The Agricultural Revolution that Begins in Your Backyard

Last Updated by Lori Walsh on
photo by Lori Walsh

I tend to think of farming as more of a solution than a problem. Yet the environmental  "problem" of agriculture has existed since humans first strived to wrest a living from the land without also destroying it.

Author David Montgomery believes we are poised for another agricultural revolution. South Dakota plays an important role in his latest book "Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life."

I'm reminded of my own patch of earth and the early years of my daughter's life - hiding in the lilacs, rolling in the clover, and engaging the worms in thoughtful conversation. The only people we have fed with the produce of this land has been ourselves. Some years have brought forth strawberries and cherry tomatoes and watermelon. Other years - only thistles.

We've played hours of badminton in this yard, warmed our souls by the campfire, and laid beloved pets to rest along its edges. Even though we don't farm the soil in our little patch of earth, the life of this place matters dearly to us.

As David Montgomery asks us to consider the principles of soil regeneration on a global scale, I'm reminded of how personal land is for people in this state. May your day allow a moment to celebrate the time of harvest in South Dakota and how we might preserve the bounty for future generations.

You might also consider talking with the worms.

The following is an edited version of this conversation. If you would like to listen to it in its entirety, click here. 

Lori Walsh:

The problem of agriculture is as old as civilization. David Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow and a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle. He's an internationally renowned geologist who studies landscape evolution. His latest book is called Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Health. He's coming to Sioux Falls for the 2017 South Dakota Association Conservation District's annual convention. That's September 17th through the 19th. But first he stops by In the Moment. Dr. Montgomery joins us from Seattle. Welcome, sir.

Dr. Montgomery:

Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here.

Lori Walsh:

Not many people have a trilogy of books about dirt on their resume. Give me an idea of how came about, and then we'll talk about the most recent book.

Dr. Montgomery:

Sure. Well, I think it's a small club of people who have written trilogies about soil, but I'm a geologist by training and background. And so how I first got into looking at soil was actually looking backwards through history and thinking about the role that soil erosion played in the demise of civilizations. When I was an undergrad, I read a book by a couple of soil conservation service scientists that was called Topsoil in Civilization, and it really made a big impression on me, and then decades later I wanted to essentially update the argument that those gentlemen had made and look at the way that how we've treated our land has affected humanity over sort of the long haul, the kind of timeframes geologists tend to look at. It really came to the realization that the way we treat our land really sets the way that the land will treat society, civilization over the long run.

That led to the first book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations. And the second piece in the trilogy was really motivated by buying a house in North Seattle where I live. I teach at the University of Washington, and our lot came with a little dirt, not soil. There was nothing living in it when we started to try and make a garden out of the place. And the second book in the trilogy relates my wife and my experience trying to improve our soil enough to support a garden. And what we learned along the way about the role of microbial life, fungi and bacteria in soil fertility, was really eye-opening.

And then the third book, the recent one that just came out and that'll I'll be partially about when I'm out in your neighborhood next week, really came from trying to look at farms around the world and see how we can apply the principles of farming that cultivates beneficial soil life to bring soil under the rubric of soil health is what people are talking about today, how that could actually influence farming practices. I was incredibly impressed with what the farmers that I visited had really managed to do in terms of restoring fertility to their soil and sort of undoing this long term pattern that I'd seen in that first book.

Lori Walsh:

What is some of that early evidence that the way people treated the soil had lasting implications on their society?

Dr. Montgomery:

Well, you can look at societies around the world that engaged in plow-based agriculture, tillage, for a long period of time, centuries to millennia, and it's kind of a graveyard of empires, I think was even of the chapter titles that I used. You look at Mesopotamia, you look at Lebanon and Syria, North Africa, classical Greece, ancient Rome, there's really good archeological evidence in those places that there used to be much richer and more fertile soil. There's great tax records from Syria, for example, a place we don't sort of think of as a agricultural powerhouse today. It's much more of a desolate basket case. They were supporting Rome with wheat exports back around the time of Christ.

There's really good historical records that some of these areas today we would not imagine could have been agricultural powerhouses in the past that they once were. Putting that story together was really what I tried to do in Dirt: For Societies Around the World. You basically see a pretty similar pattern of slow degradation of the soil from erosion that's associated with tillage, with plow-based agriculture. And that's partially why I got so interested in looking into the development of no-till agriculture in the 20th Century and how that has been starting to take off and where that may actually go in terms of merging it with other practices to build a much more soil-friendly, soil-building, and in the end, farmer-friendly style of agriculture.

Lori Walsh:

Can you relate the problems in Syria today with soil degradation of the past? Or is that too much of a stretch?

