Big farm vehicles destroy our soil and cause droughts and flooding

People often complain that I warn a lot about climate change. A lot of people are convinced that it must be exaggerated in one form or another. They also tend to wonder “what about all the other crises we face”?

The response I have to that is that all the other problems are acute. With the climate problem, if we continue to screw this up, we’ll eventually trigger positive feedback processes that make the Earth uninhabitable to more than a few million human beings at best, for a very long time. We won’t be able to return to a simple agricultural civilization, we’ll be reduced to sparse bands of hunter-gatherers surviving far from the equator if we allow this to continue.

Most of the other problems on the other hand, with the exception of species extinction, can generally repair themselves within a few centuries. As an example, radioactivity decays or is buried in the soil, persistent pollutants known for their ability to “turn the frickin’ frogs gay” are eventually broken down and even soils regenerate themselves given enough time.

But if you were to say “climate change is not the only problem we face” then you’re right of course. It’s even true that some of the problems we face that are caused by climate change, are not entirely caused by climate change. As an example, I want to look at the droughts.

The Netherlands is currently on track to exceed the worst drought year ever recorded in my country’s history. From the website of the KNMI, we can find this graph:

It’s not hard to figure out that the rapidly changing climate is playing a role in this. As I must have mentioned a few times by now, whenever it rains now, it all tends to fall at once. In a forest, the trees will generally store the excess water in their deep roots and release it during dry periods. On the other hand, in our own agricultural fields, there are no big trees that can store excess water for drought years.

But as is so often the case, we humans make it all worse than it has to be. This brings me to an environmental problem you have probably never heard of yet, but you’re going to hear a lot about it in the coming years as humans begin to figure out the problem: Subsoil compaction.

What’s subsoil compaction? Well, when you press with something heavy on your soil, like the foot of an elephant, you compress the loose soil and remove any air gaps from it. When it’s all very dense, the roots of our plants can’t penetrate the barrier and the soil loses its ability to store water. To solve this problem, we generally till the top 20 centimeter or so of our soils. This helps to make the soil loose again and allows plants to grow.

Unfortunately however, when you’re using very big agricultural machines, like massive combine harvesters, then the weight of these machines is so massive that the deeper layers of the soil are being compacted, the area below 20 centimeters. This is where your plants are supposed to send their deepest roots, to extract micronutrients and water. When humans use big enough machines, the compression of the soil in these deepest layers makes the deep soil incapable of harboring life and storing water. The roots of our plants become incapable of penetrating this layer.

In the winter when soil temperatures drop below zero, water freezes and expands. This creates room for air in the soils again. However, the freezing temperatures generally don’t reach below 20 centimeters in most places. There are not really many mechanisms in nature that allow a soil that is compacted below 20 centimeters to recover its loose aerated structure that allows it to store water and harbor life. Studies from Sweden show that if you damage this layer of the soil with heavy machinery that rides over farmland, the damage remains for at least 14 years.

Unfortunately, the problem keeps getting worse, because we keep using bigger machines. With small machines, you damage the top layer that you then till to help it recover. With the big machines we’re using these days, we’re damaging layers that we don’t till. The soil is thus losing its ability to store water for us, as there’s a thick impenetrable layer forming.

You can see here how the machines we’re using are getting bigger and causing more damage to the subsoil by compressing it:

Stress at the surface of the soil isn’t really changing, but at the deeper layers, the problem is getting worse and worse, as the agricultural machines farmers use just keep getting bigger and bigger. The whole paper can be found here.

So it should be easy to understand what’s happening: We’re damaging the deeper layers of our soils, that used to store water for us, that plants with big roots could then use during droughts. When it now rains, this rain doesn’t penetrate deep into the soil, rather, it contributes to big floods and goes back into the ocean. Then when there is no rain, we don’t have any water reserves in our soils, so the droughts get worse!

As mentioned earlier, with the changing climate we now face a situation where water most often falls all at once instead of over an extended period. Forests are better able to deal with this than human agriculture, but with the way we are treating our deep soils, we are making it even worse!

