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21: APR 2


  • Montgomery, David. Chapter 7: "Dust Blow" (pp. 145-179)
  • Montgomery, David. Chapter 8: "Dirty Business" (pp. 179-215);

Montgomery, Chapter 7: Dust Blow

  • Major soils accumulations around the globe due to glacial action. Including: The Great Plains, US
  • Once ploughed the "loess" becomes vulnerable to drying and blowing away. (loess: "a loosely compacted yellowish-gray deposit of windblown sediment of which extensive deposits occur, e.g., in eastern China and the American Midwest.")
  • Tractor increased ploughable acerage per farmer by 15x. Claims plough put pressure on US to allow settlement of Indian lands in OK, Indians already displaced from the East coast. Spring 1889.
  • 1870-1900: relative wet period, acerage under cultivation expanded as much as in previous two centuries.
  • vulnerability of high plains known in 1902 USGS survey and report. Profits from grain commodity exports were more powerful interest.
  • Erosion science hero: Nathaniel Shaler: (148): recognizes both soil as an ecology and vulnerability of plains and soil erosion under ploughing.
  • 151ff: stories about what happens when your topsoil blows away.
  • 1935: awareness of need for soil conservation grows. 11/1934: end to land settlement programs. No new land to move to. Birth of farm subsidy approaches to soil conservation.
  • Post WW1 commodity prices decrease, but farmers continue to maximize production due to debt. (Example of M's thesis.)
  • Interesting erosion detail: after loss of loess, water penetrates soil less, leading to further drying.
  • Post WW2 tractor production soars, 10x the 1920s. Before droughts in the 50's, acerage doubled, production 4x. Exports to Europe.
  • Digression on farm size and efficiency. Montgomery challenges the general view that large farms are always more efficient, especially if they use methods that promote erosion. This is later argued in his book "Growing a Revolution". 159: documents aggregation of farms. Dust from agriculture in Eastern Washington measured by lake core sample.
  • Soviet Story
  • 1954-65: Krushchev order expansion of acreage under cultivation. Experience a kind of dust bowl event in the 60s.
  • Aral Sea Disaster, 50s-90s (164)
  • Desertification of the southern Russian Kalmyk Republic. 50s-90s exploitation.
  • Lots of places and events: Erosion in Europe, Australia, Philippines and Jamaica
  • Highlights changes in agriculture in Sub-saharan Africa, dust bowl in 70's. '73 West African famine loss of 100K, 7 million insecure.
  • More on desertification: Sahel and North Africa
  • 168ff: patterns of agriculture in African countries in relation to soil erosion.
  • Digression on UNFAO's Action against Desertification
  • Back to the US: loss of farmland to Urbanization 172ff
  • studies showing loss of productivity of US farmland
  • 70's policy moved away from soil conservation. Earl Butz famous "fence row to fence row" policy. Some evidence that conservation efforts haven't been effective. But then (174), some evidence of progress
  • Pimentel study, Cornell 90's: estimate of conservation effort to bring erosion into line with soil production. big numbers 175.
  • Major concluding point: There are "no net loss" farms all around us. Soil conservation is possible.

Montgomery, Chapter 8: Dirty Business

  • Tsangpo River culture in Tibet, exception to soil erosion story. silt and soil cared for, but also animals fertilize fields.
  • History of cultivation in China, emergence of wetland rice production (patties allow for nitrogen fixing algae), early 20th cent. 70-80 percent of income on food. 199-2003 crop yields down 10%. (Note: Question of food import dependence gets people's attention. [1] [2]
  • History of fertilizer use:
  • discoveries of nitrogen and phosphorous (late 18th cent.), potassium and calcium in 1808. (note Justus von Liebig, claim that form of soil ammendment doesn't matter, but still rec. organic soil cultivation), early fertilizer factory, 1843, using sulfuric acid on phosphate to make it available to plants -1843 John Lawes.
  • 1838: discovery of nitrogen fixing plants, but not till 1888 do we get the microbial mechanism. Guano deposits, phosphate mining, Franklin Pierce 1856 Guano Island Act (pretty extraordinary - allowed US citizens to claim guano islands). set off a kind of "gold rush" over guano. Rape of Nauru.
  • Pre-civil war Mississippi state geologist, Eugene Hilgard and mid-19th soil science: 1872: talk on how soil exhaustion shapes fate of civilizations (early version of montgomery's thesis!) Understood importance of manure and replenishing minerals. Goes to California to figure out problem of alkaline soils. Salt leeching from rock. "H's 1892 landmark report laid out the basic idea that the physical and chemical character of soils reflect ... regional climate and vegetation. Disputes with South Carolina professor Milton Whitney, who thought moisture and texture alone explained soil fertility. Infamous proclamation as 1901 head of USDA: soil is inexhaustible. King fired by Whitney for agreeing with Hilgard. examples, at 194 of crazy explanations Whitney offered to account for soil depletion without acknowledging it. Ex. he thought fertilizers accelerated soil production from rocks. productivity differences due to social causes.
  • 193: Story of natural nitrogen formation. Phorphorus mining and depletion by 1st WW.
  • Story of industrial nitrogen: bombs and fertilzer, need to secure sources: 196:German nitro technology. Fritz Haber. Haber-Bosch process. post ww2 nitrogen production, further separated animal ag from plant ag. 1920s new version of the process converts methane to ammonia. Global nitrogen production, 197. More current info
  • Green Revolution -- high-yield strains for wheat and rice, combined with nitrogen fert. 1970 Nobel Prize to Norman Borlaug. top of 198 - probs with Green Revolution. By 1980s population growth consumed crop yield growth. reduced viability of non-capitalized farms. Mention Songhai Center. Oil dependence: ag used 30% of petroleum production. USDA estimate: 1/2 of fertilizer used to replace nutrients lost through soil erosion.
  • Can organic farming match yields from nitrogen/oil farming? Pennsylvania study at p. 201.
  • Modern Organic Movement: starts with 1930s Sir Albert Howard and Edward Faulkner. animal waste crucial. early composter advocates, early warning on synth nitrogen. Faulkner argued against ploughing. "alt-Ag" Wes Jackson, Land Institute, Salinas KS. Check them out. Still working on a no plough wheat. "natural systems agriculture" (also compatible with "permaculture")
  • 207: Barry Commoner, Center for Biology of Natural Systems at Wash U. study claiming organic farms produce similar yields as industrial methods. Others claims within 2%. Mid- 80s research by John Reganold [3] on two farms near Spokane, check out his Ted talk [4] What if industrial agriculture is partly a culture conception of how to produce food rather than a market based or science based approach?
  • (Some recent sceptical doubts: Can these results be scaled up? What are the inputs for human labor? p. 208 mentions 1/3 higher labor costs.)
  • 208-209: more comparative research on organic/commerical ag. Farm subsidies and effect on farm size/corporate farming. 210 1/10 of ag producers get 2/3 of subsidies.
  • 211 on: update on no-till and conservation tilling. catching on. Food Security Acts of 1985 and 1990 mandate conservation plans for farms. soil erosion contributes directly to climate change - oxidation of organic material releases CO2. Soil conservation sequesters co2.
  • story of Quincy, WA. Cenex toxic fertilizer scandal.
  • (This account could easily incorporate the stories of the Montana farmers in the gripping "Lentil Underground" -- a good book group book.)