Dr. Montgomery:

Well, that's a bit of a stretch. I mean, there's pretty long term serious political problems and some real short term political problems there, but I think what is fair to say is that societies that degrade their land to the point where it's very difficult to support and feed a prosperous populace, that implies a lot of stress in societies and a lot of other things can flow from that. So I think what we could do is we could look at the example of, say, Syria or Libia today as good examples of what we sure don't want to repeat in the coming centuries into the future. If you look at the 21st Century, sort of playing out the rest of this century, we've got the problem of the rising global population, and if we continue to degrade the ability of our land to actually produce the food that will feed, not us but our neighbors, that will ultimately cause a tension and instability in some places of the world. In a global society, regional instability can quickly blow up to international significance.

Lori Walsh:

How long does soil restoration take? Is it something that humans can do in a reasonable amount of time?

Dr. Montgomery:

If you asked me that question when I wrote the dirt book, I would have given you sort of the standard answer of, "Well, it takes 500 years to make an inch of soil, it's a really long term thing, so we should simply not squander soil in the first place." And that is good advice, but what I learned from visiting farmers around the world who are practicing regenerative styles of agriculture that rebuild soil fertility was just how fast it could happen. I really had not expected that. I had met people who had really restored fertility to their land in a few decades and had made significant improvements in just a few years. The person who really taught me that, first of all, was my wife. She's the gardener in our family, and she rebuilt the fertility of the soil in our yard in a little over a decade, took it from about less than 1% organic matter up to almost 10% organic matter with compost and mulching and all those cast off Starbucks coffee grounds.

Bringing organic matter back to the land was really the key in our yard. I knew that you couldn't do Starbucks coffee grounds on large farms across America, so I went out to visit farmers and ask how they were doing it in terms of people who had rebuilt their soil fertility. And a common theme there is organic matter, and there's three simple practices that can really help build up soil organic matter, no-till agriculture, cover crops to introduce the organic matter, and to help fix nitrogen as well. And then having a greater diversity of crops on the land, whether at the same time sort of with companion cropping and intercropping or with more diverse crop rotations.

Those three elements were the common elements among the farmers I visited around the world that had really restored fertility to their soil. So they needed far fewer amendments and inputs. And they'd done it in remarkable short order with results within a few years, and the people who had been doing it for a few decades, it literally transformed their soil and almost restored ... Well, some had fully restored their native organic matter, and I believe the native fertility of the land.

Lori Walsh:

You end up at some point in South Dakota. Tell me why South Dakota was an important state to visit, and who did you meet here?

Dr. Montgomery:

South Dakota was actually a major starting point for me. Because if you look on the cover of the dirt book, it's a dust bowl era photograph of a farm and farm machinery with dust blowing over it in South Dakota. I met a gentleman named Dwayne Beck who runs the Dakota Lakes Research Farm that's run in collaboration with South Dakota State University at a couple of conferences and saw him talk and was like, when I started working on this book I was like, "I gotta go see his farm, because what he's talking about is exactly the kind of style of agriculture that I want to learn more about. He was very gracious with his time and took me around on a tour of the farmers he'd been working with and of the research farm and really introduced me to the specific practices of conservation agriculture, of trying to take no-till and merging it with cover crops and then experimenting with different rotations, which turned out to be the recipe that these farmers around the world had been using but with, of course, with different practices in different regions.

So Dwayne was really my intellectual guide on getting started on this project that evolved ultimately into the Growing a Revolution book. So I'm really happy to be coming back to South Dakota, because that's really where this book began.

Lori Walsh:

Let's dig in to these principles one by one and talk about no-till first. What's wrong with the plow? And what does no-till look like on a small farm, in your garden? What does it look like on a big, full-scale operation?

Dr. Montgomery:

What's wrong with the plow? It's that it's on the seal of the US Department of Agriculture, Thomas Jefferson's plow. So how could it possibly not be a good thing? Well, if you think like a geologist and you think about the soil as a system that is built over time and that can be eroded or lost over time. So it's not something that will always be there. It's something that's made and lost, but just on timeframes that we tend to think of as fairly long term. What a plow does, is it does something that's fairly unnatural in terms of landscapes around the world, because after the pass of a plow the land is bare. You're inverting the soil. You're taking the vegetation that was on top of it, and in the wake of the plow there's bare soil at the surface.

You just have to go outside and on a really windy day in your part of the world and see it blow off of a plowed field or in other areas. On a rainy day you can see the little reels and the gullies that are formed when you leave the surface of the soil bare and vulnerable to wind and rain, erosion starts to happen at a pace that's faster than you're building back up the soil, whether through whatever your agriculture practices are or through nature's methods. And if you let that run long enough, you can quite literally strip the soil off the landscape. That was the problem in Syria and Libya. Surprisingly, if you go to some areas of, say, North Carolina, another area that I visited in the last couple of years and visited with farmers, the top soil there is literally gone in the Piedmont, the hill country, not quite the high Appalachians, not the coast.

