Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Soil Erosion Worse than Ever and Still Increasing


Our Good Earth

The future rests on the soil beneath our feet.

By Charles C. Mann (author of EXCELLENT book, 1491)
Photograph by Jim Richardson

On a warm September day, farmers from all over the state gather around the enormous machines. Combines, balers, rippers, cultivators, diskers, tractors of every variety—all can be found at the annual Wisconsin Farm Technology Days show. But the stars of the show are the great harvesters, looming over the crowd. They have names like hot rods—the Claas Jaguar 970, the Krone BiG X 1000—and are painted with colors bright as fireworks. The machines weigh 15 tons apiece and have tires tall as a tall man. When I visited Wisconsin Farm Technology Days last year, John Deere was letting visitors test its 8530 tractor, an electromechanical marvel so sophisticated that I had no idea how to operate it. Not to worry: The tractor drove itself, navigating by satellite. I sat high and happy in the air-conditioned bridge, while beneath my feet vast wheels rolled over the earth.

The farmers grin as they watch the machines thunder through the cornfields. In the long run, though, they may be destroying their livelihoods. Midwestern topsoil, some of the finest cropland in the world, is made up of loose, heterogeneous clumps with plenty of air pockets between them. Big, heavy machines like the harvesters mash wet soil into an undifferentiated, nigh impenetrable slab—a process called compaction. Roots can't penetrate compacted ground; water can't drain into the earth and instead runs off, causing erosion. And because compaction can occur deep in the ground, it can take decades to reverse. Farm-equipment companies, aware of the problem, put huge tires on their machines to spread out the impact. And farmers are using satellite navigation to confine vehicles to specific paths, leaving the rest of the soil untouched. Nonetheless, this kind of compaction remains a serious issue—at least in nations where farmers can afford $400,000 harvesters.

Our species is rapidly trashing an area the size of the United States and Canada combined.

Read the rest here.


  1. hello, we have just begun a permaculture project in the palestinian west bank, where we are addressing issues of soil compaction, though not through heavy machinery use, just a donkey plough. eventhough it is amazing how compacted soil can become solely from continued ploughing.


    i have put a link from my blog to yours.

  2. Mulch, mulch, mulch for compaction.

    Thanks for the link. I recently added links to our global permaculture directory for the org in the Negev. You may be familiar with them:
    Bustan http://bustan.org/
    BUSTAN is a partnership of Jewish and Arab eco-builders, architects, academics, and farmers promoting social and environmental justice in Israel/Palestine. BUSTAN cultivates sustainable models to effect change by combining advocacy and in-depth political analysis with strategic action. BUSTAN utilizes the principles of permaculture and non-violent direct action across ethnic divides. http://bustan.org/
    P.O. Box 6955, Jerusalem, Israel 91060

  3. Devorah Brous also visited my hometown and I enjoyed spending time with her. You're very lucky to have her assistance and commitment. Best of luck.

  4. ah ha, bustan is one of our partner organisations. my collegue alice gray has good links with them through ra'id. she organised a tour of the negev to highlight environmental problems faced by the bedouin in light of israel's racist policy toward them.

    did you hear about the demolition order israel placed on the recycled tyre mosque they are helping to build? can u imagine the hype if bedouin / palestinians tried to destroy a synagogue? crazed.

    cheers for info