The Problem of Soil Erosion During the Dust Bowl of 1930s
In the 1930’s America went through one of its darkest times as a country, along with the stock market crash came one of the largest tragedies to hit the American Midwest, The Dust bowl of 1930’s. In many places throughout the Midwest feet of topsoil blew away with the wind. This was because of along with a severe drought, many farmers of the Midwest were plowing fields under for generations. This mean that the good strong dirt held together by roots, commonly referred to as sod, is flipped underneath the wet moist loose dirt that should be directly under the sod.
In 1928 before the drought the first national soil assessment was released and showed a soil erosion rate of 5 billion tons a year, this is ten times faster than soil formed (Montgomery, 2007, p. 151). Once the drought of 1928-1939 struck there was nothing that the farmers could do to hold their land in place, the land simply blew away with the wind. This made giant dust clouds that blew all over the U.S. with the epicenter in the panhandles of Texas, Oklahoma, and parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas and the Dakotas were also affected by the dust storms (Lutgens, 2012, p. 142).
The farming practices of the 30’s resulted in widespread crop failure all over the Midwest. Which caused food shortages for many in the areas affected by the dust storms, and even starvation in some cases. Luckily with the economy boost and the return of the rains in 1940’s The United States was able to pull of the dust bowl and renew the Midwest. Once the dust settled and was repacked from the rain the production of the midwest came back. The soil nutrients, composition and depth in the midwest has never been back pre dust bowl.
Even with the recovery of the 1930’s and the replenishing of crop yields the problem of soil erosion is still a very real problem even 80 years after the dust bowl. The loss of soil is a minor problem now that can have devastating consequences in the upcoming decades, because of this it being a minor problem currently soil loss is widely ignored. In reality it can have much worse consequences than the loss of oil, global climate change, and the loss of freshwater. This problem is also very gradual, soil loss will take place over decades and food production will slowly fall. This will cause many small family owned farms to lose their business and their way of life to large corporate farms. The farms that have enough money to stay in business will not care about the quality of their food and make as much for the cheapest price possible. This means adding in more chemicals, and more post processing to give the food a long shelf life.
It has become apparent in the last century is that human activities such as farming, city expansion, and construction have pushed the soil cycle out of balance humans are washing and blowing away America’s farmland faster than it is being renewed. Studies have taken place looking at the amount sediments washed into the ocean before and after humans appeared in an area. Before sediments transported to the ocean amounted to just over 9 billion metric tons per year, after the appearance of humans sediment amounted to 24 billion metric tons a year (Lutgens, 2012, p. 142).
While the study published by Lutgens only applies to soil washed away in water and eventually transported to an ocean or a lakes. Other studies, such as those shown in the Ecology Law Quarterly stated that,” Soils of farmlands used in growing crops are being carried away by water and wind erosion at rates between 10 and 40 times the rates of soil formation, and between 500 and 10,000 times soil formation rates on forest land,” (Fromherz, 2012, p. 82). These two studies together show that not only soil is being lost at rates extremely fast rates, and cannot be renewed fast enough, it also showed that practices in farming, and expansion have direct side effects to the amount of soil that is washed into the ocean each year.
America’s farming scale and the expansion of cities is setting up America up to hit another great farming epidemic, this most likely will not be another dust as Chuck Raasch explains in his article from USA Today. This article is about the changing of farming practices from plowing 8-11 inches to no till farming solutions that hold the soil in place much better, he also explains how new seeds have been engineered to withstand drought better than earlier decades (Raasch, 2012). While another dust bowl is unlikely in the United States drought resistant seeds don’t do anything to help the slow loss of farmland that we are seeing now.
There is really no easy answer to fixing soil erosion many are trying to work on solution but lack the public support needed to get the funding to find out a solutions to the soil loss problem. Some believe that organic no till farming with very little use of fertilizers can fix and slow the process of soil erosion because it involves the least amount of soil disturbances.
