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 gone.
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
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 more
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.
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
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. Not lost.