“The earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation…. The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that – being content with a frugal and moderate use of them – we should take care of what shall remain.
Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated.” John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, Geneva, 1554 AD
I can almost guarantee that you haven’t been thinking much about dirt lately, especially as it relates to your faith commitments. But this summer, the American breadbasket in Iowa has lost so much of the life-giving stuff that even city-dwellers are starting to become alarmed. In one five-day period in May this year, Iowa farms lost 5 tons of topsoil per acre, due to heavy rains and conventional farming practices. That’s 6 million tons of nutrient-rich topsoil stripped off of Iowa farms, and headed for the “dead zones” in the Gulf of Mexico. In five days. From Iowa alone.
Christians read their Bibles, and find that God placed the man he made in his garden for one stated reason: to tend (“avad”) it, and keep (“shamar”) it (Genesis 2:15). The words – avad and shamar – more accurately mean to serve, and to protect. God placed our race into his creation to serve and protect it, as Reformed scientist Calvin DeWitt so eloquently argues: To serve that garden – the one we now see washing slowly down the river.
And so I take note when an Iowa farmer raises his voice and tells us all that our approach to producing food simply must change. John Gilbert, who raises dairy cows, corn and soybeans in Hardin County, Iowa issued a public challenge to farmers, and I think we should listen in.
We Cannot Continue to Treat Our Soils Like Dirt
Following the worst soil damage in decades and an expanding dead zone in the gulf, Iowans can’t keep farming the same way. What happened all over the Midwest so far this year was some of the worst soil damage in decades, if not generations. Our current situation is not sustainable. We cannot continue to treat our soils like dirt.
We can’t deny this is true. The situation would be bad enough, except it’s worse because we know the damage is self-inflicted. Most of us have been farming long enough to know there’s a real risk of erosion every time we work the soil. But we like to have our soils as fine and black as the vegetable garden, so every spring we feel compelled to till it all.
We know it can rain hard any time of year, and it seems severe events are getting more frequent. The old-timers had names for heavy rain: “frog choker,” “goose drowner” and the apt, a “gully washer.” This kind of damage really couldn’t have come at a worse time. Farmers and non-farmers alike are having a hard time understanding why our parched soils couldn’t absorb more water this spring.
How do we explain to other Iowans why their beaches are closed, why silt is interfering with fishing, why their drinking water requires extra treatment, why taxpayer dollars are being spent to repair roads and scoop ditches, and why floods seem more frequent and severe?
We should consider ourselves lucky there hasn’t been more public outcry. From a public relations standpoint, there are several things we need to do, and several we should avoid.
We must be sincere that we need to — and will — do better. We need to ask for guidance from professionals, such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service, or other Iowa farmers with experience in conservation practices.
We need to avoid getting defensive. It is easy to feel non-farmers don’t know enough about farming and shouldn’t be meddling in our business. However, what happens on the farm doesn’t stay on the farm, which makes what we do other people’s business. Besides, how infrequently do we pay more in taxes than we receive in government benefits?
We’ve all gotten used to claiming what we do is all right because we “feed the world.” We repeat that mantra because we want to believe it’s true and because that’s what the commodity organizations advocate. We can’t deny we’re saying it with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge. After all, few of us still raise our own livestock and even fewer are in the fruit and vegetable business.
For generations, the goal of every farmer was to leave the farm in better condition than we found it. It’s hard to feel we’re doing a good job today of making our farms “better.”
The whole concept of stewardship and the moral obligation of looking after the soil as a sacred resource used to be a common value in rural areas, along with being cautious with money, being willing to help our neighbors, and knowing the value of doing a good job.
We really need to ask ourselves if those values have been compromised by our current ways of farming. Government regulations often result when community peer pressure and cultural mores are not strong enough to protect the common good.
We know what we need to do: Cover our soils year-round and reduce tillage, slow water movement and increase infiltration, and regenerate our soil organic matter.
We are right to fear the needed changes will require lots of (sometimes painful) effort. The reality is we don’t have the option of continuing farming the way we have. We all must commit to doing better.
This article first appeared in the Des Moines Register on July 26, 2013. It is reprinted in significant parts here by permission of the author. John Gilbert raises corn, soybeans and dairy cows in Iowa, and admits to being “a farmer who struggles with a keyboard.” We appreciate his genuine expression of concern for the Earth and its soils.