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soil erosion/no till (long)


Carlos Crovetto's book on no-till was mentioned recently.  I had the
opportunity to see Mr. Crovetto speak here at WSU last month, and was
inspired to write the following op-ed piece for the Capitol Press (a NW
Ag newspaper).  It was published on Friday, and I thought I'd share
it with non-subscribers.

There seems to be some confusion here over whether no-till leads (in the
long term) to increased pesticide use.  I'm interested in hearing
from anyone with information on this issue.

A note on the lead: there has recently been a fair amount of discussion
in the paper about urban animals harassing farm animals.

Steve Verhey
Dept. of Crop & Soil Science
Washington State University

Everyone knows that in production agriculture it's necessary to be hardnosed
about some things.  To an outsider, for example, it may seem cruel to shoot
a coyote, let alone someone's pet dog, for chasing sheep.  But everyone knows
it's necessary to shoot coyotes who chase sheep.  In fact, a shepherd would
shoot his or her own dog if it harassed sheep instead of herding them.

Most of the obvious examples of this sort of thing have to do with livestock,
but not all.

Consider soil erosion on the Palouse, famous as home to some of the most
fertile and productive soil in the West, and infamous for its erosion problem.
Some erosion is necessary if we're going to grow wheat here, is probably
what you'd be told if you asked about it.  That's certainly the attitude
of many of us who live on the Palouse, even those of us who don't grow wheat.
We learned long ago that it's best not to talk much about it, and we generally
don't try.

That's a hard policy to maintain this time of year, when the brown Palouse
River is full of soil washed out of the fields, and the rills leading from
the hills to the silt-filled streams look like the ribs of starving animals.

Often outsider's responses to situations where it is necessary to be
hardnosed are pretty much kneejerk reactions, and it's best just to
let them have their say and get on with your business.  Occasionally,
though, perhaps an outsider can see a situation more clearly than those
of us who have gotten used to the cruelty over the years.

Sometimes maybe they can even say what needs to be said.

Perhaps that's what Carlos Crovetto was trying to do when he visited
Pullman recently.  Mr. Crovetto, a farmer from Chile, has been using no-till
farming, a method that virtually eliminates soil erosion, to grow wheat and
corn for the last 20 years.  He travels the world to tell people about his

In the last 20 years, Mr. Crovetto says he has built an inch of soil on his
land, somewhat more than it has been "necessary" to lose on the Palouse in
the same amount of time.  He spoke to an audience of farmers, farm advisors,
and scientists at Washington State University in March, near the end of a
fairly typical erosion year.

Mr. Crovetto is an articulate man, but he is a passionate man too,
and the drive up to Pullman from Lewiston had left him nearly speechless.

"Erosion and erosion and erosion--I can't understand that--this is the most
developed country in the world!"

Erosion actually used to be far worse here than it is now.  In the late
1970's a USDA-SCS report noted that erosion rates of 20-30 tons per acre
per year were common on Palouse cropland.  Many years of research and
cooperation between crop and soil scientists and growers have led to
significant reductions in erosion, for which everyone deserves congratulations.

"Soil is the most important thing a human being has."

But erosion still averages about 9 tons per acre per year.  Every acre,
every year.  Most fields that were planted to winter wheat last fall have
areas of considerable rill erosion--places where 40 to 50 tons of soil were
lost per acre since planting.  The average acre of land produces about
2.5 tons of wheat per acre per year.

"You are smart people, and you have to change!"

Some of our smartest scientists have worked on this problem over the years,
and they can tell us exactly why erosion is so bad on the Palouse.  Hills.
Multiple freeze-thaw cycles in winter.  North-facing slopes.  Low soil
organic matter.  Fine soil texture. Poor permeability.  Heavy winter snow
and rainfall.

Soil scientists can calculate how much erosion there will be next year,
too, and it will be about the same amount as there was this year, and last
year, and the year before, unless something--or someone--changes.

"You love your people.  Why don't you love your soil?"

Is it possible that enough thinking has been done about erosion, and not
enough feeling?

"This is the most important thing you have to do in your life."

Serious erosion is not a given with production agriculture.  In fact,
erosion on the Palouse is worse than it is anywhere but a handful of
places in North America.  From the air one can see that the brown water
of the Snake stays separate from the cleaner water of the Columbia
for miles and miles.

"If we don't change we fail, and if we fail, we die."

Soil erosion costs farmers money:  fertility must be replaced and crops
must be reseeded.  It costs county taxpayers money:  in Whitman County
alone, it costs taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars a year to clean
out the roadside ditches.  It costs state and federal taxpayers money:
Palouse soil is filling up the reservoirs behind the dams and covering
salmon spawning beds.  It costs our children everything:  eroded soil
is gone forever.

"You have to be proud of your job, and not sad about what you are doing...
I love to be a farmer."

Watching the erosion on the Palouse makes the last few weeks of winter
drag on that much more slowly.  Soon discs and harrows and chisel plows
and the growth of crops will smooth over the scars for another year, but
as I write this every drive through the countryside is an occasion to
shake one's head and wonder how much longer this can go on.

"I did not accept any more erosion into my life."

It is true that implementing no-till farming on the Palouse has turned
out not to be as easy as it was in other places, but it is also true
that a number of no-till farmers are making it work here.

There is far less erosion than there used to be.  It is time to make
the next big reduction, and attitudes are more of a barrier than technology.