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Disappearing Farmland: An American Tragedy

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Americas Farmland

Wheat Field

It sure is a beautiful sight isn't it the amber waves of grain blowing in the wind with the rugged farmer in his tractor ready to harvest.  It is a sight that most of us in the western world are not familiar with, for we have lost touch with where the food on our table comes from.   

For many years America has been a powerhouse of agriculture production, a trend that continues to this day.  But this trend may be coming to a end due to our overuse and destruction of America's prime agriculture lands.  There are 3 factors that are the driving force behind the loss of agriculture land in this country. 

  1. Soil Erosion
  2. Urban Sprawl
  3. Soil Pollution

Loss to Erosion

Soil erosion is the enemy of anyone that works with soil in any way.  You have roads that will erode away from rain, bridges that lose their foundations to rivers and finally farmers that watch their prime soils blow and wash away from exposure to the wind and rain.

Just a few facts about soil erosion to help you understand,[1]

Soil Erosion Around the World

  • Currently around 80% of the worlds cropland suffers moderate to severe erosion.
  • The loss of soil worldwide is about 30 tons/hectare/year.
  • Around 30% of the worlds productive farmland has been abandoned in the past 40 years because of erosion.

Soil Erosion Here in America

  • Average erosion rates in the US are 10-15  tons/hectare/year.
  • Soil forms at a rate of .5-1 ton/hectare/year.
  • Around half the topsoil of Iowa has been lost in the last 150 years.

Soil erosion is a serious problem that is literally taking the ground from beneath our feet.  With increasing population and the associated food demands, we are forced to push our existing farms to their limits and expand into marginal land that is even more prone to erosion.  The erosion rates on our farms can be directly tied into the farming practices that are used.  Techniques like heavy cultivation, plowing under crop residue and total removal of organic material from fields is detrimental to soil health and structure.  Without good soil structure and protection from crop residues the soil is broken down into small particles that can be easily eroded by wind and water.  

Dust Storm Texes 1935

Loss to Urban Sprawl

Urban sprawl is the result of the American dream and was created by Americans love affair with the automobile and the desire for everyone to have the idyllic country life.  What we got for our dream was  a disturbing mix of cookie cutter houses, postage stamp lawns and the backdrop for the beginning of every zombie movie not starting in a hospital. 

Urban sprawl is something that has only been increasing in size as people begin to look for their share of the American dream.  For example in 1950 our nations urban ares covered 13,000 square miles by 1990 the population doubled but the land use grew by 400% to almost 60,000 square miles. So essentially people moved into the suburbs and they demanded that 2 car garage, half acre lot and Fido in the backyard.  That demand for larger lots swallowed up prime farmland at a astounding rate.  In between 1982 and 1997, 25 million acres was swallowed up by strip malls, roads and subdivisions. [4]

Cities were built where they were for two reasons historically, good soil and good water.  But with our cities continually expanding outward, by default they are gobbling up the best farmland in the area.  It's ironic that we destroy what we are looking for in the country lifestyle, when we build that idyllic 4  bedroom home in the suburbs of cities.              

Loss to Pollution

Soil Contamination
Soil pollution is a growing concern among those that work the soil for a living.  Soil can polluted or contaminated in a variety of ways.  Industrial activity has been the biggest contributor  through the mining and drilling industries.  Mining leaves a lot of unused residue behind in its wake like coal ash, sludge, toxic chemicals, and heavy metals.  All of this material gets incorporated into the soil where it can be absorbed by plants which in turn can affect the health or even kill animals and people that eat the contaminated plants.

There are over 1300 Superfund sites in the US that are managed as priority for clean up due to toxic waste and those are just the ones that call for the attention of the EPA.  We also have to consider the local landfills, decrepit industrial ares,  and other remnants of the factory era of the 19th and 20th centuries.  They left a huge Rust Belt across the upper Midwest that has soil that has been heavily contaminated by the industrial manufacturing that took place there.

We are losing soil at a astounding rate in a era where we need every productive acre we can.  There is a lot that can be done on both a local and worldwide scale to address these problems.  The main solution is education about the problem as most people are unaware a problem exists.  Hopefully if more people become aware of the problem, then we can slow or stop the damage that is happening to our nations precious soil resource.  



Dec 12, 2014 1:59pm
The "Dust Bowl" era probably affected the course of Ame4rican history just as much (if not more) than any other phenomena. It was because of that we had mass migrations, and a financial depression (started by a stock market crash in 1929 but exacerbated by the erosion and subsequent social issues) that wrought havoc. This is something many people need to recall. Wendell Berry, the author and sociologically conscious agricultural proponent often touched on this in his lectures (I was very fortunate to hear one of his lectures when I was in college). Good work--keep it up. Thumb.
Dec 12, 2014 3:47pm
Thank you so much for reading and your thoughtful comment. It really is amazing that there can be so much going on in the world around us and yet have so little conversation about it. I can't think of a time where I heard people having a conversation about the fact that we are losing so much of our agriculture land to very preventable causes. I hope that by writing about things like this I will be able to start a conversation about the Earth and our impact on it.
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  1. David Pimentel * and Michael Burgess "Soil Erosion Threatens Food Production." Agriculture. (2013): 443-463.
  2. "Urban Sprawl." National Geographic. 21/10/2014 <Web >
  3. "Coal generates 44% of our electricity, and is the single biggest air polluter in the U.S.." Union of Concerned Scientists. 21/10/2014 <Web >
  4. "Sprawl, Congestion and Farmland." Numbers USA. 24/10/2014 <Web >

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