Normally plants would also use these deeper layers of the soil, to find the micronutrients they can’t find in the higher layers of the soil. Today we can roughly compensate for most micronutrients plants are missing by using fertilizers, but without the fertilizers plants would now find themselves confronted with an inability to enter the deeper layers of the soil to find the micronutrients they need.

Agricultural yields in Europe began to stagnate in the 1990’s, it’s thought that this is related to the decline in quality of our deeper soil layers from the machinery we use. You can see here how the floods began to get much worse in Europe since the 90’s:

And here you can see the sudden stagnation in yields in Scandinavia from the 90’s onwards:

This is basically the equivalent of salting the fields: Our massive machines are damaging the deepest layers of the soil, where natural processes take decades or more to restore the vitality. The result becomes that the damage from any climate change induced drought will be more severe, as the crops won’t be able to tap into deeper layers of retained moisture.

This is an important thing to understand. In the decades ahead, you will start seeing increasingly worse food shortages and ecological problems. With every single problem, some people will say “see it’s climate change” and then others will say “well actually it’s due to X, Y and Z”! The reality however, is that humans are causing all sorts of changes to our environment, that are eroding our Earth’s capacity to feed us and give birth to life. The biggest out of all these problems is the changing climate, but with any individual crisis that we face, it will be a subject of constant debate which particular problem is mainly responsible.

In other words, in 2035 Joe Sixpack will still be able to argue that whatever new natural disaster has caused him to go hungry or watch his house burn to the ground was not caused by climate change, but by one form of mismanagement of our environment or another. If you’re really eager not to see it happening, then you’ll be able to come up with some sort of way to argue that it’s not really happening. That doesn’t allow you to escape the consequences however.

Consider for example, the situation in California. Americans don’t want to see what’s happening and so they can point to other problems: Forest fires are now prevented, so dry timber stacks up, causing massive fires when they do take place. Similarly, California had a dry period before the 20th century. In other words, as their whole state becomes an unlivable burning desert, they will argue that it’s not caused by the changing climate. By zooming in on any particular problem we’re facing, you allow yourself to grow blind to the massive global background problem that is throwing fuel onto each individual problem.

8 Comments

  1. Das Thema ist nicht unbekannt. Ich habe in den 90er Jahren Agrarwissenschaften studiert, und da haben wir diese Dinge schon diskutiert.

  2. Doesnt farmers and agriculturalists say there will be the worst drought ever every year? Until it rains and then they complain about that.

  3. Lol soil compaction has been decreasing for hundreds of thousands of years, so now that it is increasing it is just a return to the mean.

    Soil compaction has always changed. Until the 1970s, mainstream scientific opinion was that soil would soon start to melt under our feet, and now they changed their mind and expect us to believe the new scare. They are clearly only creating this media hysteria to get more research grants.

    Nutrient runoff is actually food for the aquatic fauna, so runoff is good. What is good for the fish is good for us, too. It is better for the fish to live in eutrophic waters than in waters starved of nutrients, so actually we are doing Nature a favor.

    Today I am going to stump extra hard on my garden to increase soil compaction and own libtards like you who believe in the soil compaction hoax.

    Alright, just joking.

    Yes, I have been checking out the KNMI precipitation deficit chart weekly since the summer of 2018, and this year’s is pretty scary, even though it is raining now outside, so who knows.

    I have a small plot on superheavy polder clay, and compaction is pretty much enemy number #1. The drought of the past 4+ years has turned everything into a thick crust hard as rock. Our garden complex was established in the early 1980s. The paths between the plots used to be lush with grass even in the midst of summer, but now they are just lifeless strips of desert. It is not the lack of water, just the change in soil structure.

    What is slightly more scary is that heavy clays are the most fertile soils in the Netherlands, but they basically must be milled every year because they become so hard. If you do not mill, the soil becomes so hard that potatoes and onions cannot grow through the crust, and other vegetables cannot develop roots.

    Milling machines reduce compaction for one growing season, but make it worse for the next one. And milling machines need diesel to function. It is not hard to imagine a not too distant future with unfarmable soils and diesel shortages. And food shortages of course.

