Illinois’s Disappearing Soil
The distance between Eden and the desert
This the first part of the six-article series that appeared in Illinois Issues magazine between September 1981 and February 1982 and was later published as 48-page booklet titled Breadbasket or Dustbowl. (See Publications above.) The topic this month was soil erosion.
The series was another of that magazine’s examinations of pressing environmental issues, in this case funded in large part by The Joyce Foundation, with the assistance of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's Division of Natural Resources. The loss of topsoil, from erosion and indeed of prime farmland itself through development had set off alarms in Illinois of the period. The panic proved, shall we say, premature. Subsequent changes in the ways that Illinois farmers tilled their land caused huge (and largely unexpected) declines in topsoil loss.
For other articles in the series, See "Breadbasket or Dustbowl" on the Farms & farming page.
Illinois Issues introduction: "The distance between Eden and the desert" is a mere six inches in many parts of Illinois. While Illinois now exports millions of bushels of feed grains to every corner of the globe, there is growing concern that this bounty may be severely limited in the future because of the loss of topsail. Circumvention of this problem will require serious, thoughtful consideration and planning now.
* * *
The prairie in the Prairie State is all but gone, surviving mostly in scattered patches along railroad rights-of-way and, fittingly, in old graveyards. Yet, in addition to giving Illinois its nickname, the tall-grass prairie of Illinois’s youth left a legacy. That legacy is the rich black soil that covers most of the state.
That soil, along with Abraham Lincoln, is a source of pride even to those Illinoisans who know little about either.
"Look at that dirt," they brag to visitors. "That's some of the richest soil in the world," they say, without appreciating just how rich it really is, or how rare.
Soil is a thing of many parts. Its value as a plant-growing medium varies according to the percentage of organic matter in it; its slope; its wealth or paucity of mineral nutrients; its proportion of clays, silts and sands; and even the amount of water that falls on it in a. year. The University of Illinois’s Cooperative Extension Service has cataloged 425 distinct soil types in Illinois. The best of them—321 in all—fall into one of the three categories of soils designated by the service as "prime" because of their high grain-crop productivity.
Definitions of prime soils vary slightly from agency to agency, as do estimates of how much of it there is. (Only two-thirds of Illinois counties have detailed soil surveys, for example.) By any measure, Illinois has a lot of it. According to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics, only two states (Kansas and Texas) have more prime farmland than Illinois. Although the state encompasses only 1.6 percent of the nation's land area, it boasts of 6 percent of its prime farmland. There are 36 million acres of land in Illinois and 31.4 million (87 percent) of them are used to grow things, according to a 1977 survey. (This acreage includes cropland, forests, and pasture.) Of those 31.4 million acres, 21.4 million (66 percent) are judged to be prime soils, and close to 90 percent of them are used to grow crops. That means that Illinois has approximately 19 million acres of prime cropland. For those who savor comparisons, this is an area only slightly smaller than the state of Maine.
Long familiarity has accustomed Illinoisans to accepting Illinois soil's marvelous productivity as routine. The national average corn yield in 1979 was 110 bushels per acre; Illinois corn farmers that year averaged 128 bushels. The same is true of Illinois’s other major crop, soybeans, with average yields 20 percent higher than the national average. In 1979 Illinois ranked No. 1 in the nation among soybean-producing states and No. 2 in corn production, accounting for 16.5 percent and 17.5 percent of the nation's total crop respectively. Total value of all its crops that year was more than $6 billion—an important figure since two of every five workers in Illinois are linked to the farming, food processing, transportation, marketing, banking, chemical and implement manufacturing businesses which constitute the state's agribusiness sector.
Urban claims on the land
Ultimately, that economic sector rests on the most fragile of foundations. The land may be immutable, but soil is not. When white settlers arrived in Illinois in the early 19th century, the topsoil measured roughly nine inches in thickness over much of the state. By the 1970s those nine inches (described with only slight exaggeration as the distance between Eden and the desert) had shriveled to six, and in some parts of the state to nothing at all. Erosion, abetted by farming practices, had washed and blown the soil away, mostly into streams from which it worked its way south via the Mississippi—a process one writer has dubbed "the great terrain robbery."
