(Soil) Life is Good
Nick Pedley wrote in this paper last week about farming. So as a farmer, I feel justified to stray from my usual economic rants into my bread and butter.
Nick wrote about how climate change has led to erratic weather that results in drought as well as soil erosion. Experts are apparently urging a change in outdated farming practices. My bs sensors always perk up when I hear the terms “experts, researchers and professors” because they are usually distant and objective, but with no stake in their conclusions aside from justifying their jobs. Every farmer has heard that an expert is defined by his being from 100 miles away.
When we grew wildflower seeds as an enterprise to replace hogs, our seed-stock came from the University of Northern Iowa (UNI). The sideoats grama (an upright growing grass) was contaminated with crabgrass seed (a plant that creeps on the ground). The professor in charge at UNI suggested we keep the plot mowed and wait. Expert advice from a professor; ha! So we sprayed a preemergent herbicide the next spring to combat the annual crabgrass and the perennial sideoats flourished.
Nick goes on to point out the many benefits of cover crops such as sequestering fertilizer and stopping erosion. I look at cover crops as a way to mimic God's creation the best we can while still producing food and making a living at it. I would have been miserable outside yesterday with no clothes on. Soil life is the same. It thrives in a sheltered environment and dies when environmental effects are not tempered by vegetative matter on the surface. Soil life, worms, bacteria, fungus, etc. is what creates an environment that best utilizes whatever weather extremes come our way. The environment of porous, living soil puts moisture in the bank for later use and it slows runoff.
How any panel of 150 experts could address farming's impact on the environment without mentioning no-till is exasperating. Beeds Lake, mentioned in Nick's article, would not be full of fertilizer and soil if its watershed were no-tilled. You don't have to be an expert to realize that and if those acres were planted to cover crops with an airplane prior to harvest, there could be no disputing it at all.
Scientists have come to understand the importance of soil structure to yields and environmental impacts. Tillage destroys soil structure. Iowa soils were not built by steel cutting off the lifeline to microbes and worms. It was built with thousands of years of grass growing and then laying on the surface each year with soil life doing the field work. Farmers mixing residue into the soil does not speed decomposition, it slows it. Look at where a fencepost rots off, then look below that. At ground level the post is rotten, above and below, it is preserved.
Tillage puts seeds in contact with residue instead of soil, which causes an alliopathic (stunting) effect on the seedlings. To alleviate that effect in no-till, a narrow strip can be cleared in the next year's row, exposing only a tiny fraction of the soil and eliminating seed to residue contact. This is commonly known as strip-till.
So do we really want a solution to the sad state of Beeds Lake? Quit ignoring the obvious: Back to my usual rantings, privatize it. With Beeds Lake held in common, no one in particular is impacted by the farming practices of its neighbors. Pollutants washing into the lake are a violation of property rights only if property is owned by someone. The popularity of the lake, even in its sad state, makes it evident a private venture there could succeed, especially if it is cleaned up, using private property rights as the basis for that clean-up.
Finally, a bad cold prevented us from attending the funeral of Richard Flickinger. As a tribute to this beautiful man, a story:
On a cold day we had tried for over an hour to pull a calf from a heifer. The shoulders were too wide. When Flick showed up he made quick work of it but the entire uterus came out into a mud puddle after the dead calf was pulled. Dr. Flickinger meticulously washed every nook and cranny of that 100-pound uterus while putting it back where it belonged. Soon the heifer was up and walking around with a few stitches to keep things in place. She went into the fat lot and later, with a group of five, topped the Waverly Sale out of hundreds of other heifers. I was shocked to read in Iowa Farmer Today that Iowa State University recommends euthanizing heifers who've prolapsed. Flickinger was all about life; his life enhanced the lives of everything he touched. Let's carry on his work with a fervor.