The American farmer is famously independent. Our nation was built on independence, but it can also isolate us from the people and the world around us. Farmers’ independence has kept us from seeing that we are dependent on natural systems and that we have a role to play in strengthening them. The stronger those systems are, the healthier and more adaptable our families and communities will be.
My family has farmed for 140 years in the tiny town of Industry, Illinois. Like nearly everyone, we plowed and disked the soil, treating it simply as a medium to hold the plants. Conventional agriculture teaches us that our crops are separate from nature, wholly dependent on farmers to provide all of their needs. But like people, plants are a part of a system. Farming conventions today ignore the science of the ecosystem and the complex interactions between plants and soil.
The science is so fascinating to me that I got a biology degree. In addition to working at my family’s grain elevator, I spent many years working in a clinical laboratory. Today, my wife and I run a seed business focused on pasture grasses for ruminant livestock. We help people build healthy pastures as a way to build healthy soil – which performs many more functions than just being a medium to hold the plants. When we were getting our business started, I saw a National Resources Conservation Service rainfall simulation, demonstrating how water interacts with sections of soil from different environments, including conventional tillage, no-till, cover-cropped fields, pastures and more.
The results of the simulation were jaw-dropping. In the sections planted with cover crops and well-managed pastures, 90 percent of the water was absorbed into the soil, with less than 10 percent running off. The opposite was true for the conventionally-tilled fields and overgrazed pastures, where 90-100 percent of the water runs off, carrying away topsoil, washing herbicides into rivers and leaving the roots of the plants dry.
What makes the difference? Soil biology and interconnected systems. In well-functioning soil, microbes and chemicals excreted from plant roots form glues that hold the soil together in clumps called aggregates. Aggregates create the soil’s hydrology, making it absorb and retain water. Tilling the soil destroys the aggregates and killing the microbes with herbicides means new clumps will not form. Soil that doesn’t hold together doesn’t hold water.
With weather patterns changing like they are, the loss of the soil’s ability to hold water is the Achilles heel of modern production agriculture. Hotter and drier summers are the new norm in our region, and experts predict more intense and frequent storms. Our soil must be able to absorb moisture when it comes and retain it through dry periods. The alternative is flooding, drought and huge financial losses.
But that doesn’t have to be our future. There are simple ways to rebuild functional soil; planting a cover crop on a winter field, for example, doesn’t just protect the bare ground from erosion, it reconstructs soil structure from the roots up, restoring the microbes that make the aggregates that hold more moisture. Experimenting with cover crops could be a lot easier for farmers this year, as the Illinois legislature is considering funding for a new incentive program. Fall Covers for Spring Savings, modeled on a highly successful program in Iowa last year, would provide farmers a $5 reward on their crop insurance premiums for every acre they plant to covers.
We need this program and others like it to incentivize farmers to use practices in line with ecosystem science. As farmers, we need to see our work as part of a system as well. Farming is a fiduciary responsibility: we are trustees of an asset that we must maintain and improve for our children and grandchildren. Investing in the functionality of our soil will keep us on our farms for generations to come.