Prime farm soils are not just being washed away; they are also being paved, flooded, and subdivided, converted from rural into urban land as they are permanently planted with crops of houses, shopping centers, highways, and reservoirs. Between them, soil erosion and conversion of farmland to non-agricultural uses are diminishing the state's most vital productive resource at an alarming rate.
The conversion of farmland to non-agricultural use has been accelerating since World War II. Its motive has been money and its agent has been the automobile, and together they have transformed Illinois by pushing the city farther and farther into the country. According to the Illinois Cooperative Crop Reporting Service, there were 31.7 million acres in farms in Illinois in 1950; by 1980 that number had dropped to 28.6 million. Counting farmland in Illinois is as much art as science; definitions of "farm" have changed over the years, for example, and while some land is lost to crop production, other land is brought back into production as forests are cleared and wetlands are drained. But the trend is clear: Anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 acres of Illinois farmland is being lost to development each year—the equivalent of as many as 373 average-sized Illinois farms each year, or the equivalent since World War II of eight average Illinois counties.
The mouths nibbling at the state's farms are as numerous as they are hungry. Predictably, most losses are occurring along the urban periphery. Any motorist can see urban sprawl, but it required the U.S. Census Bureau to measure it. Between 1970 and 1980, the population of Illinois’s metropolitan areas grew by 1.2 percent while its non-metropolitan areas—most of them within commuting distance of urban centers—grew by 5.2 percent, more than four times as fast. And what will the 1990 Census record? Cities will continue to require airports, parks, reservoirs, highways and landfills, and those things in turn will require land.
A paved shopping center in a cornfield is unmistakable evidence of urban sprawl. But sprawl has other, less visible effects on farmland and farming. Development boosts the value of adjacent farmland, presenting farmers with the temptation to sell out. Vandalism and complaints about livestock odors, chemicals and dust from newly settled exurbanites complicate a farmer's life. Demands for city-type services—services which must be paid for by farmers, who usually are the largest taxpayer group—add to the tax burden. Liability insurance costs more. Construction sometimes destroys natural drainage patterns. The break-up of farmable blocks of land complicates access and lengthens travel time to fields to the point at which farming becomes unprofitable.
Agents of erosion
Energy may also assert a claim on land. The Illinois Institute of Natural Resources has predicted that as many as 20 coal synfuels plants could be built in Illinois by the end of the century; each such plant would require up to five square miles, or 3,200 acres, of land. Strip mining to date has scarred only a tiny bit of Illinois’s farmable land—200,000 acres in all, or less than 0.5 percent of the state's land area. But Illinois has more prime farm acres lying atop strippable coal reserves (roughly 6 million) than any other state. The 1977 federal Surface Mining Conservation and Reclamation Act requires that such lands be restored to 100 percent of their pre-mining productivity.
But reclamation has not yet been proven to work on such soils, and experts agree that even if it does, it will be at the price of diminished production for periods of five, ten, perhaps even twenty years. The Reagan administration has expressed a desire to relax that standard, which would have the effect of converting Class A prime farmland into Class B or Class C land, as a matter of policy. This is a point of acute relevance to Illinois since strip mining has already begun to spread from the state's relatively barren southern counties into its fertile midsection.
Rain and wind are stealing topsoil from farm fields at an average annual rate of 11.7 tons per acre. In recent years Illinois farms have lost the equivalent of 1.5 bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn grown. Spread over an acre, 11.7 tons of soil makes a layer only about as thick as a sheet of paper. This is an insignificant loss—except when it continues over significant amounts of time.
It is not strictly accurate to call top-soil irreplaceable. The processes of plant growth, decay and regeneration which converted glacial dirt into soil continues in modern cornfields. With good land management, annual soil losses of between two and five tons per acre are tolerable, because that much new topsoil per acre is created each year. It is at this point, when the top-soil gains stay even with or exceed topsoil losses, that it becomes possible to talk of a "permanent" or "sustainable" agriculture. Soil scientists refer to this loss level as the "T" level. As noted, current average soil losses in Illinois are running from 2 1/2 to 6 times this "T" level and erosion has been accelerating alarmingly, largely as a result of more intensive farming practices. Soil loss rates rose 10 percent between 1970 and 1977.