One study led by Sabastian Arnhold, a professor in the Department of Soil Physics at University of Bayreuth, studied the differences in soil loss comparing Organic and conventional farming practices in the watershed areas of South Korea. Arnhold and his colleagues found that radishes grown organically had 18% less soil loss than those planted conventionally, over a time of 13 years. Arnhold claims that this is because with organic harvesting weeds are more likely to grow which holds the soil better; however this could result in lower yields due to weeds taking more nutrients from the crops.
Arnholds study on organic methods and soil erosion also found that soils with less ground cover, such as potatoes, actually increases soil loss to 25% when planted with organic methods. This is believed to be because organic crops have less coverage when grown with organic methods. So there is more exposed soil and therefore more soil erosion with low cover crops. With these finding Arnold states, “We conclude that organic farming alone cannot be used to effectively control erosion, and that both farming systems require additional conservation measures” (Arnhold, 2014). Arnhold is saying that his study in Korea showed that while soil erosion is slowed in organic farming with good cover crops such as radishes. While in non cover crops, such as potatoes, soil erosion can increase with organic methods because they have less coverage when grown organically.
Many behind the organic farming movement believe that farmers should be using organic farming methods to help with soil loss even if the changes are not significant. As Blake Hurst Explains in his article that was published in the American in 2014 how organic farming can not produce enough food for a global population. Hurst states that:
Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with “natural” fertilizer. That would play havoc with global warming.
Hurst is saying that there isn’t enough natural nitrogen in the soil to support a global population of over 4 billion people, making it impossible to support the current population of 7.125 billion. Hurst also explains that to sustain enough natural fertilizer, which is mainly cow manure in the United States, there would need to be another 5 billion cattle and throughout a cows lifetime they release methane gas from the digestion of forages. Which is why another 5 billion more cattle would play havoc on global warming.
Hurst also explains later in his article that cattle must also eat something so there must be more forages being harvested to feed the cows. Rancher’s will then have to make more room for growing forages to feed their larger head count which would also need more room. With more room used for cattle and more room used for forages less field space would be used to grow crops. So with less crop space and combining lower yields from organic farming makes an organic sustained global population of 7.125 billion people impossible. Along with only certain crops helping the loss of soil by a small margin and other low coverage crops making soil erosion worse organic farming can not be a viable solution to the loss of soil.
Other sustainable organic methods have been proven to work in areas such as Asia as David Montgomery explains in his novel Dirt, The Erosion of Civilization. Montgomery writes of traveling to Asia with where in Tibet they utilize proper plant rotation, planting methods and livestock rotation to keep as much nutrients in the soil as possible, for the people in Tibet it works great. They sustain a small population and keep their dirt healthy for planting. Montgomery also talks of the use of artificial wetlands called patties where the water algae is a natural nitrogen fertilizer and the water carries plenty of organic particles to use as other fertilizer this method also works wonderfully (p. 179-181).
There are problems with the methods explained by Montgomery. With the crop rotation in Tibet you need to be able to put livestock on the fields every few years, as Hurst explained in his article the amount of cattle needed to sustain that much land would do more harm then good. If America were to adopt the paddies that are used throughout wetlands of Asia the water to fill the paddies would have to come from somewhere, also the amount of soil that would be washed away by the draining of the paddies every year would increase the rate of erosion even more. This could also only be utilized in the southern United states where it doesn’t freeze in the fall. So while many organic methods work wonderfully for areas with low population or those with many low wetlands it can not fix soil erosion in the midwest.
Fixing damage after the soil erosion has happened can also be a small scale solution to soil loss. A project that began in 1997 in the Brazilian State of Sao Paulo at the Polo Regional Centro Norte-APTA research center to permanently fix gullies that were caused by farming practices and poor road designs (Abdo, 2013). The report on the project that was composed by Nogueira Abdo and his colleagues. Abdo first explains that the area they were working in had very diverse soil layers making it easy for water to get into the layers of the soil.
On top of that poor farming practices were put into place. He explains how first it was used to plant coffee crop on downhill slopes with no vegetation between rows leaving run off to strip the soil away. Once the land stopped being nutritious enough to grow coffee crops it was switched to a grazing pasture for cattle. Once the cattle made paths into the loose and undernourished soil water run off ran into the cattle tracks and was continued to dig deeper and deeper until massive gullies were in the area making the land unusable for livestock and farming.
