Cropland erosion rates hold steady
Success is usually measured in terms of gains or losses. But sometimes, just holding steady is a victory. That’s the current case for the issue of soil erosion, a prolific problem in some areas that farmers have worked to address for decades.
According to USDA figures, soil erosion on cropland decreased 41% between 1982 and 2010. At the same time, U.S. crop acres steadily declined in the face of urban growth and the implementation of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).
Around 2007, with commodity prices on the upswing, farmers began to increase their production acres. For the next three years, about 1.9 million crop acres were added across the U.S. Most of the gain came from land coming out of CRP.
Erosion control. USDA officials decided to investigate whether the increase in cropland, along with the impact from extreme weather events during that time frame, would correspond to an increase in erosion.
The short answer is no, according to a National Resources Inventory (NRI) summary report issued in January by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).
"We expected to see an increase in erosion because there was an increase in the number of acres put into cropland, so we were a bit surprised," says Patrick Flanagan, a national statistician for the NRI help desk. "The estimate of the change in erosion from 2007 to 2010 was not statistically significant from zero."
In other words, erosion rates held steady during those three years.
Stable rates of erosion are no reason to celebrate, given that U.S. societal costs from soil loss are estimated to be $37.6 billion annually, according to a 2006 Cornell University study by ecologist David Pimentel. Yet, the stable rate provides a glimmer of hope that the negative tide of erosion might be changing as farmers and the agricultural industry work to address it.
"Maybe it’s due to more conservation methods, but we really don’t know at this point why erosion losses leveled out, and we won’t know until we drill down through the data," Flanagan says. "Whatever is going on out there, it points to the fact there are probably good practices being used."
The report includes information on how U.S. non-federal rural lands are being used and was based on data collected from 800,000 sample locations across the country.
The NRI, which is in every state and county in the country, has collected erosion data from these same locations annually since 1982.
The summary of data from 2007 through 2010 also shows:
- Pastureland increased by approximately 847,000 acres.
- Fruit, nut and flower production acres on cultivated cropland surged from 124,800 to almost 274,000 acres.
- Developed land increased by 2% from 111.1 million to 113.3 million acres.
- Acres enrolled in NRCS programs went from 17 million acres in 2007 to about 40 million in 2010.
Flanagan expects NRCS to publish a more complete report next fall.
For more information about the Natural Resources Inventory summary report, visit www.FarmJournal.com/erosion_study