Pope Francis Speech Reminds us of the Human Connection to Soil

"Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity... [E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it. In all religions, the environment is a fundamental good."

­--Pope Francis, Address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2015

In August, my parents received a "Pioneer Farm Family" award, recognizing that the farm I grew up on has been in our family for over 110 years. I am incredibly proud of the five generations of hard work, countless hours of toiling under the sun, and dedication to preserving a family legacy that the award represents. And I'm grateful for the perspective that has been passed down among those five generations--that the opportunity to live on and care for the land is a gift, not an entitlement; that while it's under our care, we have a responsibility to ensure that it is well-tended and thriving.


Our family's farmstead where I grew up, circa 1906. My great-great-grandmother, Edith, is the second woman from the left. Next to her, my great-grandmother, Marian, is the baby being held by another relative.

But the award--and Pope Francis's powerful words today--also gave me an opportunity to consider what the future holds for our farm, our family, and others like us throughout the country.

Across our nation, we've undoubtedly made great progress in the agricultural sciences. Fertilizers can be cooked up in a lab in cheap, easily transportable forms, allowing yields to reach sky-high levels. Technology allows farmers access to almost unfathomable amounts of data about their crops' condition, progress, and needs, allowing for custom-designed "prescriptions" designed to maximize success. And even seeds themselves can be designed with custom traits suited for every clime and condition imaginable.

But some of the "progress" we have made in American agriculture has come at a great cost. In our drive to increase production, we've unwittingly damaged the lifeblood of our nation's farms--our soil.

Healthy soil teems with life. There is more life in a handful of healthy soil than there are people on earth! Microbes, fungi, earthworms, and other critters each play a vital role in the ecosystem of a field. They help cycle nutrients and water to growing plants, and help make farms more resilient to tough weather conditions. To thrive, these hardworking little ones need a variety of plants, living roots throughout the year, and protection on the soil surface. Yet these tiny workers are so often over looked, and most agricultural soils today have a fraction of the life that they used to contain. Instead of fostering an environment where these creatures can thrive (and in turn, help us humans to thrive), we have destroyed their home through tillage and gravitated toward an almost sterile, monotonous agriculture, making our earth, as Pope Francis put it in his recent encyclical, "less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey."

Beyond the sadness of losing the inherent beauty of a healthy soil ecosystem, the loss of soil life has led to other disastrous impacts across the country. Erosion remains a national epidemic. "Dead Zones" and toxic algal blooms have invaded our lakes, gulfs, and drinking water sources. Economic pressures plague farmers, as they feel compelled to apply ever more expensive inputs as current pesticides stop working.

In a way, the technology that has allowed us so much progress and was presented as the solution to all of our agricultural problems has blinded us to the tools we've had beneath our feet the entire time. By looking for a quick fix, we've missed the gifts we were already given, and we created a bigger problem in the process.

But it's not too late to stop and reassess where we are headed. There are more comprehensive solutions, and those little critters in the soil are incredibly resilient and resurgent. It is possible to have an agriculture that takes advantage of both the incredible technological advances that we've made, and fosters a thriving and hardworking soil ecosystem.

Farmers across the U.S. are rediscovering cover crops, which are typically planted in between regular crop rotations specifically to feed soil life. Farmers who use cover crops have enjoyed an increase in soil life, higher yields, less weed pressure, and increased water infiltration. (In fact, NRDC has a report on the benefits of cover crops set to come out in about a month, so stay tuned!) Farmers have also begun to look at diversifying their operations in other ways, perhaps by including livestock in their rotation, by growing more than just one or two crops, or by dedicating parts of their fields to native prairie ecosystems. Each of these techniques is a more comprehensive approach to farming than the silver bullet approach we've been trending toward over the last half century. And each of these approaches can take advantage of our technological advances while respecting the soil community that was there before us.

It's "advances" like these--which have really been right in front of us all along--that give me hope. The next young steward of our family's farm is arriving in January, and I am already excited to introduce him to the fields that have a special place in my heart. I can imagine walking out into a field with my son, digging a hole, and talking about how each of the bugs and worms and leaves we find in there has a special role to play in making food for us. And teaching him about our role--to care for this land and the life that lives in it until it's the seventh generation's turn.