“You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die,” goes an old saying. A peck being about two gallons, but that’s not the point; I’m not worried about any dirt we literally eat. I’m worried about the soil that we, as a culture,
devour. We all know that our eating choices have long-term effects. Magazine covers implore us to read their diets for fat loss and superfoods and all
the rest. But personal nutrition is only a one small part of the impact food choices have. Those choices also impact whether farmers can afford to grow food in a way that conserves that land for future generations.
Consider this: in Frontenac County, about half of all farms graze cows. This can be a pretty sustainable way to grow food; our pastures are a dense mix of perennial grasses, clover, vetch, alfalfa, and diverse other species. In conjunction with manure from the cows, the pasture produces the nutrients it needs. Different pasture plants grow better in different weather, but all together they protect and build the topsoil.
Annual crops like corn and soy and wheat, in contrast, generally require that the land be plowed up, the covering plants destroyed and the soil exposed. Which can leave it vulnerable to erosion.
Ideally, farmers could make a living growing everything sustainably. But right now that’s now how things work, and to pay the bills, farmers may chase whatever crops will bring more income. Prices for crops like soy have spiked in recent years, pushing some farmers to plow
marginal land that would otherwise have been used for hay, or pasture, or wild habitat.
Marginal land is marginal mostly because it isn’t very suited to plowing; because it is too steep or the soil is too shallow, the very things that make it vulnerable.
Everyone knows that soil erosion is bad; enormous areas of North America have never recovered topsoil lost in the Dust Bowl. An inch of topsoil, which takes hundreds or thousands of years to develop, can be washed away in a single season. In extreme weather-which grows more frequent every year-one storm can wash an inch away in a day. Those rushing floodwaters on the evening news aren’t just washing away houses; that churning brown water is also carrying away future harvests.
Obviously losing topsoil harms our ability to grow food. But like everything in nature, it has cascading ecological effects. Even gradual soil erosion muddies streams and chokes aquatic life from invertebrates to fish, and the creatures from herons to eagles that feed on them.
This sediment also accumulates in wetlands. Normally wetlands act like enormous sponges, soaking up excess water from storms and releasing it slowly through dry times. They prevent flooding and reduce the impact of drought-phenomena worsened by climate change-but wetlands can’t do this if smothered by silt.
Farmers interact with more land than any other part of society, and farmer actions have a lot to do with whether we will have a sustainable future.
Which is why there’s been a push for something called Alternative Land Use Services. Under the Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) rubric, farmers receive modest subsidies to do things that are good for the land, like maintaining grass near
streams to reduce erosion, or planting trees in hedgerows to house wildlife and combat climate change. There are active ALUS programs in parts of Ontario, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island. ALUS programs recognize that we as a society have to decide that we want to protect the land that feeds us. Which means understanding that the work farmers do isn’t just planting and harvesting crops;
it can also be protecting bees and wildlife, cultivating biodiversity, and fighting climate change.
If farmers are to grow food sustainably, they need to have a stable income so they aren’t at the mercy of fluctuating international grain prices and commodity speculators. This is going to take a mix of public programs like ALUS, and individual and family choices to buy food from sustainable farmers.
Eating local, ecologically grown food, whether you buy it or grow it yourself, can have a beneficial impact far beyond your plate. In other words, if get your carrots with a bit of dirt on them, you might actually be leaving more soil for the land.
Aric McBay is a farmer and author. He lives and works at a mixed family farm with a dairy herd and a vegetable operation.