The first Earth Day was held on April 22, 1970, marking what many regard as the beginning of the modern environmental movement. That movement is devoted to preserving the array of natural resources that the American public enjoys--clean water, clean air, pristine wilderness areas and other natural habitats, and abundant wildlife. The modern conservation ethic actually started decades earlier, as American farmers dealt with the aftermath of the Dust Bowl that hit the Southern Plains throughout the 1930's and recognized that their farming practices needed to change to prevent continued loss of topsoil. USDA’s 1934 Yearbook of Agriculture reported that 100 million acres of cropland in that region had lost all or most of its topsoil. Today's farmers are keenly aware of the value of water and soil as irreplaceable assets for maintaining food security, both for themselves and for the rest of the country--that should be part of the Earth Day message as well.
Throughout the late 1920's and early 1930's, USDA soil scientist Hugh Hammond Bennett toured the country and wrote extensively about the need to preserve the soil. In one of his early books, he asserted "too many people have lost sight of the fact that productive soil is essential to the production of food." As the Dust Bowl ravaged the Plains states, Congress established USDA's Soil Conservation Service (renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service in 1994) in 1935. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace named Bennett the Service's first chief. Chief Bennett, his successors and many other USDA officials and employees have continued to emphasize the critical mission of soil conservation over the years.
Today, nearly all American farmers are conscious of the importance of the soil they raise their crops in--rare indeed are fields that are stripped bare after harvest, because farmers now know that crop residue helps the soil retain moisture and maintain its fertility. According to data collected in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, 62 percent of U.S. cropland is cultivated using either no-till or other conservation tillage techniques. These practices have brought results--data from the National Resources Inventory (NRI) collected by USDA indicates that soil erosion from cropland declined by 41 percent between 1982 and 2010.
The other natural resource crucial to farming is water. In 2012, about one out of every six acres of cropland in the United States was irrigated, and water used for irrigation and elsewhere in agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of all water withdrawn for human uses from surface and groundwater sources in the country. Gradual efforts are being made to improve the efficiency of water use in agriculture--the share of U.S. crop acres irrigated with more efficient sprinkler or drip irrigation systems rose from 49 percent in 1998 to 72 percent in 2013.
Western farmers in particular know all too well the importance of water, and have been dealing with serious drought for several years now. Many growers have adopted water conserving methods after losing access to water from federal water projects, in some cases fallowing annual crops while others have had to reduce their irrigation rates on perennial crops such as fruit and tree nut orchards and vineyards. They have demonstrated their ability to manage their water in a flexible way, and would like federal policymakers to provide the relevant agencies with similar flexibility for managing water for environmental purposes.
This focus on soil and water conservation is all about the balance between enhancing farmers’ ability to produce food while preserving the natural environment and farmers’ individual livelihoods and lifestyles. As Jesse Larios, a cattleman from Brawley, California explained, “We farm not only because we love the way of life but we do it because we feel it's our moral obligation produce food at a cost that is within a family's reach. Food that is safe, nutritious, and most importantly affordable. Water is the most essential input in any farm. No water, no food.”
Farmers in the United States, and around the world, will be expected to ramp up food production to a level sufficient to feed a global population of 9 billion projected by 2050. At the same time, many farmers will also be facing constraints on availability of both arable land and water. Projections indicate those pressures are likely to be heightened in many areas by the effects of climate change.
In many ways, our farmers are our first responders in both the fight to preserve the natural environment and the effort to feed the world. For them, every day is Earth Day.