    The usual adaptation, as agriculture runs its course and destroys the soil as it has done for the past 5000 years, is to switch from yearly to perennial crops like fruit trees. The downside is of course that you cannot subsist on a summer harvest of apples.

    The permaculture solution would be to cover eveything under a thick layer of mulch, and it does work to a certain extent. But then of course you cannot farm intensively, so yealds plummet.

    • I know this is not a gardening blog, but the US solution for small gardeners on heavy clay is to try to get as much organic material into it as possible and this includes growing a winter cover crop like oats, buckwheat or radishes. There is also new research that suggests that the terra pretas in Brazil were human made through adding charcoal (biochar is the trendy word) and nutrients to turn the hard tropical rainforest laetrite soils into dark farming soils. There has not been enough research to see if this is scaleable beyond small plot farming.

  4. Compaction is a serious concern for farmers and foresters, and the current goal is to reduce it as much as possible not only for absorption and run off issues, but also because compaction inhibits root growth, and in row crops and fields it allows moisture to wick to the surface and evaporate during the dry seasons, wasting moisture that would be preserved if there is a layer of fluffy uncompacted soil on the surface.

    You mention as your principal example, “elephant feet” Elephants are interesting creatures, very smart and having many of the same touching virtues as humans (tenderness, fairness, mourning, regret) and few of the vices.
    Another difference between elephants and humans is that their footprints press less deeply into the same soil than do humans’.
    Elephants have a larger foot, and to coin a phrase, have a larger “foot-print” than humans, even in proportion to their weight. The standard reference to the ration between foot-print and weight is called “ground pressure” A goat, for example, has a small sharp foot that in spite of its lighter weight exerts greater pressure on the ground than even a human, and in English, a knobbed wheel for compacting soil is actually called a “goatsfoot”

    Anyhow, away from the fun that specialized construction equipment provides us, we get to look at specialized farming equipment. Since farmers rely on their dirt for a living (those that don’t rely on government subsidy I suppose) they take the best care they can for their soil.
    Here, where grass seed and white wheat are the principal field crops, there are specific tires that trade out to avoid ground pressure during the wet months, partially due to compression problems, but also to avoid ruts, which cause pooling of water in the fields that causes the clayey soils to become impermeable and creates runoff, and create channels for runoff that will strip soil out through gulleys as fast as the rain falls.
    In the Winter they use balloon tyres, and in the summer when the soil is dry and they try to avoid crushing growing crops they use narrow tires, and run on the soil as little as possible to avoid compaction to maintain moisture retention in the subsoil, allow root growth and percolation of rain water and nutrients through the root areas of the soil.

    The principal causes of compaction in a properly operated farm are roads, unremediated construction for drainage and dykes, plow pan, saturated soil that is not allowed to drain, and caliche in arid regions. Farmers use roads in their fields to avoid compaction all over, and ditch culvert them to avoid compromising the soils . . . and to keep from bogging and losing expensive equipment during critical periods of sowing and harvesting.

    Caliche is a problem in arid farmlands, it is where solualable minerals like carbonates are dissovled from the soils by rainfall and are washed downwards into the soil where they are deposited as an impermeable layer, inhibiting further percolation of moisture. It is hard to remediate, but is a problem in the American Southwest, parts of Africa and the Mediterranean. Salination is a similar problem in these same soils when put into heavy cultivation and irrigation.
    Plow pan is a problem with long farmed land, where the standard plow only goes so deep, year after year for centuries, fluffing soil up as it plows on top, and compacting it below the reach of the plow. This is pretty bad in clayey soil where peaty or sandy soil seems less affected. It is remediatated by periodic deep ripping but this requires quite large equipment, the same equipment you are warning us against.
    Poor drainage leads to pooling of water, not only on the surface but also in the saturated soils below as well. Very small clay particles settle in the interstices of larger particles, making a solid clay area that has very low percolation, and so very poor water absorption. clay holds moisture very well but if you ever had to survive on a well in a clay aquifer, to quote my mom, “hope the kids don’t need a bath on laundry day” This is remediated by tiling, setting in drainage pipe to gather and drain sub-surface water to keep it from sitting in the soil and compacting it deeply. It also requires pretty heavy equipment to rip open the fields and lay the tile. Interesting to watch, and hard to do well, so it is done by professional farm engineering companies.

