Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Enhanced New Edition of a Conservation Classic

Man-Induced Soil Erosion on the Southern Piedmont by Stanley W. Trimble is now available in an enhanced new edition. New typography and high quality print production make this edition of the book essential even for those who still possess one of the greatly sought after copies of the first edition, which is now out of print.

Trimble has written a new preface that provides an insightful look at the lessons learned from the study. Trimble encourages conservationists to acknowledge both the “potentially destructive power of the human agency” and “the ability of humans to achieve good things, in this case environmental improvement.”

The new edition also has a new foreword by Andrew Goudie of Oxford University. Goudie remarks that the book “is like a gripping detective story.”

Copies are available through the Soil and Water Conservation Society online store at

Monday, April 28, 2008

Why Care about Conservation?

By Andy Miller, Indiana Agriculture Director

Springtime for farmers is like New Year’s Eve for most Hoosiers. While most equate spring with relaxing and enjoying the sunshine, farmers are starting another new crop year. Each new “resolution” sets the tone for a successful and sustainable crop year.

Spring is the time to get to work after a long winter of planning. We prepare the fields to plant the seeds, and we talk with crop consultants and other specialists to determine the best strategy for maximizing yields and minimizing costs. But there is one more critical step I believe all farmers must have in place to ensure their farm is successful and sustainable: a conservation plan.

Farmers and the agriculture community have always cared deeply about the environment and have done so for generations. But more can be done. In a recent report, Indiana ranked sixth out of 31 states that contribute nutrients and sediment to the Mississippi River, with agriculture being a primary source.

But we know Indiana farmers are committed to continued improvement. I firmly believe that as more farmers learn about the conservation tools available to them, such as cover crops and conservation tillage, more will want to incorporate them into successful, sustainable on-farm practices.

Conservation is not only the right thing to do, but it also can provide financial benefits. For example, did you know reducing tillage passes over a field may save a farmer as much as $15 per acre? This savings doesn’t even factor in the U.S. Department of Agriculture program payments that may be available for reducing tillage.

During the last few months, farmers may have heard about the Indiana State Department of Agriculture’s (ISDA) statewide initiative to reduce excess sediment and nutrients in our rivers and streams. ISDA, along with the State Soil Conservation Board, believes Indiana can make a positive impact on our waterways. And we believe farmers want to help. Therefore, the state has increased both financial investment and conservation programming for the Division of Soil Conservation.

Under the leadership of Governor Daniels and Lt. Governor Becky Skillman, ISDA and the State Soil Conservation Board invested $500,000 this year in Clean Water Indiana Grants. There is also a new, innovative partnership with Crop Consultant Advisors in specific watersheds to help farmers install conservation practices now, instead of later. Those are just two programs that help farmers protect their land and the state’s waterways for years to come.

Hoosier farmers are known for doing the right thing. It’s in their character. So I challenge our Indiana farmers and landowners—especially those along the Wabash River—to make a “spring resolution” during this year’s National Stewardship Week April 27 - May 4. Resolving to have successful, sustainable farms will be easy by working with a crop consultant, ISDA field staff member or local Soil and Water Conservation Office to learn more about the statewide programs available.

Andy Miller is Indiana’s first Agriculture Director. He was raised on a hog and crop farm in Northeastern Indiana, graduated from Purdue University with a degree in agricultural economics, and worked in the food industry before accepting a role in public service. Reprinted with permission from the Indiana State Department of Agriculture.

Improving Soil in the News

An article by Drake Bennett in the the Boston Globe, "The Future of Dirt" (April 27, 2008), states that "An increasing number of scientists are starting to emphasize the extent to which soil - even more than petroleum or water or air - is a limited and fragile resource. Managing it better, and even improving it, will be vital to any equation that allows the earth to support the more than 9 billion people the UN estimates will live on the planet by midcentury."

The article quotes soil experts including Rattan Lal, a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

The full article is available here:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Assessing Conservation Tillage Adoption by Satellite

The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation (Vol. 63, No. 3, Pages 112-119) has published research by Dana Sullivan et al. assessing use of conservation tillage by satellite.

As indicated in a USDA Agriculture Research Service news release (, "This satellite mapping technique shows promise for streamlining national efforts to monitor changes in conservation tillage adoption over time, evaluate the efficacy of conservation tillage placement, and reduce the need for time-consuming field surveys to ensure compliance with federal cost-sharing programs."

Image from the paper courtesy of the author (c) the Soil and Water Conservation Society.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

US Secretary of Agriculture Promotes Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program

Agriculture and conservation leaders met at Glenn Elseroad family farm in Maryland on Earth Day to promote the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program.

