Growing revolution

By Jack Rubinger

Geologist/Author David Montgomery discusses “Growing A Revolution” At Powell’s Books

Geologist/author David R. Montgomery believes that the plow is the major culprit in the degradation of the world’s soil. Why? The plow exposes the top layer of soil to the elements leaving the earth bare and vulnerable, causing erosion and degrading soil organic matter.

Montgomery came to Powell’s Books on Hawthorne in May to talk about “Growing a Revolution: Bringing Our Soil Back to Life,” his new book. Montgomery shared the “roots” of his story.

“Soil erosion is an environmental crisis and has played a role in the demise of many ancient civilizations,” said Montgomery. “Back when our country was new, George Washington expressed concerns about improving the quality of the soil.” In the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”

Soil degradation is a major problem on par with climate change. That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are ways to fairly quickly and inexpensively reverse the trend.

“Soil is a strategic resource,” said Montgomery. “Unfortunately, over the past 40 years, soil erosion and degradation has caused farmers to abandon more than 400 million acres of farmland around the world.”

Montgomery outlined ways to practice agriculture that have long-term benefits to the soil based on visits to farms in the United States, Latin America, and Africa.

Montgomery and his wife also restored the soil in their own backyard by adding organic matter, using labor (their own) and getting assistance from microbes.

A soil rich in organic matter provides plants with a diet that promotes extensive root growth. Unfortunately, most farms today rely on cheap oil and cheap fertilizer to grow abundant crops. But rebuilding soil will be essential to feeding a post cheap oil and fertilizer world.

The question that inspired this new book — can we replicate what we do in our backyard on large farms?  And the answer is “yes.”

Montgomery calls this approach a soil health revolution and it is based on three principles:

• Minimize soil disturbance

• Plant cover crops, including legumes, to always keep the ground covered

• Deploy a diverse crop rotation to maintain soil fertility and break up pathogen carryover

Most of the farms Montgomery visited initially changed their ways because the farmers couldn’t afford to spend money on expensive chemicals to help grow their crops. At the Dakota Lakes Research Farm, which uses no-till methods to grow corn and soybeans, farm expenses went down and harvests went up.

At one farm, the farmer also used cattle as a restoration tool. At another, the farmer planted radishes in between cash crops and let them rot in the field to help build up the soil.  This farm in Ohio has been no-till for more than 40 years. The year before Montgomery visited, this farmer generated a profit of $400 per acre while neighboring conventional farms lost $100 per acre.

“This approach makes economic sense,” said Montgomery. “You use fewer chemical inputs and wind up driving your tractor less thereby decreasing your gas bill.”

The benefits of conservation agriculture include comparable or increased yields with less chemical and fossil fuel use, increased soil carbon and crop resilience, and higher farm profits.

So how do you promote this new way of doing agriculture? In addition to telling the story of farmers who successfully adopted all three principles, Montgomery suggests some additional steps:

• Reform crop insurance and establish subsidy programs

• Establish demonstration farms

• Provide transition assistance

For more information about Montgomery, his thinking and his books, visit

Growing revolution

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