At the core of this story is a change in attitude toward soil—perhaps one of the most taken-for-granted resources around. Consider, for example, how Jay Fuhrer used to do his job. Fuhrer is the Burleigh County district conservationist for the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Burleigh County lies near the section of the Missouri River where it passes through the south-central part of North Dakota. Here the flatness of the state gives way to a more rolling landscape—a landscape known for wheat, “wild” pastures that contain native species such as big bluestem, hay ground and, in the past decade or so, corn. This part of the state receives on-average 16 inches of rain a year, making water a dear resource. So for many years Fuhrer and other resource professionals focused on short-term efforts to get more water into the soil profile and keep it where plants could use it.
“We had accepted a degraded resource,” Fuhrer recalls as he sits in his office in Bismarck, just a few miles from Brown’s farm. “And when you accept a degraded resource you generally work from the viewpoint of minimizing the loss. And so we would apply a lot of practices.”
Fuhrer’s specialty during the 1980s and early 1990s was putting in grassed waterways in an attempt to keep water from running off so quickly. It helped, but didn’t get at the core of the issue: why was that water not infiltrating the soil in the first place?
“In retrospect very few of those waterways were actually needed,” he concedes.
What farmers like Brown and soil scientists in the area were starting to figure out was that the production system that had come to predominate—extensive tillage, low crop diversity, no cover crops, livestock kept out all-season long on overgrazed pastures—was compacting the soil to the point where little water could make its way beneath the surface. It was also sharply reducing the amount of soil organic matter, which drives the entire soil food web. Unbroken prairie soils can have as much as 10 percent to 15 percent organic matter. But because of intensive tillage, Midwestern soil organic matter levels have plummeted to below 1 percent of total soil volume in some cases. This means the soil has little opportunity to cook up its own fertility via the exchange of nutrients, making it increasingly dependent on applications of petroleum-based fertilizers.