The largest factor of rapid erosion is water flow so the first action taken was to slow and divert the runoff water so they could begin restoring the area and make it suitable for farming again. In 1997 the first of four dams was installed along the gully to slow and divert the water flow. Once the dams were finished being installed in 1998 dirt was filled into the gully and concrete overflow channels were installed to guide overflow to the next pond created by the dam, once one pond was full.
Abdo writes that thirteen years after beginning the project, it was successful in stabilizing, and rehabilitating the land. He believes that he has offered farmers a solution to gully erosion, if utilized they can minimize their soil loss and return land to a full productive state. Abdo also believes his method of soil rehabilitation has can slow or stop pollution and avoid destruction to nearby forests. Abdo’s process of gully rehabilitation took a little over a decade to complete and has become a complete success in restoring the land to where it can be a sustainable with minimal soil loss.
Abdos process of restoration in Brazil is excellent at extremely slowing and even fixing soil erosion especially in areas with concentrated eroded areas such as gullies, but it cannot be the entire answer for America’s problems of shrinking farmlands. This process, if applied all over the United States, would be too expensive and take to long to work. It would also leave many fields unusable for years while the restoration process is taking place, only causing other fields to be overworked more and speeding up erosion in those areas. So even though this process of restoration is great for concentrated areas and it cannot fix the entire soil loss crisis that is currently happening in the United States.
As Cities expand and farmlands shrink, both from being turned into populated areas and from the loss of soil, the problem of soil loss will only become more relevant until we eventually start to run short on food supply at that point it may be too little too late.
Luckily the United States has attempted to slow the effects of erosion in the last decade. The 2014 Farm bill stated that, “Farmers nationwide must adopt basic soil and wetlands protection to receive federal taxpayer funded crop insurance,” (Opar, 2014). This bill will keep farmers from plowing over wooded areas and draining wetlands and be more mindful of the land they have now. On top of national farm bill many states have been passing their own farmland protection acts since after the dust bowl. These many policies have forced farmers to farm with better practices such as using no tilling techniques like air seeding which is used very widely across the country. Farmers have also learned to preserve water and only make the ground not wash it away.
Even with the efforts of state government and federal policies farmland is still being washed away at rates faster than it can be preserved. Even if The United States would adopt all of the techniques and obey all of the policies listed in the Farm Bill chances are soil erosion would still be a problem.
In order to feed the gigantic American population the farm lands must be overworked and must be constantly go through the cycles of planting and harvesting. So the only real way to stop the problem of soil erosion in The United States is to have a lower population till we can feed everyone while the fields are at a natural cycle of being eroded and being replenished. It’s a harsh but the only full proof solution to fixing soil erosion is to not work the soil as much.
In America the farming production is falling and the population continuing to climb, more farmland will be used to build urban areas, more farmland will be washed or blown away as it is becoming more overworked to feed the growing population. Eventually the food supply will run short and the United States will begin to fall into another disaster. There may come a time when there will be too little food to be arguing over what is “organic” what is “healthy” or “safe” to eat. So less emphasis should be pushed on organic and health food and more emphasis on the degradation of farmlands in the midwest. It’s not a pleasant topic it shouldn’t be taken lightly without nutritious soil the U.S. can the same way as many other societies before it.
Other societies that have not been able to recover from over farming lands include many societies in Ancient Mesopotamia located in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent, once the agricultural hub of the world, have completely vanished when their soil was undernourished and overworked. Other Societies such as the indigenous people of Easter Island, Native Americans in the Southwest, Mayans and even a Nordic colony in Greenland, were all groups whose failure were all linked to the overuse and undernourishment of the soil they raised their crops on. (Fronherz, 2012 p. 82.) Many of these societies were very well established, even the Mayans had been around longer than the United States. Just because the United States is well established doesn’t mean it is immune to national disaster from something as simple as crop failure.
The farmland loss epidemic is something that needs to be taken care of sooner or later and it would be less devastating if it was taken care of now while it was a minor problem. So there should be more studies on the loss of farmland now, and more awareness efforts to the loss of farmlands before it is too late.