The lowdown on topsoil: It’s disappearing Pt.2

“Erosion rates have improved here, but that doesn’t mean they’re good,” Reganold said. Topsoil clearly is still being stripped off faster than it can be regenerated, he said.

Aeschliman, the Palouse farmer, a stocky and energetic man who doesn’t seem to notice that he’s in his 60s, stood on a dirt road looking at the difference between his land and that of a neighbor. Because most neighbors are relatives, he did not provide any names here.

“Just look at that!” he bellowed, pointing to a series of water-carved cracks and gouges running down a recently tilled field of wheat. Every year, he said, these fields are tilled and the rains come, washing the soil down into the road so deep the county routinely has to dig it out. The rest of the soil runs off to the Snake River and, eventually, to the Pacific.

“Here, look at this stuff,” Aeschliman said as he held up a handful of the fine brown silt that had eroded off his neighbor’s (cousin’s) hillside. “Now, look over here.”

He walked across the road to his no-till wheat field. Unlike the rolling hills of loose dirt on the tilled field, Aeschliman’s field looks more like a shag rug, with its rows of dead wheat stubble. He reached down into the dirt and pulled out a coarsely textured, much darker clump of dirt, roots and debris.

“This soil is full of worms, bacteria and all sorts of life,” Aeschliman said. “And it stays put. That stuff over there (waving his thick hand back behind him) is just powder, brown dust. It’s dead. There’s no worms, no life in it.”

Thirty years ago, Aeschliman was one of the first in the Palouse to grow his grains using no-till farming methods. He’s an ardent no-till proselytizer today, but he didn’t abandon tilling the fields based on some organic epiphany or desire to save the world.

“I just got tired of all the mud,” Aeschliman said. The family home, built in the 1880s, sits at the base of a long drainage off the rolling wheat fields. Every spring, with the tilling and the rain, his home would be a foot deep in muddy runoff.

No-till farming could do a lot to reduce topsoil erosion, Reganold said, but it’s not without its downsides. Switching to no-till farming requires heavy upfront investment and learning new techniques, he said, and also tends to depend more on herbicides because the weeds are no longer controllable by plowing them into the soil.

Organic farming methods also can reduce soil loss, Reganold said. He cited his own research, which has shown a marked increase in soil health, water retention and regrowth when organic methods are used rather than the traditional methods.

A regional association of farmers and other proponents of no-till agriculture, also known as direct-seed farming, is holding its annual meeting in Kennewick next week. Aeschliman is one of the founders of the organization, the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, and is happy to see that no-till farming is growing in popularity.

“It’s both good for the soil and good for your pocketbook,” he said.

SOURCE: Seattle PI

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