In agriculture, as with anything, we must always be careful about what we ask for. This is true with many complex subjects. It’s not always about the answers we receive, but the questions we ask.
For several decades producers had asked for higher yields; not higher profits or improved soil that would sustain their operations into the future. It is not surprising that after decades of asking for higher yields we find ourselves with degraded soil, slim profit margins, and yes, higher yields. While every producer is interested in producing a good crop each year, the conversation in agriculture is changing from the pursuit of high yields, to one of restoring the soil and profit margins.
Many have assumed that restoring the soil’s capacity to function and the profitable production of crops are mutually exclusive. We all know it costs money to apply conservation practices to the land to control erosion. However, we have mistaken soil erosion as a problem, when it is actually a symptom of a larger problem. For many years we have been chasing soil downhill, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, because we did not question things deep enough to identify the actual problem. The problem was dysfunctional soil, manifested as erosion. We mistook a symptom (soil erosion) for the disease (dysfunctional soil) and so did not discover the cure (restoring soil health) … until now.
Now, we have correctly determined that the reason soil and crop nutrients are leaving the field is because the soil lacks the capacity to infiltrate water and cycle nutrients. The soil is no longer functioning as designed. Properly functioning soil absorbs water and cycles nutrients so neither leave the field except through transpiration of water through the leaves of living plants or nutrients in the grain. The most provocative part of this revelation is that improving soil function reduces input costs, which increases the margin of profit. The more we understand about how the soil is designed to function and manage it accordingly, the more the soil does for us. The soil allows plants to convert air, water, and sunlight into the commodities that can be sold in the marketplace.
In our quest for higher yields, we have been given control over many variables of crop production. Modern agriculture is about controlling weeds, controlling insects, controlling soil moisture, controlling plant nutrients –controlling whatever nature throws at us. But these controls can come with a cost. By changing our understanding of the soil from a place where we supply and control things to where we allow life in the soil to supply and control things is how profitable production can take place. Pesticides, fertilizers, and other agricultural technologies are tools, and as such, are not to be revered nor condemned, but can be applied to either facilitate or suppress the biological processes in the soil. The biology of the soil is always working to find the most efficient way to maintain itself and its indispensable partners: living plants. Living plants are the mechanism for air, water and sunlight to be transformed into food for the soil as well as food for us. By changing the way we think about soil, we can utilize the soil’s capacity to regenerate itself and support plants to our advantage.
Now that we know better how the soil functions as a biological system, we need to learn how to harness that understanding to power the production of our crops. We need to ask for ways to get our soil back in peak condition so it can capture and cycle water and nutrients as efficiently and profitably as possible. That way, any inputs we may choose to add to the system will not only improve the capacity of the soil to function, but will return the most bushels for our buck. Instead of only asking researchers and agricultural suppliers for higher yields, perhaps we should be asking for ways to restore the soil that will sustain both short- and long-term crop production, and leave the soil better than when we found it.
Understanding how the soil functions as a biological system is the future of agriculture. A future where agriculture can be profitable and productive without the imminent specter of regulations developed to address any adverse impacts on the environment. By restoring the soil to allow it to do its job more efficiently, producers can be more productive, proactive, and profitable, while reducing the footprint of agriculture on the environment.
Agriculture needs to ask for something better than bushels. We need to ask for a future with fully functioning soil, which is something we can all agree on.
Jon Stika is a soil scientist who has worked with the North Dakota Soil Conservation Committee and NDSU’s Dickinson Research and Extension Center. He is also the author of “A Soil Owner’s Manual: How to Restore and Maintain Soil Health.”