Farmers throughout the Midwest are being left to watch their crops lose a battle with one of the nation’s worst droughts in more than 15 years. Many now despise hearing their local weathermen– who continue to deliver disappointingly dry forecasts, while some farmers have given up altogether on their wilting, would-be fields. Others hold out hope with a bit of doubtful optimism, realizing, even large amounts of rainfall won’t make up for the ruthless conditions they’ve been dealt during May and June.
Crop insurance programs help reimburse farmers for losses due to environmental hardships. But not all farmers are covered and the actual problem still requires a solution: how do you reduce the risk of crop loss in harsh conditions such as a drought and heat wave?
Some of the answers may be found in how farmers manage their soils. The Rodale Institute has studied organic and conventional crop systems for more than 25 years and finds crops grown in organically managed soils perform significantly better in drought (and even flooding) conditions. These soils possess better water-holding capacity and increased water infiltration rates, leading to the production of greater yields than conventional systems under extreme conditions.
Soil rich in organic matter performs better under these conditions for a couple of reasons. It helps form soil aggregates, providing soil structure to withstand heavy rains. These same aggregates allow for better water infiltration, which can be beneficial to crops in times of water scarcity.
Organically managed soils contain more organic matter than traditional systems because of the methods farmers use to provide nutrients to the soil. Many conventional farmers rely on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to feed their soils, a convenient and efficient nutrient option, but one also lacking in the addition of actual organic matter to boost the soil in times of dangerous conditions.
Organic farmers must instead add physical materials that are nitrogen rich, such as manure and compost. Cover crops can also pull in nitrogen from the air and deliver it to the soil below. The cover crop residue left over in the field is another source of organic matter that is so important to soil health.
The weather we’ve seen in the Midwest this year and the resulting crop loss should be an indicator that chemical-reliant farming is vulnerable to hot, dry weather. As climate change continues, these are the conditions we’ll likely see more of down the road. Perhaps the solution is to use the basic principles of organic farming to improve our soil’s health and prepare for the conditions we’re bound to face in the future.