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Good soil is far more than just dirt

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By George B. Pyle
The Prairie Writers Circle

Editor's note: This is a longer version of the piece that ran recently in The Los Angeles Times.

(Aug. 16, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Even when city folks notice the dwindling population of rural areas and express concern for the dying small communities scattered across the continent, they remain blind to both the real causes and the best solutions. They are blind because they have bought the lie that the industrialization of food production is both inevitable and good, and that the only problem is finding new uses for the surplus rural population.

Thus an editorial in the July 8 Los Angeles Times, commenting on a July 2 front page article in that same newspaper about the rapid decline of rural communities and proposals for what to do about it. In "The Ever Quieter Country," the Times gave its official sympathy to the afflicted communities, and offered the comfort of modern technology, communications technology that could employ, in call centers and data-entry pools, eager, and cheaper, workers no longer needed in agricultural-related pursuits.

What about the food those people used to produce? Not to worry, the Times opined. "The fields are doing fine."

No, they're not.

It is, of course, no coincidence that rural life is decaying right alongside the devastation of America's fields. It's just that the people, even when there are far fewer of them, can still complain to congressmen and to newspaper reporters. The fields cannot speak up, and so their victimization goes mostly unnoticed.

For one thing, the fields are much lighter than they used to be. Wind and water erosion alone wash away 2 billion tons of soil, or 5.6 tons per cultivated acre, each year, according to the latest figures available (1997). It has been figured that, for every ton of grain and hay harvested in the U.S., we lose 2.5 tons of soil.

And, as it washes away, the soil takes with it tons of nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that poison the waters downstream, require more expensive water treatment facilities in cities and are the cause of large areas of oxygen-starved, fish-destroying "dead zones" in coastal waters.

Not only are our fields losing quantity, the remaining soil is of ever-decreasing quality. The soil that is left is ripped up to produce a season of genetically identical, chemical-dependent crops, then left bare for much of the year, exposed to wind and rain. Like a drug addict who loses the ability to feel normal life without chemical stimulus, modern agriculture has so fried the soil that it cannot produce without larger and larger infusions of chemicals.

Water poured onto arid fields quickly evaporates, leaving behind increased amounts of salt that only reduce the future ability of the soil to produce. All that accelerates soil degradation and requires ever more fertilizer and other chemicals to make up for the natural nutritional value of soil that has been wiped away by modern, high-intensity agriculture.

Good soil is not just dirt. It is a hive of life, much of it either microscopic or even disgusting to urban eyes because they don't understand the need for the growth and decay of slimy things to sustain life. Good farmers are not just people who dig in the dirt. They are the stewards of healthy soil, many of them unrecognized or even dismissed by urbanites because they don't understand why anyone would want to do such hard work so far away from the nearest Starbucks.

Because it takes fewer people to beat the Earth into submission than it does to lovingly care for it, fewer farmers are producing more food, and fewer rural communities survive to support and be supported by those farmers. But it cannot last. And the final effects will be felt far from the fields, into the deepest urban canyons.

Many city dwellers seem to feel we would be doing farmers a favor and ourselves no harm - by turning them into computer pieceworkers. But the fact is that fewer people on the land is both cause and symptom of degraded land, land that is rapidly losing its ability to produce healthy food, now and into the future.

- George B. Pyle is a director of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan. He is writing a book about the advantages of small-scale agriculture over the industrial model of food production.