Erosion occurs on other land too (construction sites, forests, stream banks and gullies); but, croplands account for more than three-fourths of the soil losses in Illinois. Speaking at an environmental conference at Sangamon State University in March, Jim Frank, the director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture's natural resources division, said, "We are mining the soil of our rich prairie lands just as if we were stripping for coal reserves and not putting it back."
Actually, it is not quite accurate to say that Illinois has lost topsoil. It isn't so much lost as it is misplaced. Most of it is still in Illinois. But instead of being on farm fields it is in stream channels, lake bottoms, drainage ditches and culverts, the result of an earth-moving operation on a scale that is the envy of even the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Topsoil on a corn field becomes mud in a river bed, and mud in Illinois is an expensive nuisance. It clogs river channels (barring shipping), reservoirs (shrinking water capacity), and fishing lakes. In many of the backwater lakes along the Illinois River it is no longer possible to float even a canoe.
Water is the agent of most soil erosion in Illinois, so it is no surprise that the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency has labeled dirt as the state's single biggest water pollution problem. Sediment is itself both a pollutant and a polluter. Farm pesticides and herbicides are carried piggyback into water supplies via soil particles. So are fertilizers, which feed the ruinous growth of algae.
The cost of cleaning up this mess is high; the Illinois State Water Survey recently estimated that the cost of dredging Illinois lakes alone would run to more than $17 million a year. The cost of preventing sedimentation, unfortunately, is even higher; using estimates from local soil conservation officials, it has been estimated that the cost of eliminating erosion from Illinois farm fields would exceed $1.3 billion.
The costs of not preventing it, however, may be higher still. Devastating declines in crop yields have plagued Illinois agriculture before. In the 1820s, corn yields on virgin prairie soils were reported to be as high as 100 bushels. By the 1870s yields were as low as 30 bushels. By the 1930s, soil scientists found that about a third of the state's land was suffering from erosion damage, a heritage of neglect so severe that farms in southern Illinois had to be abandoned because they could no longer grow enough to support the families who worked them.
Growing more on less
Federal erosion control programs helped stem this wastage, as did changes in farm technology, with the result that the rate of soil loss in 1970 was significantly less than it had been in 1930. But it was not more careful husbandry of the soil that enabled Illinois farmers to gradually match those fabled yields of a century and a half before. Modern farming is a triumph of technology over imprudent management: mechanization, new hybrids, chemicals to reduce losses to weeds and insects. The adoption of such essentially industrial methods of specialization and the economics of scale has transformed the traditional diversified Illinois grain and livestock farm into sprawling outdoor grain factories with attendant problems.
The use of synthetic fertilizers may be the most crucial. Fertilizers (especially nitrogen) are installment payments on the debt farmers have run up against the soil. It is principally through the lavish application of chemical fertilizers that Illinois grain farmers have been able to compensate for loss of soil productivity caused by erosion. The Illinois EPA has estimated that past erosion has reduced the productivity of all state soils by 2.2 percent in the last hundred years (which in turn reduced the dollar yield of that land by roughly $100 million a year). Furthermore, this erosion of productivity continues to increase inexorably at an average rate of .022 percent per year. But, in the last five years alone, average yields of Illinois corn have gone up about 2 percent per year, not per century. Illinois farmers are growing more on less.
Such losses of productive capacity are invisible but they are very real. They take two shapes: loss from conversion of land to non-farm use and loss from erosion that is compensated for—so far—by artificial fertilizers. The latter is the most invisible. The 3.1 million acres of farmland which have been converted to non-farm uses in Illinois in the last 30 years could, at current rates of production, yield an additional 400 million bushels of corn per year. Regarding losses from erosion, the Illinois EPA has estimated that the statewide corn yield per acre in 2010 will be 164 bushels if present erosion trends continue; if farmland erosion is halted and, so-called, "best management practices" followed, the yield by 2010 could be 185.1 bushels, an increase of 11 percent. If the amount of land planted in corn were to remain unchanged from 1979 levels, the difference would amount to nearly a quarter-billion bushels, which at 1981 prices would be worth about $2.6 billion.
