Cumberland Times-News

August 25, 2013

Can we change our ways in time to save ourselves?

To the Editor:
Cumberland Times-News

— Perhaps you’ve already seen or heard that it’s time to plant our way through and beyond the inevitabilities of climate change.

Ripping the soil up with steel blades creates a nice, clean, weed-free bed for seeds (temporarily), but it also disturbs soil microbiota and leaves dirt vulnerable to erosion.

The promise of no-till, cover-crop (NTCC) farming is that it not only can reduce agrochemical use, but also help keep the heartland turning out food (continuously) — even as extreme weather events like drought and floods become ever more common.

This is how its been shown cover crops make healthier soil and suck climate warming greenhouse gases out of our air.

After harvesting, farmers need to rotationally plant varieties of cover crops, which suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

After the cover crop dies it leaves behind organic matter that makes soil more fertile. It also keeps weeds from growing and moderates soil temperature.

The soil is never to be tilled before planting cash crops so that buried organic matter won’t oxidize into carbon dioxide. This preserves soil-enriching microbes and worms.

Eventually, cover crops create a layer of carbon-rich topsoil (humus) resistant to both drought and erosion.

Question: How much can farmers worldwide annually save/earn (time/money) by no-till cover-cropping? Think: agrochemicals, fuel, equipment, time, etc.?

When you visually compare no-fill cover-crop fields, here’s the difference. In a no-fill cover-cropped field you’ll see a mat of old leaves and stems covering the soil—remnants of the winter cover crops that have kept the field devoid of weeds.

Looking closer, you’ll see what are called “haystacks”, little clusters of dead, strawlike plant residue bunched up by friendly earthworms. The stacks are everywhere.

If you scoop off the top layer you’ll see pencil-sized holes going deep into the soil — a kind of worm thruway that invites water to stream down, rather than wash nutrients away.

No-tilled/cover-cropped soil acts different than soil from conventional operations. NTCC soil, when dropped in water, holds together, barely discoloring the water.

Unlike the NTCC soil, conventionally tilled soil is so compacted from tillage that little water gets in at all, or it turns the water into a cloudy mess looking like last night’s beer.

The impediment to NTCC’s catching on is that federal crop payouts and subsidized crop insurance buffers production losses producing little incentive to change.

Mother Nature doesn’t exist to be exploited. The ultimate planet saving question is, then, can humanity collectively change its food growing behavior(s) in time?

Bill Arnold

Romney, W.Va.