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The answer to soil health is not blowing in the wind

Whatever the reasons for the increase in blowing topsoil, we need to figure out a solution because the topsoil increasingly is being depleted.

Dirt is blowing across a field.
Blowing topsoil has been a frequent sight this spring.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
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One of my favorite sights and scents in the spring is rich black soil. My connection to the soil and to the land goes back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when two sets of maternal great-grandparents started farming.

My grandparents and parents instilled in me and my siblings the importance of being stewards of the land so it would be in at least as good, if not better condition for future generations. They anchored sandy soil with alfalfa, used a rotation that included at least half a dozen different crops and planted shelterbelts around our farmstead to protect it from the fierce prairie winds

The shelterbelt my grandparents planted on their farmstead, which is where me and my family live now, is on the east side of the farm, so between it and the trees my great-grandparents planted on the north, south and west sides, our yard is nearly enclosed.

Although we can hear the wind, we don’t feel its effects until we leave the farmstead and drive a couple hundred yards through the tree groves on both sides of the road.

I was reminded just how much the trees keep the wind from buffeting us and the dirt from swirling on a gusty June day.

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When I walked out of the driveway and turned on to the gravel road, I could see the sky in the direction I would be heading was dark with dirt, but I didn't turn back because both the dogs and I needed exercise.

With each step that took us closer to the dust clouds billowing above fields on both sides of the road and on the road itself, I became more and more dismayed — and dirty. The sight of the airborne topsoil disheartened me, and the wind plastered my body from head to toe with topsoil.

During the rest of my two-mile walk, which I spent wiping dirt out of my eyes and trying to stand upright, I mulled over why the sight of blowing dirt has become an annual spring event.

The upshot of my musing was that I don’t believe there is not just one reason, but a combination of many, including the removal of shelterbelts , the tight line farmers walk between financial success and failure, which influences their crop rotations, and an inordinate amount of rain that pulverizes the soil, which makes it more vulnerable to being whipped about by the wind.

Whatever the reasons, we need to figure out a solution because the topsoil increasingly is being depleted. For example, in North Dakota, where I live 50% or more of the topsoil has been lost since agriculture appeared, according to a June 2021 article by Jim Collins Jr., North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality environmental scientist . Near Wheatland, North Dakota, in Cass County, topsoil is 6 inches deep or less, a decline of 18- to 24-inches, the article said..

Being pelted by blowing dirt makes me crabby, but blowing topsoil also should raise the ire of others because it results in a reduction in organic matter and nutrients which help the crops grow and deposits those nutrients in streams and lakes, causing a build-up of blue green algae. It also jeopardizes agricultural production for future generations.

It’s naive to think that all farmers care about the land the way my parents' did. Instead, some look at their livelihood as strictly a business and see the soil as a necessary part of production, nothing more, nothing less. Others want to get the best bang for their buck now, and have the attitude that future generations can go kick rocks.

But philosophical or moral views aside, refusal to be a steward of the land is short-sighted. Agriculture will not succeed without the essential elements of air, water, land and soil. Whether through conservation programs or individual effort, they need to be preserved.

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Ann Bailey lives with her husband, Brian Gregoire, on a farmstead near Larimore, N.D., that has been in her family since 1911. You can reach her at 218-779-8093 or abailey@agweek.com.

Opinion by Ann Bailey
Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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