The United States is one of the top producers of food products worldwide. According to ShareAmerica, the U.S. shipped over $139 billion worth of agricultural products just in 2018. Those are astonishing numbers since U.S. farmers struggle to feed the world despite harsh winters, torrential rains, and hot summers which all contribute to soil loss and erosion.
Why Is Soil Conservation so Important?
Over the last decade, the United States has seen radical changes in weather patterns that are resulting in massive flooding in the Midwest and California where most food crops are grown. Excessive water can compact the soil as well as cause the topsoil to wash away. Hot, dry summers sear the soil, and strong winds carry nutrient-rich topsoil away.
Without topsoil, food crops can’t be grown, which could spell disaster for farmers trying to feed the population. The nation needs to stop the rapid loss of soil and take actionable steps towards soil conservation so farmers can continue growing much-needed food.
What Is Soil?
Soil covers all of the Earth and is comprised of thousands of components that create a dynamic ecosystem. Without soil, we could not grow food, and trees and plants that provide oxygen and clean the air would not exist. Earth would be an inhospitable place to live without soil.
Soil is made up of decomposed minerals, water, gases, organic matter, and tiny microorganisms. For soil to support life, it must be porous enough for air and water to filter through so the microorganisms that break down organic and non-organic compounds can survive.
What is Topsoil?
Topsoil is the upper layer of soil between 3-9 inches deep and is rich in organic matter. The topsoil is where the microorganisms live and where most of the biological activity takes place. Decomposed organic matter and minerals are nutrient rich and can be found in the upper layer of soil. Microorganisms help with the decomposition and also help to fix nitrogen which is essential for plant growth. In addition, topsoil is home to worms and beetles that help to keep the soil aerated.
Topsoil that is dark in color and has a deep earthy smell has the greatest concentration of nutrients available to plants so they can grow and thrive. In addition, rich topsoil has better water availability for plants to access. Keeping and managing topsoil from eroding is vital for agriculture and many farmers today understand the importance of managing topsoil to reduce their dependence on chemical fertilizers and nutrients.
The Importance of Soil Structure
Soil structure and texture help to determine the water holding capacity that soil has. The finer the particles of the soil and the more organic matter there is in the soil, the better the soil water availability is. If there is too much sand, water drains away, and if the soil is made primarily of dense clay, then too much water gets trapped. Soil structure needs the perfect balance of fine and dense for plants to thrive.
What Is Soil Erosion?
Factors that contribute to soil and topsoil erosion are wind, water, reduced amounts of organic matter, poor drainage of the soil, poor soil structure, and overuse of chemicals. Salinization can also be a contributing factor. Topsoil erosion is of great concern because this is where the plants receive nutrients to grow.
Not only does soil erosion take away the nutrients for the plants, but erosion can also have a negative impact on the surrounding environment. When wind or water carries topsoil away, it may end up clogging adjacent watercourses and wetlands which can restrict the flow of water and kill off food supplies to wildlife.
Soil Erosion in the United States
According to a study by Cornell University, topsoil is disappearing at a terrifying rate in the United States, nearly 10 times faster than it can be replaced. The study states that almost two billion tons of farmland are lost to soil erosion every year resulting in loss of food crops and income.
The majority of food grown in the United States comes from the Midwest or the central valley of California, and both of these areas are seeing massive changes in weather. The loss of soil in the prime agricultural parts of the U.S. could become catastrophic if actionable steps are not taken soon to stop soil erosion.
What Are the Best United States Soil Conservation Service Organizations Available?
Fortunately, there are several organizations that provide a wealth of information about soils, soil erosion, and soil conservation.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) website, Natural Resources Conservation Service, has a lot of great information about soil diversity and soil conservation.
For information and education about soil use and conservation of the nations natural resources, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS) works with private landowners to help create healthy ecosystems.
The National Association of Conservation Districts’ mission is to promote responsible use of all lands, and this includes soil conservation. The organization works with soil dynamics within a specific district of the United States.
Ways to Help Reduce Soil Erosion
There are several ways that farmers large and small can help with soil conservation and the prevention of soil erosion.
One way is by not plowing, which is often called no-till farming. When a field is tilled after harvest, the topsoil gets turned over. Tilling removes plant matter and destroys beneficial microorganisms. Tilling also kills worms and insects that help to aerate the soil. No-till farming also allows the soil structure to remain intact, helping with its water holding capabilities.
Adding soil amendments, such as coir, can help improve soil’s ability to retain water, especially in soil that is heavily compacted. Coir and other soil amendments can help to loosen dense soils and help improve drainage. Adding amendments also helps to improve nutrient uptake for plants and reduce or eliminate dependency on chemical fertilizers.
Soil conservation, as well as education, are vitally important in reducing and stopping soil erosion in the United States. By helping to conserve the nation’s topsoil, the United States can continue to provide essential food crops to the world.
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