But they've been farming long enough now, a couple of centuries since colonization, and the rich, thick, black soil that had once covered that landscape is quite literally gone, and the farmers are farming the subsoil. The subsoil is sort of the reddish subsoil in that region is not where the fertility lies. It was in the topsoil. So the real problem with the plow is it allows the erosion of the soil, from the top down, and that's how you lose fertility over time. One of the reasons it happened in society after society, is that it happens very slowly. As part of writing the dirt book, I compiled data on how fast are the world's agriculture fields eroding. If you take just an average number for the whole planet for plow-based agriculture, which is a bold thing to do. But if you collect all the data and then you take the average you come up with about a millimeter to a millimeter and a half of net soil loss per year.

And that's a slow rate when you think about it. Your fingernails grow faster than that, right? It's something we don't really notice day-to-day or even year to year, but you can notice it over the course of a lifetime. If you play that out over a few lifetimes, you can radically alter the character and nature of the soil.

Lori Walsh:

Lets talk about what no-till looks like on a full scale operation.

Dr. Montgomery:

Yeah. One of the things that has really helped the spread of no-till ... Well, there's actually two things that really helped the spread of no-till. One has been the invention of sort of new machinery that allows for planting without great disturbance of the soil. That was something as a geologist I was unfamiliar with the agricultural technology that had really helped with that. And so at one of the farms that I visited I walked around following a no-till planter and looked at it and learned how it all worked. And it's really fairly clever, where instead of the kind of disturbance you see with the plow, there's a narrow disk that cuts a trench in the soil. The crop residue from the last crop, because it's no-till, you basically you want to leave the residue from the last crop on the field and plant through it.

So it cuts a little trench. The spreaders spread the old residue. You drop seeds down in the trench, and then you close the trench up with some closing wheels on the back end of the no-till planter. And I was really kind of astounding following one of these around as it planted and realizing that if I showed these pictures to my geology classes, you wouldn't be able to tell this is a freshly planted field. There's still a cover of vegetative matter, sort of organic matter, the remains of last year's crop stubble, on the surface. And that essentially works as a mulch, and it can help hold moisture in the ground. And also, as it decays, it helps feed the microbes that in turn can partner with the plants an help feed the plants. But if I showed it to my geology students and said, "Hey, is this field potentially subject to erosion?" They'd go, no. It's covered with vegetative matter. It's pretty protected from wind and rain.

Lori Walsh:

Does this become an economic challenge for farmers to invest in the new technology so that they can take the steps that need to be taken for more environmentally-sustainable farming?

Dr. Montgomery:

Yeah. I think that that is an issue in terms of if you're gonna switch from ... Say you've been in long term tillage, and then you want to switch to no-till, you need some different equipment, and that's a capital cost. What I think I see in looking back through the last few decades is that more and more farmers as they come up with the time to where they are thinking about needing new equipment, investing in a new round of implements, that they're making the switch to no-till. Because back when I was born in the early 60's, there was almost no no-till farming in North America. It was a couple of percent, maybe, of crop land. Today it's up to about, I think it's about a third. To a geologist, that's a really rapid change. To a politician or an agronomist that may seem like really, really slow change, but if you play that out, you would project that in a few more decades we're gonna be well over half.

I actually think that the economics are lining up now that we're gonna see more and more farmers making the shift, because one of the things I was actually really quite pleasantly surprised by in talking with these farmers who had adopted this full set of no-till, cover crops, and greater diversity in their fields was just how economical it was for them. It was quite profitable, because they were able to reduce their expenses for diesel, fertilizer, and pesticides. I only visited one farm that was an organic farm, I was mostly visiting conventional farmers who had ... And I was so impressed with how much many of them had been able to reduce their input use that I started jokingly calling them organic-ish farmers, and it kind of stuck. I like the term, and they didn't mind, and so it's in the book.

Lori Walsh:

Tell me what it looks like in my garden. Does it matter? Does that mean I'm leaving the residue from last year's garden, not pulling it out, and just planting right there?

Dr. Montgomery:

Yeah. In our yard, when we mow the lawn, we leave the lawn clippings now on the lawn, and within three days the worms that are there now take them down into the ground, and they start chewing on them and start turning them into soil organic matter. In the areas where we have trees, we take the desiduous leaves that fall in the Fall, and we don't put them in the yard bin, we spread them back over the ground. We get them off the places we don't want them, but we basically use it as an organic matter input, and by the Spring it's all decayed and didn't just disappear. Most of it's been consumed by organisms and taken down into the soil where it serves as the fuel for the food web that's powering all the bacteria and the fungi that are breaking down all that organic matter.