US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer announced that Maryland will receive $2.6 million in fiscal year 2008 to protect agricultural land through the program.

"Keeping the nation's farm and ranch lands producing food and fiber is a high priority for the Bush Administration," said Schafer. "This land will be protected by conservation easements and will be available for agricultural use forever."

From left to right: Glenn Elseroad, Elseroad Farm; Maryland Department of Agriculture Secretary Roger Richardson; US Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer; and Arlen Lancaster, chief of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Photo courtesy of the USDA.

Senator Harkin Statement on White House Call for Farm Bill Extension

The Bush administration has called for a one-year extension of current farm law.

US Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the Senate-House conference committee on the farm bill, stated on Tuesday that “the President's call for an extension is just the latest example of this administration's lack of cooperation to enact a new, stronger farm bill. It makes me think that they do not want a new bill -- one that makes investments in energy, conservation and nutrition or that extends support for growers of fruits, vegetables and horticultural crops."

Through Executive Director Craig Cox, the Soil and Water Conservation Society has provided significant input and recommendations into farm bill development and negotiations:

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Energy Demands on Fresh Water

What form of energy is best for our environment? A recent study at Virginia Tech examines this question with a new lens: water use. This timely research takes a look at energy production and the amount of water it takes to produce different forms.

Dr. Tamim Younos, a member of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, and undergraduate student Rachelle Hill investigated 11 forms of energy, such as ethanol and coal, and five methods of generating power, such as solar power.

To allow comparison of water use across energy types, Younos and Hill decided to standardize their research with gallons of water per British Thermal Unit. This standardization sets their study apart from other studies that have examined energy production and water use.

Younos and Hill’s work revealed that, of the 11 fuel sources examined, natural gas is the most water-efficient energy source while biodiesel is the least efficient. Of the five power generation methods, hydroelectric power uses the least water, and nuclear uses the most.

Specific results can be found at

Monday, April 21, 2008

Jet Stream Changes: Drier Southwest, Changing Storm Patterns

A recent Associated Press story published in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune warns of changes including increased hurricanes, decreased precipitation in the South and Southwest, and increased storms in the North as a result of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream moving northward:

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Farm Bill and Concerns about Biofuels

A Northwestern University Medill Report quotes Soil and Water Conservation Executive Director Craig Cox: “Evidence is pretty clear that corn-based ethanol is not the future.”

The report discusses concerns over the production of biofuels and related mandates and incentives. The report states that "Craig Cox would also prefer to see more money and attention paid to conservation to alleviate over-use of land."

The report is available here:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Celebrate Earth Day!

April 22 is coming fast! What are you doing for Earth Day? Create a rain barrel. Plant a rain garden. Go for a walk and pick up trash. Share your ideas or helpful websites by posing a comment.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Update to WEPS

The Wind-Erosion Prediction System (WEPS) is the product of 16 years of cooperation between the USDA Agricultural Research Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service software engineers and scientists. They now have worked together to update and test a new version of WEPS. This new version will aid in calculation of topsoil losses caused by wind erosion and in modeling how these losses could be prevented using erosion-control measures.

Friday, April 11, 2008

National Water-Quality Assessment Program in the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Bill

The Soil and Water Conservation Society, Academy of Natural Sciences, American Water Works Association, Izaak Walton League of America, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, and a host of other organizations have submitted letters to US House and Senate leaders urging support of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program.

The letters state, "We are writing to urge you to provide $70 million for the National Water-Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) within the U.S. Geological Survey’s FY09 appropriations. The President’s budget calls for $54.1 million for the Program – a 15 percent cut from the FY 2008 enacted level of $63.9 million. We request that you reject the 15 percent cut and include an inflationary increase plus an additional $4 million to begin to restore the integrity of this program that has diminished without cost-of-living increases for 11 of the past 12 years."

To view the full letters, go to

Monday, April 7, 2008

It Pays to Stop Treating Soil Like Dirt

By Andrew Campbell

Food, water and energy security are finally being recognised as the most important national and international security issues, but an important element has been missing from the discussion — the soil.

That was the case until the [Australian] Prime Minister’s announcement at the ABARE Outlook conference [recently] that Agriculture Minister Tony Burke would look into ways to incorporate soil carbon in emissions trading.

Kevin Rudd’s announcement was welcome recognition that Australia will be unable to maintain its food exports, achieve water security or meet its greenhouse targets without a major improvement in soil management.

