A man who knows as much about Minnesota farm soils as anyone is retiring at the end of the year.
For almost 40 years, Gyles Randall has worked at the University of Minnesota’s Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca. The professor’s official title is soil scientist, but he’s been much more than just an analyst of the different types of farmland Minnesota contains. He knows those soils minutely, and he can link that knowledge to the farming changes he’s seen in Minnesota’s countryside. And how those changes in turn affect rural society. So as Minnesota farms got bigger and more specialized, he could see how that change affected the volume and type of material being washed off agricultural land and into the state’s waterways.
“Agriculture is changing, it’s really changing,” says Randall.
Randall says most of the worst soil practices by farmers have ended. When Randall started his career a farmer’s goal in the fall was to ‘plow it black’. In other words, to turn over the soil so that all the crop stubble was buried. Now Randall says farmers leave more crop residue on the surface than their parents and grandparents did. That helps protect the field from wind and water erosion.
“It’s unbelievably better,” says Randall.
Randall says there’s been a gradual but steady shift in agriculture to less and less tillage. He says while that’s helped reduce erosion, there is still plenty of room for improvement. His opinion on what sorts of changes are needed was best demonstrated in a commentary piece commentary piece he wrote in 2001. Randall began the piece with these words:
“Present-day corn and soybean production in southern Minnesota does not appear to be sustainable from economic, environmental, ecological and sociological perspectives.”
Randall says farmers have continued to improve soil management since he wrote that piece. He says with those changes corn and soybean production may be sustainable on the mostly flatland areas of southern and western Minnesota. But he still sees problems in regions like southeast Minnesota. There, the hillier terrain means more water runoff and soil erosion. In many cases, that means soil is being lost faster than it can regenerate. It’s part of a pattern of farm runoff nationwide that helps cause the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Nitrogen losses and phosphorus losses to the Gulf of Mexico have consequences,” says Randall.
Randall has an idea how to reduce that farm runoff, even though he admits it may not be possible in the economics of modern day, ‘get big or get out’, agriculture. In his heart of hearts Randall would like to see the nation reverse the trend toward ever larger farms. He grew up on a small farm in southeast Minnesota. Those were the days when farmers raised a wide diversity of crops. Corn, sure…soybeans, maybe….but also small grains like wheat, oats, barley and pasture crops like alfalfa. Each farmer typically kept dairy cows, hogs, and chickens. Randall would like to see farming move back in that direction. He says in most ways, small farm diversity helps strengthen soils, because each crop adds something special to the land. Plus with small operations there’s not as much economic pressure to use high-erosion, hilly terrain for crop production. It can be used instead as grassy pasture land for livestock.
In addition, Randall says smaller farms would reverse the steady population declines rural areas have seen over the span of his career. He says more people would help boost the small town businesses that depend on farms for much of their sales. Randall admits the days of two or three farms to the square mile may be gone forever but says they’re worth considering. Studying small particles of soil have lead him to some big conclusions about the by-gone days of farming.
“It’s tough to beat,” says Randall. “There were tremendous communities, support for each other. Working together. Stronger schools. More local businesses. We lose some of those things when we get really large.”