To date, no one has missed those 400 million bushels. In spite of the land's diminished capacity, the chronic problem plaguing farmers and policymakers alike is overproduction, not underproduction. Technology has enabled us to believe that soil erosion and farmland conversion don't matter, that it might indeed be possible someday (as two Illinois agricultural economists have phrased it) "eventually to feed the world from a single window box."
Less uncertain is the burgeoning demand for Illinois food. Illinois presently exports 59 percent of its soybeans and feed grains. A recent study by the University of Illinois predicts that demand for Illinois corn alone will increase by approximately 22 percent by 1999. This is happy news, not just for Illinois farmers but for Illinoisans, indeed, Americans generally. For just as the world has grown dependent on Illinois grain, so has Illinois and the U.S. grown dependent on grain exports to balance its foreign exchange ledgers.
But the curve that traces the postwar increased output per acre is beginning to flatten out. Fertilizer use on corn, for instance, may be bumping into both a biological and economic ceiling, with the result that heavier applications return less and less yield increase per dollar invested. There remains the hope that new technologies, or even new plants, will keep the productivity curve on its upward arc. Or that land now in desert or forest may be reclaimed for farming. For the moment, they remain only hopes.
What if Illinois farmers discover that the yield increases recorded since World War II cannot be repeated, and as a result, they cannot grow enough supply to meet this demand? The moral and political costs of such a failure are arguable. The economic costs are fairly clear however. What Illinois does not have to sell to the world, the world will not buy from Illinois.
No effect so vast is likely to have a single cause. They range in type from the individual to the institutional, or combinations of each. For example, the farmer who plows under a grass-lined drainage channel to plant soybeans must take responsibility for the erosion that results, but he does so in response to a farm market system in which higher production is his only weapon against high interest rates and higher fuel and chemical prices.
Land ownership is a factor; a recent Iowa study found that soil erosion from rented land was a third more severe than from owner-farmed land. Land speculators have little interest in preserving, for the next hundred years, the fertility of land that will be subdivided in 20. Farmers themselves are showing signs of a more expedient attitude toward land; as young people continue to leave the land and the economics of farming grow steadily more demanding, older farmers are worrying less about passing on their estates to heirs than about passing it on to a developer for a profit at retirement.
Government, at all levels, has a hand in farm transformations. Real estate developers, for example, function within a market largely defined by zoning and building codes, tax laws and the like. Nor is self-interest alien to government. Local tax collectors are well schooled in the arithmetic of land economics, according to which a field worth $3,000 an acre planted in corn can be worth 10 times than when planted in houses. Municipalities vying with each other for taxable properties have encouraged sprawl through tax zoning and the extension of city services into (heir rural backyards.
It is the federal government, however, which has been the most active force in reducing farmland in the U.S. Although it took the lead in erosion control programs in the 1930s, Washington's policies have had unhappy (if unintended) effects on farmland conversion. The Federal Housing Administration financed cheap suburban housing developments. Federal highway subsidies, along with similar funding for sewer systems, made rural areas both accessible and livable. And the Farmers Home Administration has dispensed more than $45 billion in low-interest loans and grants in the last four years, much of it financing water and sewer systems and industrial parks in rural areas.
Significantly, attitudes toward land use at all three levels of government are being systematically re-examined. At the federal level, the unexpected worldwide grain shortages of the mid-1970s awakened officials to the possibility that even America's bounty may not suffice to meet the demands of a more populous (and more affluent) world. At the local level, the fear was financial; urban sprawl was beginning to cost city halls money in the form of extending police and fire protection, sewers and streets into urban fringes. Farmland preservation thus reinforced planning initiatives designed more to feed city budgets than to feed the world. Similarly, erosion control initiatives had their origins more in worries about pollution and the loss of much-needed water storage capacity in local reservoirs than in threats to U.S. food growing capacity.