As a rule of thumb every calorie consumed requires a litre of water to produce.
With increasing population and changing consumption patterns (like increasing meat consumption in China), the world will need to produce twice as much food by 2050 as it does now, from about the same amount of land and water, or possibly less. In the past, we have kept up with increasing food needs mainly by clearing and irrigating more land, converting more natural forests to agriculture, diverting more water resources, using improved varieties and applying more fertilisers.

Those options are narrowing.

The International Water Management Institute recently completed a comprehensive assessment of the world’s water resources. It found that most of the world’s great food production basins (like our own Murray-Darling Basin) are effectively ‘closed’, with existing water resources already fully utilised or overallocated. Moreover, many countries are now reallocating land and water resources from food production to energy production by growing biofuel crops. India for example, aims to meet 10 per cent of its total gasoline needs from biofuels by 2030, which is projected to cause absolute water scarcity for food production.

Clearing more land for agriculture is highly undesirable from a greenhouse perspective and there are moves in many countries to re-establish forest cover on cleared agricultural lands.

Climate change impacts in many countries are projected to reduce water availability and increase the proportion of poor seasons, thus reducing agricultural productivity. As a major food exporter, this should be good news for Australia, creating major economic opportunities. However our capacity to capture these opportunities will depend to a large degree on how well we manage our own climate change impacts, and particularly our soils.

No-one could accuse the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) of being on the climate change bandwagon. Its Australian Commodities for the December 2007 quarter analysed the potential medium-long term impacts of climate change on agricultural productivity, exports and trade in Australia and internationally. It concluded that Australia will be one of the countries most adversely affected from climate change in terms of reductions in agricultural production and exports. ABARE estimated that Australian production of wheat, beef, dairy and sugar could decline by an estimated 9–10 per cent by 2030 and 13–19 per cent by 2050, compared with average global production declines in these commodities of 2–6 per cent by 2030 and 5–11 per cent by 2050.

Farmers have traditionally increased productivity by increasing fertiliser applications, but again climate change impacts and the policy responses to them change the equation. Agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases (the second biggest emitter in Australia after power stations) and the use of nitrogenous fertilisers is the second biggest source of agricultural emissions behind enteric fermentation (the belching and farting of livestock). Declining reserves of rock phosphate and the energy costs embodied in fertiliser production are leading to rising prices for fertilisers, which are likely to increase further if there is a price on carbon.

So there will be an increasing squeeze on food production from climate change, reduced water availability, and increasing energy and fertiliser prices. We are already seeing rising food prices, with the index of food commodity prices at record levels.

How to beat the squeeze?

The other traditional ‘green revolution’ response to increase food production has been through genetic gain — the use of improved varieties. They will continue to have a major role to play, both through traditional plant breeding and through the application of molecular genetic technologies to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

However the focus here is not GMOs, but our most basic natural resource—the soil. Soil is one of the essentials of life, yet we tend to take it for granted.

Australia will be unable to maintain its food exports, achieve water security or meet its greenhouse targets without a major improvement in soil management.

Soil structure and fertility (soil health) is fundamental for food production. The soil contains 55 per cent of Australia’s terrestrial carbon store (the other 45 per cent is in vegetation). Healthy soils retain, store and filter water resources, reducing run-off (i.e. floods), absorbing waste and recharging groundwater aquifers. The recent flooding in Queensland is in part a product of hard, compacted bare topsoils over large areas after years of drought. We can’t achieve healthy rivers or wetlands, or clean run-off into the Great Barrier Reef lagoon, or resilience for farm businesses and rural communities in the face of hotter, drier and more frequent droughts, without good soil management in our catchments.

One of the most fascinating aspects for me of the climate change debate is not water, or energy or greenhouse gas emissions per se, but the intersections between them. They are usually characterised by wicked trade-offs. For example, many of the prescriptions to improve water supplies, such as desalination plants or pipelines, require large amounts of energy. Biofuels to improve energy security use large amounts of water and land (and energy in their full production cycle). Reforestation for carbon sinks also requires energy and land, with more or less impacts on water resources depending on where it is located within a given catchment.

In this very tricky context, improving soil management delivers win-wins all round.

Improving soil organic matter (carbon) content should be a priority goal for public policy. While it can be achieved in certain defined areas though direct application to soil of imported organic waste materials, at a broadacre scale it is achieved mainly through farming systems that maintain higher levels of groundcover, retain trash and stubbles, and usually place more emphasis on the use of perennial plants.

Increasing soil carbon levels increases water holding capacity. It reduces run-off and hence flood risk. It obviously increases carbon storage and reduces soil emissions. And it almost inevitably improves soil structure, fertility and drought resilience. The potential gains from using improved varieties or GMOs are likely to be minimal in the absence of good soil management. Good soil management can make the difference between getting a harvest and not getting a harvest in a poor season, or between minimal erosion losses and major land degradation during drought or flood. Wellmanaged soils recover and respond quickly after drought, enabling businesses to restore profitability sooner.

