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Climate: Feeding the soil, Part 1

Katya Gordon

Have you heard of the "dead zone"? This is an area the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico that is devoid of oxygen and most marine life.

You may assume, as I did, that this has something to do with oil spills. But no, it is primarily the result of Midwestern farming practices. In a sobering example of our interconnectedness, nitrogen fertilizers on large mono-crops such as corn and soybeans flow, as nitrates, into the Mississippi River Basin. Without the flood plains along the Mississippi naturally absorbing excess nutrients (floodplains have been largely diverted or levied), nitrates flow all the way out to the Gulf of Mexico. There they have helped to create the largest "dead zone" in the western Atlantic Ocean.

Dead zones make big news. But fertilizer is only one small part of a complex web of agricultural practices that are shaping, for better or for worse, our response to some major ecological issues such as food production, water quality and climate change. In the last 10 years, scientific studies and new farming practices have revolutionized the way the agricultural community thinks of soil and food production.

As consumers we have seen small hints of this, mostly in the grocery stores. The "organic" food designation, the "family farm" trademark, are just tips of the iceberg in a transformation that is occurring all over the world, including just a hundred or more miles to our south. Farming holds the key to two of the biggest problems we face: water pollution and climate change.

The implications of this fact are staggering. To understand better, let's take a step back and review some of the basic facts about soil.

Organic matter is the most important part of soil. Organic matter is what enables soil to withstand being blown away. Organic matter is what retains water. It is where the life of the soil is: the active microorganisms that feed animals and provide nutrients to plants.

This organic matter is composed largely of carbon. (For soil and climate change connections, stay tuned to next week's column.)

Midwestern soil has lost 30-70 percent of its organic matter since modern agricultural methods began. Our soil is in need of emergency care. Traditional farming practices such as mono-crops and the use of pesticides and fertilizers leaves soil that is left unprotected as bare dirt for months of every year. This leads to soil eroding and blowing away. And climate change, with its floods, droughts and changing seasonal patterns, is making it worse.

According to Tom, a farmer in Iowa: "We go from extremely wet, to extremely dry. During 2016 from July to September, it rained 40 inches here. I lost track of the number of blinding, beating storms ... What this is doing to agriculture is no joke."

The good news is that, by increasing the organic matter in their soil, farmers are not only absorbing carbon, which will stabilize our climate — they are helping themselves as well. New farming methods focused on soil health are increasing their crop yields, reducing vulnerability to erosion and drought, and reducing fertilizer use and runoff.

What are these magic farming practices? The Land Stewardship Project have published a booklet anyone can read (landstewardshipproject.org). As a non-farmer, I can only relay the basics as I understand them. They include cover cropping (growing something on the land rather than leaving it open and exposed during the off-season), managed rotational grazing, (moving cows, pigs and chickens around) and diversifying crops (growing something other than corn or soybeans).

Soil, as it turns out, can build organic material much faster than previously thought. In as little as three years, farmers have reported a substantial increase in the organic matter in their soil, and a host of side benefits that go along with that including higher and more diverse crop yields, less pesticides and fertilizers, and soil that is less vulnerable to erosion, drought and storms.

Farming, per se, is neither good nor bad for the planet. It's how it's done that determines the net effect on land, soil, and all living things including us.

Agriculture is important for everyone — not just farmers. We all eat what is produced through agriculture, and we are all affected by farming methods. What we non-farmers can do, and how this is connected to climate change, will be the topic of next week's column.

Katya Gordon is a volunteer for the Citizens' Climate Lobby and a Two Harbors resident.

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