If you’re anywhere in much of farm country from the
Appalachians to the Rockies, you’ll see fields laid
bare as much as nine months of the year.
Look around, from fall to spring: Annual crops like corn,
soybeans, spring wheat and sorghum that grew in summer are
The ground looks shaved, scarred, skinned. And it is.
Bare earth—ground without cover, without rooted plants
holding soils and building them—is not a natural condition
in a place like this. In its natural state, virtually all
this ground would be covered with perennial plants, rooted
year-round, leafing and dying in sequence, the soil constantly
nourished, cooled, protected.
A field of bare soil heats up like a hot plate. Bare earth
is soon enough scorched earth. The surface crusts, then cracks
as moisture escapes. If rain falls, it flows off crusted areas,
it gouges and erodes, and mud, which of course is soil, runs
off. Wind adds to soil’s destruction.
From bare fields each year flow and blow more than a billion
tons of sediment and the pollutants bound to it, a degradation
of America’s soils and water.
“Stop the mudness!” is the slogan for a Great
Lakes Commission sediment-reduction campaign. Sediment is
the main pollutant in the lakes, as it is in almost all of
America’s watersheds, with agriculture the major polluter.
“Stop the mudness!” offers this advice to farmers
who see runoff from their fields:
Change your tillage practices:
Don’t plow so much, especially in the fall.
Add a grass or legume to
your crop rotation: Keep more roots holding
Install buffer strips:
Plant trees and perennial grasses to filter sediment before
it enters streams.
This simple counsel is common sense; it should go without
saying. But with the fence-row-to-fence-row overplanting of
some annual grains, driven by federal subsidies, common sense
no longer holds. It’s news, again. Plant buffer strips!
We’re still losing stream buffers to bare fields, losing
forested buffers where sequences of plants photosynthesize,
recycle nutrients, sequester carbon, build rich soil pores
and crumb structures, that spongy dark soil that absorbs water.
And stops the mudness.
Bare-earth fields are so commonplace now, people forget how
recently—just a few generations ago—farmers tore
off the green cover, plowed up pastures, quit using cover
crops, and turned the landscape into row after row of annuals.
Even the few months these crops are rooted and leafing, between
all the plants there’s still row after row of bare dirt.
People drive by cornfields in summer, or they drive by miles
of bare fields in fall, winter and spring—and they think,
ah, the scenery looks so fine, natural.
But it’s not natural. Look again. Bare earth. Scorched
earth. It’s mudness.
Agricultural policy and practice must return to their roots,
to rootedness, and cover the ground.
Farm policy should promote—and if we’re going
to subsidize, subsidize this—perennial crops, biodiversity,
grass-based livestock production, reforestation of stream
banks, hedgerows and woodlots. Agricultural energy policy
should promote perennial crops like switchgrass for ethanol
production, not the bare-earth annual corn.
Pasture-based networks have grown up in a number of states,
like Project Grass in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, encouraging
intensive rotational grazing instead of corn/confinement livestock
operations. Even the federal government has a few perennial-agriculture
research projects, like the Appalachian Farming Systems Research
Center in West Virginia, studying pasture-based beef production
and other grazed agricultural ecosystems.
But these are dots of green in an otherwise bare-earth landscape
over much of the Midwest.
When we come to our senses and recognize greenery for what
it is to us—lifesaving—our eyes, our vision will
change. We’ll see bare ground as an assault, an offense.
We’ll see bare fields as degrading, to Nature and to
ourselves. Knowing better, we’ll farm, and farm well.
We may even be able to sit by a stream with a forested buffer,
put our feet in the water and celebrate a world recovered.