Loss of Topsoil in the Midwest Could Lead to Devastating Tolls of Farm Land

Contributed by Daniel Howell | Fourth Year | Agricultural Communications

In today’s age, agriculture and agricultural commodities are a staple for feeding the world and serving as one of the main facets for the United States economy. The rich and fertile soils of midwestern state lands create the perfect conditions for farming however, over the course of many years, the dark and deep soil has diminished at alarming rates. The continual loss of this valuable sediment must be addressed in order to make changes to keep up with the demand for productive agriculture.

In 2019, corn was the highest farmed crop in America at about 91.7 million acres according to the USDA. The corn populous region, known as the Corn Belt, first planted their crops in nutrient rich topsoil (referred to as the “A-horizon”)which was about 14 to 16 inches deep. That was a deeper topsoil than almost anywhere in the world at the time. Since then, according to an article by Verlyn Klinkenborg, in Yale Environment 360, almost half of that topsoil has eroded and disappeared. Klinkenborg describes what that can look like in a study where “A-horizon soil was essentially no longer present on convex slopes and on those slopes was B-horizon soil — subsoil in other words, with minimal fertility, which is only exposed after A-horizon soil has been removed. ”Likewise, the continual wind erosion and runoff has taken much of that depth and threatens to take more. Unfortunately, the increase in damage from over-farming and tilling year after year has created less fertile and usable soil.

As an industry, agriculturalists are trying to find solutions to this problem and are constantly being thought over and worked on with new strategies and technologies to combat soil loss. For example, the damage of over plowing is fought by implementing a type of farming entitled no-till agriculture. This methodology involves sowing seeds directly into the stubble and remains of the previous year’s crops. Not only does it prevent tilling, but it also increases stability of crops and roots while avoiding the erosion of soil. If this were to be implemented on more farms, the crisis could be substantially adverted. However, this remains an uncommon practice due to the precise and time-consuming nature of the technique.

Other potential practices in the slowing of tillage includes hydroponics, the act of farming without soil or in soilless medias. Some other agricultural professionals opt to rotate crops by only planting in certain sections at a time to allow for other parts of their land to rest and recuperate their nutrients and depth. Although there are implementations of strategies on smaller scales, the loss of topsoil on this magnitude needs more attention. Unfortunately, it’s easier to push off these long term problems in exchange for short term success with rich and full harvests. As long as there are profits and advantages that can be earned now, there will be less action toward responsible farming for the future.

The topic of topsoil loss needs the utmost concern not just from farmers and agricultural leaders, but also from any citizen that recognizes the importance of sustainable agriculture. As future pioneers in agriculture at Cal Poly, it is crucial to make sure there is a future in widespread agriculture everywhere. The first step in being proactive about the ways to combat this issue is by spreading awareness about the problem, its ramifications, and also the need for immediate action. Only when the gravity of the situation is grasped, will the necessary time and effort be put into the preservation of America’s topsoil.