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Farmers School Themselves On Soil Health To Revive Oklahoma’s Dying Dirt

Several Oklahoma farmers wander through a field of broad-leafed cover crops during a state Conservation Commission workshop in Dewey County in western Oklahoma.
Logan Layden
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Several Oklahoma farmers wander through a field of broad-leafed cover crops during a state Conservation Commission workshop in Dewey County in western Oklahoma.

Generations of tilling and planting on the same land have left Oklahoma’s soil in poor shape. And if farmers don’t change the way they grow crops, feeding the future won’t be easy. As Slapout, Okla., farmer Jordan Shearer puts it: “We’re creating a desert environment by plowing the damn ground.”

Taking A Toll

More than 800 million tons of topsoil blew away in a single year during the Dust Bowl. In response, farmers planted trees, irrigated crops and changed plowing techniques to prevent another Dust Bowl.  But they kept plowing, planting wheat, tilling again, and planting more wheat in the same spot — a cycle known as conventional mono-cropping.

Ray Archuleta is an agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. Part of what he does for a living is dig holes to study soil health across the country.

“Tillage is an intrusive tool,” Archuleta says. “To me it’s a national crisis. When you drive through the whole country, it’s very sad to see that our land is very, very diminished.”

Tilling excites bacteria that eat the organic matter in the soil plants thrive on, which destroys root and worm pathways that allow moisture to penetrate the ground, he says. Over time, the soil dies, and only more land — and more fertilizer — keep crops growing.

Getting Back To Nature

The solution is to stop tilling and rotate wheat with cover crops — assortments of plants that cover the field and restore organic matter into the soil when they die. Think of it as large-scale composting. Ray Archuleta calls it farming in nature’s image.

“It’s about mimicking nature and understanding the ecology,” Archuleta says. “It’s no-till with the covers, with the animals. It’s all of it as a system.”

Shearer, the Slapout farmer who also works for the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts — which promotes modern farming practices that preserve soil health — says moving away from that natural system is killing Oklahoma’s once-fertile soil.

A century ago, Oklahoma farmers were plowing soil that contained between 3 and 5 percent organic matter, Shearer says. Today, soil in many parts of the state can have as little as 1 percent organic matter.

 

Jimmy Emmons, who owns the land where the workshop is taking place, talks to fellow farmers about cover crops and no-till farming.
Credit Logan Layden / StateImpact Oklahoma
/
StateImpact Oklahoma
Jimmy Emmons, who owns the land where the workshop is taking place, talks to fellow farmers about cover crops and no-till farming.

Time For Action

The state is recognizing the problem. Shearer and dozens of farmers in August attended a workshop held by the Oklahoma Conservation Commission. The event, on a Dewey County farm near Leedey — a blip on the map with 435 residents — was organized to encourage the adoption of more sustainable farming practices.

Agency staff and early converts gave details on the benefits of rotating no-till wheat with cover crops.

Attendees like Roger Ommen were eager to learn more. Ommen, whose farm is a mile outside of Leedey, just planted his first cover crop.

“We’ll try it,” he says. “Who knows, it might be all we do in the future.”

The benefits of no-till and cover crops abound. The soil stays cooler and retains water better. Eventually, crop yields and the quality of the wheat go up. Farmers can produce more crops with less land. Archuleta says it’s even possible to eliminate the need for commercial fertilizer.

Still, there are hurdles to making the move away from traditional farming. New equipment is expensive and the transition takes time. And old habits die hard. Right now, 75 percent of Oklahoma’s cropland is tilled, and Shearer says fewer than 1 percent of farmers are using cover crops.


StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.

Logan Layden is a reporter and managing editor for StateImpact Oklahoma. Logan spent six years as a reporter with StateImpact from 2011 to 2017.
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