Disasters shed light on changes in our practices

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It's difficult to know how to compare enormous disasters with one another. What has been unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico is often called the "greatest environmental disaster" we've faced as a nation.

My mind turned recently to an earlier environmental disaster that we Americans endured for years in the 1930s. That was the time of the Dust Bowl when a combination of drought and our own farming practices in the Great Plains launched the top-most layer of the Earth into the sky again and again.

I was thinking of both the Gulf of Mexico and the "Dirty Thirties" when I got up last month around dawn to drive 60 miles and meet with a group of wheat farmers and agricultural extension educators. We gathered - thank goodness - at a small town caf?© that opens early. Black coffee (known to some of us as the elixir of life) was fresh and hot and flowing freely.

An agricultural "field day" is a cross between an educational seminar and a field trip, scheduled when a farmer's work is in a natural lull. They are an old tradition in the world of agricultural education and extension, part of the effort to bring research ideas to those with their boots on the ground and - equally importantly - to help information flow back from the real world to the Ivory Tower. It's an interesting task, giving applied research freely to anyone interested and getting back information and ideas from those whose very living depends on the soil.

Here's the basic soil conservation problem with most farming. If a farmer plows up or "disks" soil, that work helps kill weeds and prepares a fine seed bed for planting. But it also disturbs the soil so that it is easily eroded by water and wind. Even flat ground is subject to a lot of erosion, and steep ground - which is what is farmed in my part of the country - holds the record for topsoil lost from the fields over the years due to erosion.

There are now many techniques used in farm country to help keep topsoil where it is and avoid a repeat of the Dust Bowl. "Cover crops" are planted to protect the ground during the part of the year the earth would otherwise be bare, and a new technology - called "no-till" - has been developed and is in use by some farmers.

No-till farming avoids turning over all the soil in a field prior to planting. It still disturbs soil - there is no way around that - but not to the extent that conventional agriculture does. The implement used for no-till cuts a groove in the earth, drops in seed and fertilizer, and then covers it all up again. Between the rows of disturbed ground, the roots and stubble from the previous crop remain intact, helping to hold the whole field together when the rains come and the winds blow.

No-till farming is not the same as "organic" agriculture. Because the ground is not turned over or thoroughly cultivated, weeds are not broken up and killed. This means a farmer often has to spray more herbicide in a no-till field than in one worked via more traditional means.

But there are trade-offs in everything. No-till farming requires less tractor fuel as the repeated tillage operations are eliminated. And conserving topsoil that takes centuries to form is clearly a highly prized goal. But there may also be increased insects and disease problems.

"When we make a change in the farming system like eliminating soil tillage, it affects the whole biological equilibrium between water available to the crop, soil temperature, weeds, insects and plant diseases," commented Diana Roberts, agronomist with Washington State University Extension. "This is fascinating for the scientist - OK, call it job security," she smiled. "But for farmers, it's a challenge to their whole livelihood."

I learned a lot about no-till and its advantages and disadvantages in just one morning. Let's hope the ag researchers continue in their good work of finding new ways to conserve our topsoil - just as engineers in the Gulf meet with full success in taming the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. Peters can be reached at epeters@wsu.edu.

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