It's probably the landscape of white that is making me a bit forlorn lately. What I am hankering to see is some good old dirt.

Maybe it's the years of gardening, watching the miracle of a seed sown producing food, knowing that healthy soil attributes to the tastiness of the produce that has sparked my interest in soil. It is no small wonder to me that my gardening techniques affect the soil's properties and its life giving characteristics. The care of the soil is my responsibility.

My farmer has been an immensely patient teacher, explaining the science of soil to me. After rain storms, we will jump in the pickup for a visual assessment of how the soil 'held up' in our area. It is satisfying to see the places with no runoff (especially in the no-till fields). Conversely, we become irate when we see erosion in areas that could have been prevented. There are good reasons why farmers cringe when they see dirt blowing across a finely worked up field, or see top-soil plugging up culverts after a heavy rain.

Soil is more than just dirt; it a complex combination of mineral particles, plant nutrients and beneficial organisms, including bacteria produced by many forces acting together. It takes years to rebuild top soil and structure necessary for producing the abundant crops we like. In agriculture we know life really does begin with dirt. It is not just the crops grown in the dirt that feed livestock and people. There are billions of products that get their start from the seeds we soon will be planting.

Every hard-working auctioneer will remind the crowd that 'land no longer is being made'. And this is so true! With more farm land seeded into wildlife food plots, designated as public areas or placed into city development, there is less land available for farming.  The remaining acres are needed to produce more food to feed a burgeoning world population. We really need to protect the soils we have.

Soil is our lifeblood, and it's fertility contributes a great deal to the success of our farms. We need to remain vigilant at doing the best that we can to protect the life in the dirt beneath us. One would have thought the pictures of the Dust Bowl era would have been enough to convince farmers to remove as many tillage tools from their list of assets as quickly as possible. Instead, the opposite seems to be true. Sometimes there appears to be less concern about responsible farming as there was a generation ago, despite all the education and success stories.

Perhaps this could be attributed to less 'farmer-owned' land. Unrestricted private ownership creates pride, and perhaps the land will be circumspectly cared for during the time his name is on the deed. This land is only ours for a time, and we hold it in a trust for the next generation that will also need food and shelter.

Conservation, contour farming, minimum till, and crop rotation need to be back into our regime of best farming practices. It may mean devoting time to soil and plant tissue testing, so that we can get the right balance of fertilizer back on our depleted soils. When preserving  the heritage of land for future generations becomes a priority, it's possible to find ways to remain profitable and productive – all while protecting the soil.

American agriculture really consists of many agricultures. Every acre of land is as unique as the men and women who farm it. But each must realize it is their individual responsibility to leave the land in better shape than when it first became theirs.


Essays from My Farm House Kitchen | Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Renae B. Vander Schaaf, freelance writer, lives on a real working farm in northwest Iowa.

To Contact Renae B. Vander Schaaf, please email her at [email protected]