Farmer John: Sustainable farming practices help prevent erosion

J.D. “Farmer John” Wilson

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself”

— Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Civilization itself rests upon the soil”

— Thomas Jefferson.


SIGMA — Providence Canyon State Park near Lumpkin, Ga., is called Georgia’s Little Grand Canyon. It takes up many square miles of landscape — about 1,100 acres and with 16 canyons. according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution — and goes as deep as 150 feet from the surrounding terrain. 

I hear it is quite beautiful. It hosts many visitors each year. The geologic story has a dark side, however. It is the result of poor farming practice in the 19th Century. 

The two big culprits are overplowing and overgrazing, farming practices that led to lots of runoff and soil loss. They lead to erosion. These are practices we are loath to give up as a nation as they are handed down to us from the people who helped make the country prosperous by producing so much food. 

We didn’t know then the nutrient decrease of these techniques. We are slowly coming to grips with the soil loss due to things like increasing use of fertilizer and the 8,000 square mile dead zone in the Gulf on Mexico. History is littered with the rocky remains of these same practices on previously good topsoil.

It is also true that geology and archaeology have become so sophisticated and accurate as to be able to match up those dates with soil erosion and sediment cores. We can now track the collapse of societies with how much soil erosion occurred. The two thing are remarkably linked together. 

We can also track when countries invaded other countries due to their soil loss so they could import food from the occupied country’s still fertile soil. The recent book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery goes into great detail and many examples of this history worldwide. 

I know of two times and places where there was a different story. One was described in my most recent column about soil-building practices along the Amazon River basin and inland for the last 8,000 years. The other was in France and especially around Paris during at least the 1800s.

In this country, the same fate of erosion began as soon as Europeans arrived here, and it was dramatic and repeated over and over. It started here in Virginia, Maryland and other southeastern states. We kept plowing overgrazing and then clearing another patch until we reached the west and created the dust bowl and places like the oddly named Providence Canyon. 

What’s keeping us going on this path now is also partly due to the propping up of these practices by the use of synthetic fertilizer and all the cides – pesticides, herbacides and fungicides. These sprays and fertilizers mask, albeit temporarily, the problems with current agriculture systems. 

The collateral damage is piling up to the point we can’t ignore it – or we ignore it at our peril. In our own area, the same thing is happening, though it can be harder to see as we are in flat coastland. A crisis which might take a man’s lifetime is still a crisis.

We are starting to make positive changes, a little at a time. There is now a program of cost share for cover crops on any farm that wants to try it. It keeps soil on the ground over the winter, preventing soil loss. This is a good thing because it leads to sustainability. 

I want to repeat my sentiment of respecting all types of farmers. These issues can be tough to talk about, and that means positive change can be tough to achieve in our farming practices. We are entering a time in which more farmers are seeing the picture better and transitioning. Sometimes it takes a younger person or family member to make the change. 

I support this next phase of agriculture, in which we preserve and build soil through sustainable practices. We need to keep our soil and build its resiliency. 

And, as I plan to do in an upcoming column, we need to pay attention to how many good things are happening on farms and universities all over the country.

Wilson, a farmer and consultant who lives in Sigma, writes about sustainable agriculture for The Independent News. Reach him via

© 2018 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC

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