

If you’re anywhere in much of farm country from the Appalachians to the Rockies, you’ll see fields laid bare as much as nine months of the year.

Look around, from fall to spring: Annual crops like corn, soybeans, spring wheat and sorghum that grew in summer are gone.

The ground looks shaved, scarred, skinned. And it is.

Bare earth — ground without cover, without rooted plants holding soils and building them — is not a natural condition in a place like this. In its natural state, virtually all this ground would be covered with perennial plants, rooted year-round, leafing and dying in sequence, the soil constantly nourished, cooled, protected.

A field of bare soil heats up like a hot plate. Bare earth is soon enough scorched earth. The surface crusts, then cracks as moisture escapes. If rain falls, it flows off crusted areas, it gouges and erodes, and mud, which of course is soil, runs off. Wind adds to soil’s destruction.

From bare fields each year flow and blow more than a billion tons of sediment and the pollutants bound to it, a degradation of America’s soils and water.

“Stop the mudness!” is the slogan for a Great Lakes Commission sediment-reduction campaign. Sediment is the main pollutant in the lakes, as it is in almost all of America’s watersheds, with agriculture the major polluter.

“Stop the mudness!” offers this advice to farmers who see runoff from their fields:

* Change your tillage practices — don’t plow so much, especially in the fall.

* Add a grass or legume to your crop rotation — keep more roots holding more soil.

* Install buffer strips — plant trees and perennial grasses to filter sediment before it enters streams.

This simple counsel is common sense; it should go without saying. But with the fence-row-to-fence-row overplanting of some annual grains, driven by federal subsidies, common sense no longer holds. It’s news, again. Plant buffer strips!

We’re still losing stream buffers to bare fields, losing forested buffers where sequences of plants photosynthesize, recycle nutrients, sequester carbon, build rich soil pores and crumb structures, that spongy dark soil that absorbs water. And stops the mudness.

Bare-earth fields are so commonplace now, people forget how recently — just a few generations ago — farmers tore off the green cover, plowed up pastures, quit using cover crops, and turned the landscape into row after row of annuals. Even the few months these crops are rooted and leafing, between all the plants there’s still row after row of bare dirt.

People drive by cornfields in summer, or they drive by miles of bare fields in fall, winter and spring — and they think, ah, the scenery looks so fine, natural.

But it’s not natural. Look again. Bare earth. Scorched earth. It’s mudness.

Agricultural policy and practice must return to their roots, to rootedness, and cover the ground.

Farm policy should promote — and if we’re going to subsidize, subsidize this — perennial crops, biodiversity, grass-based livestock production, reforestation of stream banks, hedgerows and woodlots. Agricultural energy policy should promote perennial crops like switchgrass for ethanol production, not the bare-earth annual corn.

Pasture-based networks have grown up in a number of states, like Project Grass in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, encouraging intensive rotational grazing instead of corn/confinement livestock operations. Even the federal government has a few perennial-agriculture research projects, like the Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in West Virginia, studying pasture-based beef production and other grazed agricultural ecosystems.

But these are dots of green in an otherwise bare-earth landscape over much of the Midwest.

When we come to our senses and recognize greenery for what it is to us — lifesaving — our eyes, our vision will change. We’ll see bare ground as an assault, an offense. We’ll see bare fields as degrading, to Nature and to ourselves. Knowing better, we’ll farm, and farm well. We may even be able to sit by a stream with a forested buffer, put our feet in the water and celebrate a world recovered. Not lost.

JANET KAUFFMAN lives in Hudson, Mich., and works with Environmentally Concerned Citizens of South Central Michigan. She teaches at Eastern Michigan University and wrote this comment for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

 

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail