THE 2018 farm bill can provide a huge opportunity to help agriculture and promote clean water. The Izaak Walton League of American has long understood the relationship between healthy soil and water quality.
The overwhelming volume of our nation’s water flows over or through agricultural soils. Agriculture controls the largest portion of our nation’s lands. Agriculture has changed immensely over the last century and faces many challenges. Some of these changes are evolving into issues that must be addressed. Geographically the problems are the same across our nation, but locally the harmful algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie are front and center. Some people believe that agriculture is being unfairly blamed for our water nutrient and erosion problems, while others are unsure; likewise, others absolutely sure. It is pretty much universally agreed that the nutrients and sediments are coming from agricultural lands. The costs of these losses can be seen in harmful algal blooms as well as smaller family farms being sold off to larger corporate agricultural entities, which, in a lot of cases, are the fronts for foreign investors.
The waters of our nation are being severely impacted by soil erosion and nutrient pollution. The sources of nutrients are primarily commercial fertilizer and livestock manure, but there is also the component of what is already in the soils and are more nutrients really needed? Why add more if you don’t need it? Soil erosion is also a function of lack of soil health, and soils being exposed to the direct action of rainfall and water runoff.
Soil is made up of four primary inert components consisting of sand, silt, clay, and carbon (organic). These components depend on a biological component to enable increased absorption, retention, and systematic transfer of moisture and nutrients to the plants. These biological components are made up fungus (Mycorrhiza) and bacteria. They are able to absorb, retain, and transfer moisture and nutrients to plants’ root systems as well as access and transfer existing moisture and nutrients from within the soil profile. I like to refer to this component as the biological vitality of the soil. This biological vitality creates a network of fibrous connections between soil’s components and roots that solidifies the soil structure and reduces runoff through increasing absorption and retention of water and nutrients. Soil tillage practices and chemicals coupled with heavier agricultural equipment have increased soil slaking (compaction of soil that reduces soil aggregation and capillary abilities of water to infiltrate soils, increasing runoff, and reducing available water for plant growth).
Average Ohio soil erosion losses from tillage result in 2.1 tons with soil losses of 1.5 pounds per pound of soybeans produced per acre producing 45 bushel per acre. Soil losses on corn are 0.5 pounds of soil loss per pound of corn produced at 150 bushel per acre. We urge you to implement the four main tenants of soil health into the farm bill: 1) Minimize soil disturbance 2) Increase live root year-round (cover crops) 3) Increase surface residue (no-till) and 4) Increase biodiversity (USDA-NRCS). Loss of soil is critical to the sustainability of agriculture. Regenerative soil practices restore biological vitality and restore our broken nutrient and water cycles while increasing farm profitability.
During the early 2000s the Izaak Walton League was substantially involved with farmland preservation, dealing with pressures of urban sprawl on agricultural lands. We again are coming to the defense of agriculture and the necessity to protect it from economic disaster due to soil health issues.
We must urge our leaders to support clean water programs that provide buffer strips, support wetlands, encourage cover crops, reduce soil vertical tillage, and promote regenerative agriculture. Call your leadership in Washington. The Senate farm bill provides much of what is needed, but senators need to be encouraged to stand up to the current House version of the bill that could be disastrous.
Mr. Graham is chairman of the National Great Lakes Committee of the Izaak Walton League of America.
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