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As Climate Heats Up, So Does Soil-Conservation Movement

In Hyde County, S.D., more than 75 percent of the fields are managed without tillage, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. (nrcs.usda.gov)
In Hyde County, S.D., more than 75 percent of the fields are managed without tillage, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. (nrcs.usda.gov)
December 31, 2018

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Farming practices aren't changing as fast as the climate, and food production is likely to suffer, according to one expert who advocates for more sustainable or regenerative agriculture.

David Montgomery visited farms in South Dakota while researching a book on soil conservation.

He says conventional farming practices can lead to excessive soil degradation – and combined with a rising world population and a warming climate, he says that could severely impact food production by the middle of this century.

"Some of the farmers I visited were working farms up to 20,000 acres,” Montgomery relates. “They were large farms in the Dakotas and they were mechanized – they were by all intents and purposes industrial farms – but they had changed the way they think about the soil, how they were treating their land."

Montgomery promotes soil conservation farming, leaving more acres untilled, which he says reduces the need for fertilizer and can in many cases produce yields equal to traditional farming practices.

The new Farm Bill includes $25 million a year for conservation innovation trials.

Montgomery maintains if more farmers adopted conservation practices that he describes as simple and affordable, they could help mitigate the climate crisis, while increasing agricultural productivity.

"That there was a common set of principles that guided their practices, and those principles could really be boiled down to a simple statement: 'Ditch the plow, cover up and grow diversity,'" he states.

According to Montgomery, traditional agricultural practices degrade the soil so slowly that it doesn't seem like a major concern. But over generations, it dramatically affects soil fertility.

"So there's the idea that rebuilding healthy, fertile soil can help with the resilience of a farm and its ability to better tolerate droughts,” he states. “There's good studies that show that regenerative farmers have better yields during drought periods than their conventional neighbors."

It's estimated the planet is losing soil 10 times faster than Earth can regenerate it.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD