Column: Irresponsible Greed Makes DirtWisconsin was a pioneer in conservation education and implementation of land and water conservation practices. Despite those efforts, Leopold was puzzled that the existence of obligations over and above self-interest was taken for granted in community enterprises such as roads, schools, churches and baseball teams. Land use ethics, however, were still governed wholly by economic self-interest.
By: Dan Wilcox, outdoor columnist, New Richmond News
Henry John Temple (Lord Palmerston, also known as “the mongoose”) was quoted as saying that dirt is matter in the wrong place. He was the unethical British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister who initiated the Opium Wars on the Chinese to force them to buy the drug (then called dirt) and enrich the coffers of the British East India Company. Opening the opium trade forced a century of humiliation on the Chinese that is strongly remembered today. Then, as now, pretty much everything in America and Europe was deemed fair in the pursuit of profits.
Milo Harpstead, my Soils professor at U.W. Stevens Point, began his lecture by informing us that the thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization. Dr. Harpstead instructed that there’s a big difference between soils and dirt. Dirt is soil out of place.
Today there’s lots of dirt being generated in the United States by what Aldo Leopold would have called unethical farming practices. In his famous book A Sand County Almanac, Leopold proposed a Land Ethic. An ethic serves to differentiate between social and anti-social conduct. Leopold explained that politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced, in part, by cooperative mechanisms with an ethical content. This is also a foundation of civilization.
Wisconsin was a pioneer in conservation education and implementation of land and water conservation practices. Despite those efforts, Leopold was puzzled that the existence of obligations over and above self-interest was taken for granted in community enterprises such as roads, schools, churches and baseball teams. Land use ethics, however, were still governed wholly by economic self-interest.
We consider tipping over gravestones in a cemetery anti-social behavior that desecrates the memory of our ancestors. We have laws and penalties against that kind of unethical behavior.
Plowing up highly erodible land with bad farming practices and allowing massive erosion to occur destroys the fertility of the soil, sends mud and nutrients down our rivers, and denies use of fertile soil to our descendants. Why is this not considered unethical behavior?
One rainstorm can wash away a millimeter of dirt from the topsoil of a plowed field. That amounts to about 13 tons of topsoil eroded from a hectare (2.5 acres). It would take 20 years or more to replace that loss if left to natural soil-forming processes.
The U.S. is losing soil 10 times faster than the natural rate of soil formation. The economic impact of soil losses in the U.S. is approximately $37 billion each year. About 60 percent of soil that is washed away ends up in lakes, rivers, streams, estuaries and coastal zones, making waterways more prone to flooding and to contamination from fertilizers and pesticides applied to soils.
Federal subsidies for commodity crops, making ethanol from corn, and reduction in land in the Conservation Reserve Program have greatly expanded the area planted in row crops. Increased prices for corn and soybeans have farmers plowing up extensive areas of grasslands and highly erodible land and growing row crops year after year instead of rotating row crops with hay and other types of perennial cover.
The result is ugly and irresponsible. Many farmers today rent their land and don’t seem to be very interested in protecting the soil. A tour of the countryside today shows rills and gullies in fields all over the place. The result is unacceptable rates of soil loss off some of the best agricultural ground in the world, filling valley bottoms with sediment and choking streams with mud.
The solutions are simple. Plant wide grassed waterways and buffer strips along streams. Plant more perennial cover crops. Don’t plow steep slopes. Practice conservation tillage. Keep cattle out of the woods, streams and off steep hillsides. Don’t be greedy for short-term profit. Have respect for the land and for future generations.
Most farmers in this region have a strong land protection ethic and we are fortunate that they do. Civilization depends on fertile soils. Ultimately, the health of people cannot be separated from the health of the land.
Please send any comments and suggestions for this column to me at email@example.com