And what they're doing is they're turning it back into plant-available compounds that our garden plants can take up through their roots. So the key in the garden was, again, no disturbance so we don't rototill. We don't dig in the garden. We're layering organic matter at the surface and letting the biology do the work.

Lori Walsh:

How do you plant? How do you plant your seeds?

Dr. Montgomery:

At one point I accused my wife of having migratory plants, because we were moving them around the yard to figure out where they would grow best. And so, yes, there's disturbance when you plant initially in a garden. But what we don't do is we're not sort of going in and stirring the organic matter into the ground or doing stuff on an annual basis. What we've managed to do is turn our yard from a place that originally we were importing organic matter, those Starbuck coffee grounds, our neighbor's leaves that they'd be happy to have us sweep up in the Fall, bring that back to our yard. So we were, essentially, importing and building up organic matter. Now we've got so much life above ground in the yard that we're a net exporter of organic matter.

Lori Walsh:

From a consumer standpoint what does this look like? I can buy your book, I can read it, I can share it. But what about the food that I'm buying? Is there a way that we've established to support this kind of agriculture as consumers yet?

Dr. Montgomery:

That's a really interesting question, because I don't think that we have. Because if you walk into a supermarket today, the kind of labels you have are organic and conventional. That's kind of your sort of bifurcation. Organic agriculture is not necessarily sustainable, let alone building soil health. Many organic farmers are and do, but it was organic agriculture that helped destroy the Roman Empire. They did not have the benefit of sort of modern conventional agriculture. And if you look at sort of the distinction, and you're wanting to find food that has been grown according to all three principles of conversation agriculture, we don't really have a good system yet at point of purchase identification. I think we actually could use some kind of a soil health-friendly label, a soil-friendly label. And these principles of ditching the plow, covering up with cover crops and growing diversity, they apply just as much to organic agriculture as they do to conventional agriculture. And they can help with both the environmental footprint and also the economics of farms in both scenarios.

So what I try and argue in the book is that there's this sort of third dimension to the problem of how to think about agriculture in terms of how do we build soil health? And it's not simply an organic versus conventional question. It's not a GMO versus organic question. These practices could really help across the board, and the point you've just put your finger on in terms of how can a consumer identify it just walking into a store, it's really difficult. So the best way would be to try and build partnerships with a farmer that you know. So at this point I would recommend things like farmer's markets where you can actually know, "Well, how did this farmer actually farm?"

Lori Walsh:

Are we poised for another agriculture revolution? Do you feel like that's where we're at or is there much more work to be done to lean into that?

Dr. Montgomery:

I would say both. And the reason I think I can get away with that is as a geologist, if we pull this transition to a more soil, health-friendly agriculture off over the next 20 or 30 years, to me that's screamingly fast. That's truly an agriculture revolution. When you look at the agriculture revolutions of the past, the sort of the initial adoption of cultivation and tillage thousands of years ago to the ideas of soil husbandry and crop rotation and the power of legumes to put nitrogen in the soil that societies around the world discovered centuries ago, to then the mechanization and industrialization, and then the green revolution of bio technology, sort of the first four agricultural revolutions really set us up for, I think, this fifth one where we can try and combine the best of modern technology with the best of ancient wisdom, the idea of crop rotations and cover crops and combining it with the modern technology that allow no-till agriculture, and that that really could revolutionize agriculture.

I think we're at the point where we are gonna start seeing greater adoption of it. I see a lot of enthusiasm and energy in the agricultural communities where I've gone to give talks, and what I've been most hardened by is that adopting these kind of practices can really help with the bottom line of farms. And so I really think in terms of national policy, a way we should be promoting these soil health building practices as a way to help America's farmers become more profitable. And if they can do that in ways that also reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture, everybody wins.

Lori Walsh:

You've been listening to Dr. David Montgomery. His latest book is called Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life. You can hear him speak Monday, September 18th, at a public lecture on the SDSU campus. He's also the luncheon keynote speaker at the South Dakota Association Conservation District's annual convention. That talk is also on Monday. We've reached him today in Seattle. Dr. Montgomery, thank you so much.

Dr. Montgomery:

Hey, well, thank you. It's a pleasure to talk to you.

 

 

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I have always been a devoted scribbler in the margins of books. As a reader, I underline and highlight. I add questions marks and exclamation points. I argue with the author. But where are the margins in a radio program like In the Moment? 

You have to create them. 

Welcome to In the Margins. It’s a place for behind-the-scenes. It’s a place for expanding the conversation.

It’s a place for just one more question.

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Meet me in the Hills! In the Moment heads to the South Dakota Festival of Books for a live broadcast from the Deadwood Mountain Grand. It's my favorite event of the year, and much reading awaits. I'm currently deep into the sweetness of "Braiding Sweetgrass." Here are a few other titles waiting on the nightstand.