Nature: Friend or Foe?
By: Allen R Williams, Ph.D.
Without even realizing it, for well over than a century, American farmers have had the idea that nature is a beast to be tamed and contained. If we want to be good farmers and ranchers we must conquer nature and overcome her. We have invented many mechanical and chemical tools to help us in this fight.
There is just one little problem with this concept: Nature ALWAYS wins. Sooner or later she will prevail, and we find ourselves cursing the rain, the drought, the insects, the heat and the cold.
There is an admonition in the New Testament that says, “It is hard for you to kick against the pricks” (Acts 9:5). Here, “pricks” refers to something used to prod sheep and goats, or to keep oxen from kicking while yoked for plowing.
Yet that seems to be what we have been doing in our attempts to tame, rather than work, with nature.
The “principle of compounding” tells us that our daily management decisions produce a series of ongoing compounding and cascading effects. These are always either positive or negative, never neutral. Decisions and management strategies that work against nature will ultimately prove to be harmful, while those that work with nature will be positive and lasting.
This month we’ll discuss two examples of negative compounding effects.
One glaring example of negative compounding effects is happening in Argentina. New rivers have been appearing the San Luis Province in the past several years.
These rivers appear almost overnight, carving deep ravines into the soil. One of them is now 15 miles long, and the ravine it has carved has grown to as much as 196-feet wide and up to 82-feet deep at one point (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/apr/01/argentina-new-river-soya-beans).
How can this be happening?
Up until the early 1990s the Morro basin of Argentina was a vast array of deep forests and vibrant grasslands. Since then, a majority of these forests and grasslands have disappeared under the plow. Soybean and corn production now covers more than 60% of Argentina’s arable land.
In the past 10 years alone, more than 59 million acres have been converted from native forest to producing soybeans, which are now the country’s primary export crop. At least for the short-term, this conversion has been an economic boon for Argentina.
But Argentine farmers and government officials are starting to learn there are some serious negative consequences to this conversion that are being created by the principle of compounding. Nature is fighting back.
You see, the forests and grasslands were a powerful water sink capable of absorbing and retaining large amounts of rainfall year-round. The deep roots of these grasses and trees were replaced by heavily cultivated fields planted in shallow-rooted, monoculture crops. Even worse, the soil is now covered by vegetation for only a few months of each year.
This new agriculture has caused the vast aquifer beneath the Morro Basin to rise, and its subterranean flow to increase. This has set in motion a literal collapse of the region’s permeable soil, along with the formation of new rivers.
Farmers first started noticing what they thought were small run-off channels in 2008. Since 2012, erosion has increased exponentially, and the small channels have become very deep trenches in the earth.
Water infiltration rates are now very poor, and water runs off at will. Farms, roads and even cities have been cut in half by these new rivers. Millions of tons of topsoil have been lost to severe erosion. Entire farm fields have disappeared overnight with heavy rains.
Many families who had owned these farms and ranches for decades and even hundreds of years were forced to sell or lease their lands to soybean conglomerates. Conservation practices have been ignored in favor of clearing, heavy tillage and no seeding of cover crops between cash crops. These corporations favor leasing the land and moving on when it is no longer productive. Entire ecosystems have been lost.
So what is nature saying? She is saying that if you are going to devastate my land that way, I will create a river delta in its place to restore a vibrant ecosystem. Given time, nature will win, and man will lose.
The sad part is that when man was working in synch with nature, it all went pretty well. Now the gauchos are mostly gone. You don’t need a cowboy to drive a combine.
Another recent example of negative compounding effects occurred here in the U.S. last year, when nature reared her head and produced Hurricane Harvey. Harvey was a powerful rainmaker that dumped up to 52 inches on areas of south Texas and southwest Louisiana.
Certainly there will be flooding when more than 30 inches of rain falls over a short period of time. But in Harvey’s case, the severity of that flooding, along with the impact, was the result of negative compounding effects created by man’s interference with nature.
Two primary factors contributed to the extreme severity of Harvey’s floods. One was the fact that the city of Houston had no comprehensive plan for controlling ever-expanding urban and suburban sprawl. The city sits in the middle of a major drainage basin for a huge portion of Texas. Many rivers and bayous run through the greater Houston area toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Man, in all our glory and knowledge, paved, cemented and built over soils that could have soaked up a lot of this rainfall. We straightened the bayous, and built reservoirs that were supposed to contain and control these floodwaters. Instead, the dams ended up contributing to the flooding issues and became death traps for people living downstream of their levees. The water had no choice but to flood all the areas it ran through.
Adding to the problem, the region’s remaining ag lands have been farmed and grazed so heavily that their soils have very poor water infiltration rates.
Very few of the native coastal prairies remain. These formerly deep-rooted prairies are now home to shallow-rooted row crops and near-monoculture pastures comprised of “improved” forage species that are also shallow rooted. The ability to absorb moderate to heavy rainfall has been lost, and even smaller rains can cause local flooding.
We have measured water infiltration and soil aggregation in these farm and ranch lands, and found that infiltration rates are mostly less than one-half inch per hour, with soil aggregation less than an inch deep.
When Harvey’s deluge came, the combination of paving and poor farming and ranching practices led to loss of human life, along with billions of dollars of livestock, crop and property losses. Nature fought back, and man was powerless to contain her.
For some, the wake-up call has finally been heard. According to the Houston Chronicle (March 15, 2018), Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the senior elected official in the region, is calling for what’s left of the Katy Prairie to be committed to a “national park, state park, or nature preserve” in a “single act that might do more to protect our community than any other.”
We’re with you, Ed.
So once again, we invite everyone to think about the bigger question: Why are we trying to fight nature instead of working with her?
The rewards are great for those who choose to work with nature. She has a bounty of nutrients and resources we can tap if we choose to do so. It makes no sense to keep kicking against the pr