Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dirt, The Erosion Of Civilizations

Alberta Farmer made an interesting post on Crop Talk.  "Someone on here recommended this book by David R Montgomery, and after reading it, it should be required reading for everyone.  The first half, regarding societies and soil in history was a real eye opener, answered a lot of my long un-answered questions.  The last portion, dealing with farming today was obviously written while sitting behind a desk of his left coast university, based mostly on personal biases about ag input companies, capitalism and large scale farming.

Some comments:

He doesn't believe farming in South America is sustainable at all, and he has toured there.  The only places he thinks modern farming is somewhat sustainable is the Midwest US, most of Europe, and parts of China.  None of Africa, Australia, South or Central America.  Nothing tropical or subtropical.  That might be good news for Midwest farmers, but not so great for mankind, maybe the $15000 per acre folks read this book first?

The cradle of civilization, which today is mostly barren desert, used to be forests then farmland for centuries.  Rome used to import(to be polite) grain from Egypt, and what is now Libya, Algeria etc.  Hard to imagine, considering Egypt is now the worlds largest wheat importer.

I now understand why archaeological digs are always digs, I couldn't figure out how soil accumulated fast enough to bury a city in a millennial or two.  Turns out farmers expanding from river valleys, where the cities started, into surrounding hills created enough erosion to eventually bury the cities under dirt.  ruining both the hills, and the river valleys below in the process.  He also describes a number of port cities which are now far inland thanks to erosion.

He devotes a large section to the Palouse, which posters here claim has no erosion.  Montgomery claims otherwise, the numbers are staggering, who is right?

I do agree with his assertion that tenant farmers or absentee large scale farmers, are unlikely to look after the land as well as owners and smaller scale farmers would, within reason.

Evidently, the solution to soil degradation, and losing all of the nutrients, is to NOT apply chemical fertilizer..............  I haven't quite figured out the math behind that yet.   Apparently manure has some magic ingredient in it that multiplies nutrients when livestock are grazing..........I am the worlds biggest fan of using manure, but last I checked, cows can't "fix" nutrients out of thin air, just recycle some of them.  I realize the book is a few years old now, but I don't think he realizes how much land is no-tilled, has cover crops, and how rarely a plow is used on this continent.  Looks like a lot of research and travel was done on the rest of the world, but not closer to home, but maybe that is just my own bias.

If the rates of erosion worldwide suggested are close to accurate, we are in a lot of trouble, and very soon.  I find it hard to believe, just looking out my backyard.  But I see pictures on here all the time with dust blowing, gullies and washouts.  Here, with snow and frost half the year, and bare ground for a few weeks at most, I've never seen erosion.  In recent years, the soil has rarely ever been dry enough to even make dust.  Runoff is crystal clear.  The only gully I've seen is where I started it with a drainage ditch in mellow black soil that was brand new, and the dirt settled into its own delta shortly after.  Of course, we mostly have clay and we are mostly flat, which may explain a lot.  So is erosion still happening here and it is just too slow to see in a human time frame?  The degradation of our soil however is painfully obvious, and the oldest is barely 100 years old now.  I've got kids who want to farm, and I take the sustainability of what we do very seriously.  It is too bad that doing the right thing usually requires time and money now, for a payback generations later.

So do I have backyarditis, and erosion really is that serious?  What is happening in your area?  Who has travelled the world and seen what is happening?  I know when we were in the Black Sea region of Russia, I saw huge washouts of beautiful black soil after big rains, and it is quite flat ground, with little or no no-till in that area.

One way I look at things, the soil is still out there somewhere, not lost forever, much of it is still sitting in deltas in the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Caspian Sea, , Gulf of Mexico,  Mouths of the Amazon etc.  But, by the time we realize we need to get it back to where it came from, we may be also facing a shortage of the energy required to complete such a massive task.

I really want to spend some time on Google earth and see some of this myself, since I don't think I will be going to Iraq or Syria in the next few days to see where it all started.

I do highly recommend the book to all fellow farmers, and for that matter, everyone who eats, I do however believe the section about modern agriculture could use more research and a more balanced view, possibly a lot less about global warming and anti-business."

Erosion is that serious.  Friends in Texas to Kansas are posting horror stories about days like the Dust Bowl going on right now.  On the other hand, our friend Brad just posted this nice soil story in Crop Talk.

I wish you a wonderful first day of spring!  It may be cold outside but the calendar says we are heading the right direction!

Ed Winkle


  1. That's the danger in reading books by "experts," you learn so much that isn't so.

  2. I saw that thread, and also read Plowman's Folly that you (and Montgomery's book) mentioned and which started this American soil conservation revolution. Montgomery may not be an agrobiologist, he is more of a geologist, but soil is not just biology, so he brings a valid perspective to this area and supports it with a lot of references. He also does mention biological inputs, such as Darwin's earthworms, so I found the book very informative and inspiring, especially considering that it is not a cold fact ag uni textbook on soil biology, or on American farming, but a general public book on the important relationship between soil and civilizations worldwide. That's mostly what the book is about, telling about the rise and demise of the Middle East as the craddle of civilization, old Central/Latine America civilizations, of Rome, Greece, Europe, deforestation, eventually moving to Northern America and modern agriculture, monocultures, machinery and fertilizers.

    I assume most farmers know most of that stuff already, or should, but it's still nice to be reminded of it, or of the symbolism in it, like when Montgomery mentions that the name of Adam means soil in Hebrew, because he was created from a ball of dirt, and so does the name for the genus of Man, homo, which came from the Latin for the top soil that gives live on this terrestrial Earth, humus. The book, like all books, must be read with a critical eye, but it does bind together several notions in a convincing way. This relationship with our world is eventually what help us remember and stay convinced of the science behind these notions after we have learned them.

    I couldn't understand the claim by some readers that it's too focused on the (astoundingly beautiful) Palouse region, when it's actually just a few paragraphs in just one long chapter, or that the author claims that replacing all chemical fertilizers with manure is the way to go, which I don't remember reading in the book.

    For more books mixing literature and agriculture, here's a recent post I made, one of these books (The Man Who Planted Trees) is freely readable online:

  3. Many truths in both your posts. I've seen great yields on eroded lands. The potential is there. The erosion man has created in order to survive is quite obvious but he has survived.

    I keep wondering how we are going to feed another billion people in the next 12 years? I think we can but we've run close several times in the last decade.


    1. Ed we could feed 2x what we do now just by reducing waste and biofuels . Not what I want but grain fed beef ,and too a lesser extent hogs and chickens may become luxury foods . When we were in Eygpt there was ('08) a booming Ag sectorand was interesting too see the crop forecaster from centuries ago that was a well dug by the Nile that they would check the water level and according too how high the Nile reached it would be a good forecaster of that yrs. harvest . Standing at the pyramids outside Cario on the Nile side is lush green olive plantations and other side is a sand spit . Probably more threatening too human existence than erosion is we like the Mayans build our cities on some of the best farmland and overpopulate the area and degrade the water.. Solar farms,wind turbines and housing seems too take precedence over food. kevin -ontario

    2. I like your thinking. I've seen too many of these type operations not make it but I encourage everyone and anyone.