Fertile Soil Gone From Midwestern Farms


Evan Thaler/NPR

Farming has destroyed a lot of the rich soil of America’s Midwestern prairie. A team of scientists just came up with a staggering new estimate for just how much has disappeared…

The new study emerged from a simple observation, one that people flying over Midwestern farms can confirm for themselves. The color of bare soil varies, and that variation is related to soil quality.

The soil that’s darkest in color is widely known as topsoil. Soil scientists call this layer the “A-horizon.” It’s the “black, organic, rich soil that’s really good for growing crops,” says Evan Thaler, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

It’s full of living microorganisms and decaying plant roots, also called organic carbon. When settlers first arrived in the Midwest, it was everywhere, created from centuries of accumulated prairie grass. Plowing, though, released much of the trapped carbon, and topsoil was also lost to wind and water erosion. The soil that remains is often much lighter in color.

RTFA. The history isn’t unknown. The effects are still (sometimes) debated. It takes many tons of additives annually to keep productivity and profitability close to each other. Healthy? That’s another question.