Saturday, April 20, 2019

Top Soil

As I believe I may have mentioned, my  neighbor owns hundreds of acres of woods  and I keep his roads open in exchange for the firewood. This involves chainsaws and a tractor that I use to load big pieces into the truck and pull logs to more accessible locations. The tractor also has a backhoe, which comes in handy for my neighbors at times.

So yesterday I took the day off from work to have my car serviced and my neighbor and I took advantage of the opportunity to dig out a culvert. It carries a stream under one of his roads near the property of the town historical society. The stream is runoff from a cornfield.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with this sort of situation, what can happen is that if the stream slows down at the entrance to the culvert, silt will fall out of it. Once this starts to happen it's self-reinforcing. The ridge of silt slows the stream down further and more and more silt falls out until the culvert is completely obstructed and the water is forced to flow over the road.

So I dug out what must have been a ton of the most beautiful black topsoil you ever saw. The farmer sprays the field with synthetic fertilizer every spring, and as the topsoil washes into the Shetucket he just keeps spraying more. That's where the corn comes from -- a factory that uses natural gas both as fuel and as feedstock to manufacture ammonia. About 2-3% of the world's natural gas consumption is used for this purpose. So to be clear, you are eating fossil fuel, while the world's top soil washes  into the ocean.


  1. There are farming practices that reduce soil erosion. I did stories about no-till farming 40 years ago back when I worked for a newspaper. Is that not possible in your neighbor's case? In any event, I wish I had some of that black topsoil Here where we live, near the top of our little mountain, the soil is red, sandy clay. The guy that did the grading scraped off most of the little topsoil our lot had, a pretty common occurrence around here.

  2. The problem with no-till farming is you have to use herbicide. The weeds are getting resistant and that's not going to work much longer I think. However, using composted manure rather than synthetic fertilizer helps -- it binds more strongly to the soil and there's much less nitrogen runoff. Also, contour plowing, manure cropping, making berms -- there's a lot you can do.

    No till is becoming pretty standard around here. They plant winter rye then they kill it with glyphosate in the spring. But I'm not really down with that.

  3. I haven't even thought about farming practices in years. I wasn't really aware of the necessity for herbicides. A little internet research showed me that "organic" (no herbicide) no-till farming has some fairly serious limitations and doesn't seem appropriate yet for large-scale farming. And, as to resistance to herbicides, I am seeing that right now in my yard. I'm trying to get ready to plant some zoysia (no routine grass cutting needed) in an area that has a lot of native bunch grass, weeds, maple sprouts and other things. I have to get rid of that, but two applications of glyphosate have not done it yet; there is still an awful lot of green. Maybe eventually it will work. I was fortunate that the leach field was completely bare when I seeded it.

  4. I built my house on cleared woodland. I tilled the clearing to get rid of the brush. If you're going to plant an unnatural lawn anyway, you might as well, it seems to me.