Immediate Past President of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Robert Block, recently said, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.”  That got me thinking about how caring for children has commonalities with caring for farmland.

One could also say, “Adverse treatments of farmland are the single greatest unaddressed threat facing the wellbeing of our nation’s agriculture.”

When we nurture our children and our land, both flourish.  When we mistreat children and land, both suffer and we threaten the future of our world.

What happens to children?  A series of studies led by Kaiser Permanente and the Center for Disease Control reported on the health outcomes of adults who completed histories of exposure to traumatic events called “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) while they were children.  More than 30 scientific articles reported the ACE findings. 

The ACEs examined were the following: emotional, physical or sexual abuse, physical or emotional neglect, and five types of dysfunction within the household: witnessing domestic violence, substance abuse by one or more persons in the household, mental illness of someone in the household, parental separation or divorce, and incarceration of a household member.  

The researchers found that ACEs were common for the adults who were followed.  Of the 17,000+ persons evaluated, 63.9 percent had experienced at least one ACE; 12.6 percent of the sample had indicated four or more ACEs. 

As the number of ACEs increased, the risks for serious health disorders during later childhood and throughout adulthood increased. 

Health disorders that increased were the following: alcohol abuse, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, fetal death, illicit drug use, ischemic heart disease, liver disease, risk for intimate partner violence, multiple sexual partners, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, suicide attempts and unintended pregnancies.  

The greater the number of adverse childhood experiences, the greater the risk for one or more negative health issues.  For example, persons with an ACE score of four were 2.5 times more likely to develop COPD and hepatitis than persons with no ACEs.  

Persons with just one ACE were two times more likely to experience depression and to attempt suicide later in life. 

The conclusion of this valuable series of longitudinal studies is that children need to grow up in an environment that is free of disruptions and exposures to toxic social-behavioral traumas.

What happens to farmland?  When farmland is mistreated, it loses its capacity to produce optimally and may eventually play out entirely.

Just like we should prevent adverse childhood experiences to people, we should prevent abuse and misuse of farmland.

We are largely in control of our farming practices, much as we are largely in control of how we raise children.  Here are just a few of the practices that have been demonstrated by research to maximize long-term benefits to farmland and which are sometimes ignored in favor of maximizing production in the short term:

  • Maintain perennial grasses and forbs on waterways, terraces and along streams to reduce runoff from sloping ground
  • Alternate strips of crops that protect the soil surface, such as hay, with crops that allow the soil to be vulnerable to erosion, like corn and soybeans, until they grow sufficiently to cover the soil
  • Apply just enough crop nutrients, such as nitrogen, and monitor uptake through surveillance and/or tissue analyses and utilize soil mapping and timely applications to minimize excessive fertilizer leaching and runoff
  • Curtail or eliminate use of toxic herbicides and insecticides so that beneficial biota are not unintentionally eliminated from the soil
  • Rotate crops so that greater biodiversity is fostered than occurs with continuous production of the same crop or alternating just two crops, such as corn and soybeans, every other year
  • Plant quick-growing and cold-tolerant cover crops such as radishes, turnips, vetch and other legumes or grasses such as rye after harvesting the main crop to minimize erosion, restore nutrients and break up compacted soil; for example, rye might follow soybeans
  • Maintain residue in fields after harvest, such as corn stalks, instead of removing the residue for feed, bedding or sale as a byproduct
  • Allow livestock to clean up fields after harvest so as to utilize grain or plant material left in the fields and to recycle the remaining grain and fodder as manure
  • Maintain crops and livestock/poultry on farms and use their manure to replace nutrients removed by the crops and to improve biodiversity and organic matter
  • Balance production with stewardship by distributing large confined animal/poultry operations instead of consolidating them, thereby dispersing their manure and odors

Just as we should invest in the good care of our children so they become healthy, competent and productive adults, we should invest in the good care of our agricultural land so it will produce healthy food for people today and for succeeding generations.  The larger community of all people shares in these responsibilities for children and the land.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Share your thoughts with Dr. Rosmann at: