Soil Quality

All my life I’ve been studying geology without knowing it. Living on the Delmarva Peninsula has given me a firsthand look at geology and the concepts we have talked about in class, especially the concept of sand coming from eroding mountain rock. In Northern Delaware, the hills are steep. Central Delaware has some of the most fertile soil in the country. Southern Delaware’s soil is basically sand. Snugly in between the Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware Bay, the peninsula is starting to be surveyed by the EPA. The region’s biggest economy is agriculture, and the fear is that runoff polluted with agricultural chemicals will destroy the ecosystems of the two bays, full of rockfish, bluefish, sandsharks, perch, crabs, clams and other organisms. I have seen this debate from both sides– the environmentally conscious side and the agriculturally conscious. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the public doesn’t give agriculture the credit it deserves. I mean, after all, farmers DO provide us with all of our food. But it goes beyond that.

Since the EPA was created in the early 1970’s, agriculture has revolutionized to keep up with ever-changing demands. One of the biggest environmental demons facing agriculture was runoff. Two separate but equal problems were bearing their teeth at the well-being of agriculture– chemical pollution and soil erosion.

Chemical pollution results from the overuse of agricultural chemicals, most commonly nitrogen-based, running off with rainwater. Since the problem came to light, agriculture has revolutionized its use of chemicals– this was all purely economically rooted. Farmers would be fined by the EPA if their practices were deemed environmentally irresponsible. Also, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. are very expensive. Farmers learned moderation with application. A cheaper, much more natural material started being used to promote growth– kind of a throwback– manure. I know, right?! Surprised me, too.

As far as erosion, which is the root of this discussion, new practices were being developed, and are commonly used today. Normally, before farmers plant, they run a plow over the land repeatedly to loosen the dirt, smooth out the land, and make it easier to plant in. By breaking the hardened surface and loosening the tiny particles of soil, erosion was pretty much inevitable. Topsoil was disappearing faster than souvenirs at a Justin Bieber concert. In order to combat this, no-till drilling was implemented. Literally, in between harvest and the next planting, nothing is done to the soil. Instead of an ordinary drill that uniformly places seeds in a line on freshly plowed soil, a no-till drill cuts a rut in the surface and drops the seeds in the rut. That way, the only broken area is where the seeds are going. Moisture is retained in the soil, and farmers save fuel and soil by no-till drilling. According to the USDA, no-till drilling reduces erosion quite drastically.

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One Response to Soil Quality

  1. steve Savage says:

    “No-till” is really more than a negative (the absence of tilling”). It is about a commitment to letting soils build aggregates and other complex physical and biological structure that makes it better at capturing and retaining moisture. It is about building its cation exchange capacity. It is about true sustainable agriculture

    In the Chesapeake drainage, the use of “no-till” and the rejection of “manure” based fertilizers is probably the best possible option to balance the need to grow crops and the environmental issues

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