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'Lip service' to soil health?

Jonathan Knutson

A few years ago, I was talking about soil health and the environment with a Midwest agriculturalist. I won't name him; let's just say he's a smart, educated and passionate guy with views well outside the mainstream of modern ag.

He argued that few farmers really care about the long-term health of their soil or the environment in general. He insisted that most farmers are motivated almost exclusively by profit, with soil health and environmental considerations a distant second at best and ignored at worst. Right or wrong, it was strong stuff, strongly expressed.

Well, I said politely, there's clearly growing awareness of soil health and definitely more interest in cover crops. Isn't that a pretty good sign they care? I asked.

He shrugged and said, "No, it's just lip service for public relations. Few of them will follow through when times get tough."

I think again of his answer now that drought is hammering much of the region. Times are tough, to say the least. If he's right about "lip service," interest in soil health and cover crops will plummet.

A few definitions may help some readers:

Soil health is based on the premise that soil is a living organism that needs proper treatment to be healthy. (There are a lot of other definitions, too, but you get the idea.) Cover crops — ones grown to suppress weeds, control pests and disease and build productive soil, rather than for sale — are an important tool in promoting soil health.

So, was that aggie right to claim that tough times will cause farmers and ranchers to back away from their "lip service" to cover crops and soil health?

I'm always reluctant to generalize about farmers and ranchers. They're not some homogeneous bunch that thinks and acts the same. They're individuals whose values and goals differ, sometimes widely.

That said, I think most ag producers want to do the right thing with their soil. They know how important it is.

The cliche is true

The phrase "precious, irreplaceable topsoil" has been used so often that it may have become a cliche. But it's true nonetheless. Our topsoil really is precious. And it really is (virtually) irreplaceable. Most soil scientists agree it takes at least a century — and as many as five centuries, depending on climate, vegetation and other factors — to form an inch of topsoil, according to federal government information.

For decades, farmers and ranchers in Agweek Country have worked to protect their topsoil from erosion. Now, more of them are working with scientists to identify and adapt sensible, effective ways of protecting their soil's health, in part through greater use of cover crops.

My take: Drought will slow — but not stop — the growing interest in soil health and cover crops. Some hard-pressed farmers and ranchers will focus on surviving the drought, not long-term soil health. No, I'm not saying producers will do things that hurt their soil; I'm saying soil health will be a lower priority for them temporarily.

Most farmers and ranchers are sincere, or so it seems are me, when they talk about the importance of soil health. Yeah, some are saying it partly for the PR value; even for them, though, it's more than mere lip service.

But that smart, educated and passionate aggie with views well outside the ag mainstream thinks that's all it is.

Times have gotten tough. We'll see if he's right.