Given all of the above, the average Australian citizen and taxpayer might expect that soil management would be a very high priority for primary industries and governments at all levels.

However benign neglect would be a reasonable summary of the status quo.

Soil conservation extension services have been run down, the teaching of soils at tertiary levels has declined, soil resources monitoring programs are patchy and fragmented, like the overall soils information base, and we lack user-friendly tools for people to measure soil carbon. We are unable to determine in a nationally consistent manner with any authority, whether the condition of our soils is improving or deteriorating. We accept without question the need for good economic data to inform economic policy decisions, yet we continue to under-invest in fundamental national data about natural resources like soil. While there is a strong demand for soils information, in most regions it is difficult to find people with the know-how to access and interpret existing information. Soils research is similarly fragmented and underresourced and lacks the capacity to be generating the knowledge we will need to improve the management of Australian soils in even more challenging climatic conditions.

Soil protection under the Australian Constitution is unambiguously the responsibility of the States and Territories, however as with other natural resource management issues, the Commonwealth has become increasingly involved over the last 25 years.

There is a new spirit of cooperative federalism in the air, which will be sorely needed as we face compelling policy challenges in developing a long term national approach to water, food and energy issues. The time is ripe for a coherent, genuinely national focus on improving soil management. This would deliver benefits for consumers, for farmers, for rural communities and for the environment.

Reprinted with permission by Andrew Campbell. Campbell is a sustainable natural resource management consultant. He was previously chief executive officer of Land and Water Australia and a senior executive in the Australian government. Campbell manages a family farm near Cavendish, Victoria, Australia, with the help of a neighbor. Campbell's Website:

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Water Quality and Agricultural Responsibility

A headline story in the Des Moines Sunday Register (April 6, 2008) focuses on water quality and the practice of applying manure on frozen fields:

The Journal of Soil and Water Conservation regularly publishes research articles on a range of topics related to manure management, fertilizer practices, and water quality.

Here is a sampling from recent issues:

Lewandowsky et al. Groundwater nitrate contamination: A survey of private well owners. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(3)153-161.

Walker and Rhykerd. An economically sound manure treatment and application system. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(2)38A.

Iovanna et al. Treatment wetlands: Cost-effective practice for intercepting nitrate before it reaches and adversely impacts surface waters. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 63(1):14A-15A.

Sharpley et al. Overcoming the challenges of phosphorus-based management in poultry farming. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation. 62(6)375-389.

Special section on managing drainage ditches for water quality. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 62(4).

Thursday, April 3, 2008

In Touch with a World of Soil Museums

Excitement is building about the upcoming Smithsonian “Dig It! The Secrets of Soil” exhibit, which opens at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, on July 19, 2008.

Attendees of the Soil and Water Conservation Society Annual Conference in Tucson, Arizona, July 26-30, 2008, will get an early inside scoop on the exhibit with special presentations by Ellen Bergfeld and Paul Kamps from the Soil Science Society of America and Barbara Stauffer, Jennifer Bine, and Pat Megonigal from the Smithsonian Institution. Highlights will include a virtual tour of the exhibit. Go to for more information.

Soil museums exist in many parts of the world—for example, the Soil Science Institute, Nanjing, China; the Guangdong Institute of Eco-Environment and Soil Sciences, Guangdong, China; the National Institute of Soils and Fertilizers, Hanoi, Vietnam; and the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute, Dehra Dun , India. In addition, the Land Development Department (LDD) Soil Museum in Bangkok, Thailand, has recently been completed. (List courtesy of Samran Sombatpanit, World Association of Soil and Water Conservation.)

Students visiting the World Soil Museum. Photo courtesy of A. Hartemink/ISRIC.

Perhaps the best-known soil museum is the World Soil Museum in Wageningen, the Netherlands. The World Soil Museum is hosted by ISRIC – World Soil Information and headed by soil scientist Alfred Hartemink. Go to to learn more.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Conservation Conversation on AgriTalk

Today's broadcast of AgriTalk ( focused on the potential changes in the implementation of conservation practices due in part to the pressue of rising commodity prices.

The show included interviews with SWCS Executive Director Craig Cox, NACD President John Redding, Assistant Wildlife Division Director for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department George Vandel, and two staff people from the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council (EPIC) Director of Operations Robert White and Director of Communications Joanna Schroeder

Download a recording of the entire broadcast (52:12) here: (20.9MB mp3 file)