This letter features reporting from "Saving Our Soil” by Fernando Figueroa
Dear Representative Beth Doglio,
Agricultural techniques that harm soil health and our environment is a serious problem occurring worldwide, yet it is disregarded. Harmful agricultural techniques and lack of knowledge revolving around soil health turn soil into mere dirt and end up destroying the surrounding ecosystems. A healthy environment is the backbone of our lives. Healthy soil, healthy ecosystems, a stable environment provides us with food, knowledge, and opportunity. But once an environment is stripped away of its soil, nutrients, health, so are its benefits.
According to the Pulitzer Center article "Saving Our Soil” by Fernando Figueroa, “all agriculture extracts nutrients from the soil. To maintain a sustainable system, those nutrients need to be replenished to keep growing crops. Sometimes, farmers overfeed crops, adding more fertilizer than is strictly necessary, to assure growth. But by precisely giving plants the nutrients they need at the right times, farmers wouldn't have to use as much fertilizer, minimizing pollution.” As you can see from the quote, there are simple sustainable agriculture techniques available. However, these techniques are often thrown aside due to lack of knowledge, pure laziness, or simply not caring. By monitoring crops more closely, and recognizing when plants need more or less fertilizer, farmers can better understand their crop yields. While producing a bigger harvest, farmers will also learn multiple lessons from their crops, such as how to better provide for the plant. Additionally, this simple technique can have a huge economic impact. Farmers would spend less money on commercial fertilizers, and can use that money for other agricultural necessities. The environment would benefit from the strategy as well. Excess fertilizers often end up in runoff and leech into the soil, bodies of water, and eventually down into groundwater. These areas then become polluted, which can affect wildlife as well. The reduction of fertilizer could lower the amount of pollution worldwide.
The article goes further on to state, “Today’s agriculture is geared toward standardization. Farmers across the nation use relatively similar methods to grow crops, especially in large industrial farms that grow strictly one crop, like corn or soybean. So with synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and other standard practices, what works in California might work in Maine- often at the expense of the environment.” Standardized agriculture really benefits us humans, not the environment. Common methods of standardized agriculture like the overuse of fertilizer, the excessive amount of land used for farming, and keeping livestock do more harm than good. These methods contribute to climate change. Over fertilization pollutes the soil, depleting it of nutrients and forces plants to become dependent on fertilizer, which then breaks down important fungal symbiotic relationships. Miles and miles of land full of trees, lakes, rivers, beautiful landforms are being destroyed. Deforestation is among the most common methods of clearing land. Once an area has been cleared of its trees, the once stable ecosystem goes into a downfall spiral. More livestock means more methane emissions, more land usage, and more food production all of which damage the environment. Without proper control, agriculture could quite literally kill our planet.
Daniel Robleto and Aviva Asher own a small one-acre organic farm named Nicoya Farms. They have shared their struggles with soil nutrient depletion, and how it has affected their farm. However, Daniel and Aviva have come up with new ideas and innovations in order to restore their soils. The article states that, “to prepare the land for farming, Robleto and Asher cleared two forested acres, sparing as many trees as possible. Then, they planted cowpea and tall grass cover crops to establish a good root system to prevent soil erosion. The land was not adequate for growing then, Robleto said, as the soil was not fertile enough for the cover crops to thrive.” Another challenge involved the slope of the land. Rainfall would pool toward the center, gush over the crop rows, and destroy the planting beds, eroding the soil and almost ruining the harvest. These were some of the struggles that Robleto and Asher, as well as many other farmers, have dealt with. Due to the nutrients in the soil being so low, Robleto and Asher’s cover crops were unable to adapt to the noxious dirt. Patches of land with the cover crops would be bright and green, while others would be yellowed and dying. On top of that, their land was very uneven, which led to even more hardship. Water would pool towards the center of their land, drowning out the plants and leaving the soil highly saturated, unable to provide nutrients for the crops. However, Robleto and Asher did not overlook their issues, they came up with new ideas and turned their farm around. The article includes some of their adaptations, including planting their crops into crescent moon shapes that forced runoff around the curved sides of the beds, planting perennial grasses to tackle the erosion, using compost, and experimenting with different cover crops to put nutrients back into the soil. Many of these techniques could be implemented into standardized agriculture to make it beneficial for both humans and the environment.
I have a small garden at home. Five large garden beds and a couple small ones as well. My family and I grow a lot of our produce, including cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, beans, and more. Over the last two years my family and I have been trying out different methods in order to better our garden. Tilling the soil by hand, trying irrigation, using compost as fertilizer, and planting cover crops in the winter are some techniques we have implemented in our garden. Ever since we introduced these techniques into our garden, it has thrived. We get bigger crop yields, there is more biodiversity in our garden, and we don’t pay as much money for it as we used to! Tilling the soil by hand eliminates the use of machinery, therefore cuts out greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, tilling the soil on the surface allows for beneficial fungal networks to grow. These fungal networks help with the crops. Installing irrigation allows plants to get the exact amount of water needed and it prevents water runoff, this in turn saves money. Compost is an easy way to make your own fertilizer and it is simple enough to be enforced on large scale farms. My family gets our compost from produce scraps, leaves, and other scraps from our yard. Large farms produce lots of crops, but also a lot of crop waste that could be made into compost. A simple change of technique could help improve the relationship between agriculture and environment.
One major suggestion is taking industrialized agriculture and turning it into regenerative agriculture. By adopting and implementing some of the techniques commonly used in regenerative agriculture, the impact industrialized agriculture has on the environment would lessen. The article states, “part of the idea behind regenerative agriculture, a way of growing food that restores soil health; is mindful of the climate, water and biodiversity; and nurtures farmers and communities. Regenerative agriculture is growing food while also working with not against the environment. When people work together with the environment, it facilitates a beneficial symbiotic relationship where both parties thrive. The article states some techniques that regenerative agriculture promotes, including planting cover crops and composting. Growing a diversity of crops, rotational livestock grazing, and limited tilling, are some other changes that enrich the soil while providing other benefits.
Another suggestion is educating farmers. If we were to propose that all industrialized agriculture would need to turn into regenerative agriculture in the next year or so, most farmers would panic. Many farmers don’t know about the strategies that regenerative agriculture has to offer. By providing some sort of education on the matter, farmers would be willing to change their style of farming. Education could be provided via workshops, online courses, or mandated in-person meetings. Industrialized agriculture has detrimental effects on the environment, it is not just something we can toss aside and forget about until it is too late. The world is experiencing these effects as you read this letter. And if we don’t start somewhere, there will never be change and we will continue to kill the Earth. We must implement regenerative agriculture strategies if we want to fight for the future of our farmers and our planet.
Holly Wormer is a freshman at Henrietta Lacks High School. Holly is involved with the Environmental club at school and takes AP classes. She is a talented artist and works with several types of media: watercolor, pottery, and yarn. Holly enjoys being outdoors and identifying plants and mushrooms on her walks. She strives to lessen her carbon footprint by recycling, composting, planting native plants, tending to a summer garden, reducing single-use plastics, and advocating for change. Holly hopes to be a future botanist or mycologist; she believes that plants are astounding organisms that they can help our planet thrive. She wants to study the ways plants interact with each other, and in doing so, develop ideas about how those plants can benefit humans. Writing this letter was just another step in achieving her dream.