    In the dryer regions, the major concern is wind erosion, where high winds blow light soil away, and in these areas moisture is a serious limiting factor for crop growth. In such areas it is practice to leave fields fallow for a whole year with standing stubble, in part to allow for a build up for moisture, with the stubble acting to both catch windblown dust from the neighboring fields and inhibit weed growth that will also deplete the moisture. In the past it was typical to use a weeder to knock down the stubble and weeds and set up furrows crossways to the winds to trap windblown soil, but nowadays summer fallowed fields are considered better.

    Farmers, unlike ministers and bureau heads who regulate them, are not dumb people, they cannot afford to be. Even the medieval peasant was a technician in crops and agricultural survival even if he didn’t speak the language of the court, and probably didn’t know the principal exports of Constantinople or what Aristotle thought about anything. To be ignorant means being focused in other areas of learning. To be dumb is to starve.

    Unless given no other choice, a farmer will buy equipment that will get his crop in with the least damage to his ground. Now, if the equipment is bought by a giant multinational looking at profits from their hired employees over sustainability it is not the farmers’ fault, it is the fact that a multinational corporation considers farming to be equal to strip mining rainforests for Cobalt for batteries for electric vehicles.

    Also, if the farmer is required to buy certain equipment as a condition of his operating loans, it is again not really the fault of the farmer, but the multinational bank that is enforcing non-sustainable conditions on the farmer, who needs the working capital to survive in his regulated industry.

    Larger and larger equipment is the trend in Western agriculture, as labor and regulation requirements become more and more expensive. Larger equipment allows one farmer to plant and harvest more crops with less labor, and that along with loans, make up the very thin profit margin for the individual farmer. If you want to reverse this trend, you need to change the perverse incentives that are forcing it.

    I too believe famine is coming this year. It is not coming due to global warming or the middle class not caring enough. It is not because farming equipment is too big and heavy, Famine is coming from governments that restrict access to fuels and fertilizers needed to farm in the way that the banks and the governments are requiring farmers to farm. since the beginning of the industrial revolution, probably since the thirty years war, famines have been caused by governments. The Irish famine, the Holodomor, post colonial India, the starvation of the low countries under German occupation in WWI, all were caused by governments directing things.

    Farmers can make a blazing desert bloom with crops and shade and water. A politician can make a near paradise into a blazing desert. And then, to quote Radio Yerevan: then they will manage to run out of sand.

  5. I love your writing and your magnificent take on the greatest mass hysteria in world history. What I don’t love, or understand, is your thinking that puny little man could have any appreciable effect on the two billion cubic kilometers comprising the atmosphere, or that there is anything we can do about it for anything less than 100 years of worldwide GDP, say 1,000 trillion dollars.

  6. Aside from the climate change pandering, which as usual is based on correlating graphs and moral superiority, I really like this article. I wonder if the reset or depopulation agenda has the soil exhaustion planned also, so that we can say our soils can no longer be tilled and we need big business’ vertical farming. Of course that’s just a conspiracy theory, as rich people have basically no opportunity to influence politics, besides money, which is a really weak incentive for humans in general.

    Either way, the answer is to use smaller-scale farming with smaller machines and small (or possibly also tall) farmers who know their land. I have seen incredible feats of soil restoration with cow dung, which maybe the author of this article doesn’t appreciate for several reasons, but which are really promising for dead farmland.

    As for the droughts, yeah of course I know it’s all because of climate change, couldn’t be because of a loss of forests and grasslands as humidity reservoirs, humidity which clearly is also released into the atmosphere where it can form clouds that rain back down on the soil. No, it’s human-caused climate change, and everyone will have to eat five soy steaks so Greta will free us from our collective sin.

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The patients in the mental ward have had their daily dose of xanax and calmed down it seems, so most of your comments should be automatically posted again. Try not to annoy me with your low IQ low status white male theories about the Nazi gas chambers being fake or CO2 being harmless plant food and we can all get along. Have fun!

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