Tillage demonstrations

Your farm in 2,000 years

By Randall Reeder, P.E., Ohio State University Extension Agricultural Engineer (retired)

Most farm families are proud of their recent history, perhaps going back 50 to 100 years. And you may be looking ahead to a future when your children and grandchildren continue your legacy for the next century. 

Have you considered what your land might look like in 1,000 or 2,000 years? 

As part of a special project, I have read a few articles that describe agriculture in ancient times, 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. You may know part of this history from descriptions in the Old Testament. Vast areas of the Middle East (currently including Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, for example) had fertile soil that provided food for tens of millions of people and supported huge cities. Canals carried water from lush highland forests to irrigate crops through a dry summer. Moses described it as “land flowing with milk and honey.”

But 2,000 or 3,000 years later, most of sloping land in that region is barren. Only bedrock is left. All the fertile soil was lost, eroded away, as a result of centuries of tillage. Cities disappeared. You have seen photos of the ruins of these cities after archeologists removed 20 or 30 feet of silt. 

What is the lesson for us today? In a relatively short time of 150 to 200 years of tillage, most cropland in the Midwest has lost half or more of its organic matter. On rolling land, it is common to see “clay knobs” because the best topsoil has washed away, either deposited on flat land below, or it left the farm completely as muddy water contaminating our rivers and lakes. 

Research in Ohio has shown the value of no-till. In one prominent example with 40 years of continuous no-till corn on a steep slope, the total sediment lost from water erosion was recorded in pounds per acre. Not tons. Pounds.

If your farm family continues growing crops without tillage, planting cover crops, and using crop rotation and other practices that make your soil healthier, then in 1,000 or 2,000 years one of your descendants may speak and write about the wonderful legacy you began. 

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