For decades US farmers have relied on genetically modified (GM) seeds and related inputs to control weeds and pests. While that has made their fieldwork easier it has had the unintended consequence of turning once healthy soil into just a holding agent for more chemicals. Part of this commercial farming model is the heavy use of tilling whereby the soil is left exposed to wind and water erosion. Here is an example of an exposed field ready for planting in the spring.
If a drought descends before cash crop growth begins and the winds pick up, the soil has nowhere else to go but up in the air. Even when planted the space between the rows of corn are bare and more prone to run-off and lower water retention.
This sends both the water and nutrients down the watershed, into the rivers and out to sea to be lost forever.
Healthy soil has a deep root structure that allows rainwater to penetrate deep into the soil where it is retained longer and where the plants can use it. This simple lab test illustrates how much better water penetrates healthy soil vs. heavily tilled soil.
But healthy soil doesn’t have to be the victim of our current commercial agricultural farming model. In fact, simple organic practices with the use of cover crops and no-till planting can dramatically lower costs on fuel, time in the field and eliminate herbicides. This is an example of a field that has been first planted with a cover crop and then “crimped/rolled” before being no-till planted. Notice the thick matt of organic matter that covers and protects the topsoil, there by promoting healthy soil biology and moisture retention.
Next, the farmer cuts a thin slice through this matt into the soil and plants the seed using no-till equipment. The goal … do as little as possible to disturb the soil. This requires less mechanical horsepower and saves on fuel expenses. Lighter (smaller) tractors decrease compaction. Notice how no-till planting into a field covered with surface organic matter provides natural weed suppression, mitigates moisture loss and prevents soil erosion.
Let’s shift our attention to the weather. While we can’t accurately forecast the weather, we can see trends and be pro active in our planning rather than reactive. Below is a current map of the Mid West drought from the US Drought Monitor in November 2012.
2012 was the worst drought for US farmers in the past 50 years. There were adequate spring rains followed by well below normal rainfall that caused massive crop loss. Were this weather pattern to have been reversed with inadequate spring moisture causing the crops to not germinate, the fields would remain barren and exposed to erosion. These were the conditions that precipitated the Great Dust Bowl that was the worst man-made ecological disaster in North American history. SFP crop planning includes both drought and flood mitigation strategies to help insure the best yields that are environmentally sustainable.