The so-called "208 program" makes the point: Named after a section of the 1972 federal Water Pollution Control Act, the 208 program required that the state draft a statewide water quality anagement plan to make Illinois water (quoting the federal act) "fish-able and swimmable" by 1983. Drafting a plan to control non-point agricultural pollution (as opposed to identifiable industrial pollution) provided the first opportunity for farmers, environmentalists, and others to explore the nature and extent of soil erosion in Illinois and prescribe for its cure.
Official opinion in Springfield and Washington is fully aroused to the issue of farmland preservation, however, and in the end it matters little who first sounded the alarm. The Agriculture Stabilization and Conservation Service funds cost-sharing plans that finance erosion controls—roughly $7 million a year in Illinois alone. Prodded by the USDA, a series of reviews begun in 1975 of the role of federal programs in farmland conversion culminated in 1981 in the commission of an interagency National Agricultural Lands Study; the NALS final report summarized the problem nationwide for the first time, and recommended ways to stop it.
State erosion control efforts
Traditionally, federal authorities have (with the conspicuous exception of erosion control programs) left farmland preservation in the hands of state and local governments. Illinois has had an "agriculture district" act since 1979 which allows cooperating landowners some protections against development. The Illinois Department of Agriculture, with the soil and water conservation districts, has a state sediment control program drafted in response to the USEPA's "208" directive that offers technical assistance and some state cost-sharing funds for the installation of erosion prevention improvements. John Block, Illinois’s agriculture director under Gov. James R. Thompson until 1980, is an advocate of farmland preservation. Block set up a new division of natural resources in his department to oversee efforts in the field, and in May even took time from a busy schedule as the new U.S. secretary of agriculture to endorse "Clean Streams Month" in Illinois. Most significant of all, Gov. Thompson in July 1980, issued Executive Order No. 4 in which he pledged the state "to protect . . . the State's prime agricultural land from irreversible conversion to uses which result in its loss as an environmental or essential food resource." The order requires executive departments to analyze the impact on farmland conversion of their policies and "mitigate" them as much as possible.
But it will take more than memos to reverse land use—and abuse—trends of decades' duration. Both state and federal erosion control cost-sharing programs are underfunded, for example. (One Illinois ag department official estimates the state's program alone is short $11 million this year.) The erosion control program is essentially voluntary, and the agriculture districts law lacks muscle, or (a larger failure in some eyes) incentives. Farmers remain jealous of ownership prerogatives and oppose mandatory controls of any type, and they and developers resist restraints on the sale and conversion of land. Even within the state bureaucracy, commitment to this new ethic is not yet universal, in spite of the governor's directive; in May the Illinois Department of Conservation (IDOC) testified against a bill that would have protected agricultural districts from eminent domain appropriation, presumably because IDOC wants to build a state park on farmland in Stephenson County.
It should be clear that farmland conversion and soil erosion are only symptoms. The diseases are urban sprawl, inequitable taxing policies and the modern agricultural economy. Reordering the way we use the land requires reordering society itself. Some of these reforms are already taking place; the rising costs of farm energy, for instance, have transformed the traditional farm economy and the farming methods based on it. Farmers are switching to reduced tillage methods which have saved fuel by reducing the number of tractor trips made across their fields and save soil by leaving more stubble on the surface.
Attitude toward the land
The same market forces, however, also threaten the land. Barring catastrophe, food prices are unlikely ever to be high enough to make soybeans as profitable a crop as coal or parking lots. When the market fails to achieve a desired end, government must intervene to alter the terms of the exchange. As noted, government has been shaping the land market for decades, but for purposes other than farmland preservation.
Increasing numbers of states have tried to legislate farmland preservation. None of them, including Illinois, have yet learned how to do so affordably. Some states, for example, have intervened directly by purchasing development rights from farmers; this has proven very expensive. Zoning has had mixed results; one state tried to discourage rural subdivisions by requiring a minimum 10-acre lot per house with the result that developers began marketing 10-acre "country estates," a development pattern more sprawling than the subdivisions it was intended to replace. Agricultural districts intrude on private property rights. A bill proposed in the 82nd General Assembly (S.B. 511) would provide property tax incentives for farmers to plant soil-conserving legume strips on erodable land, but it would cost local governments at least $10 million in revenues a year.
This tangle of social, political, and economic complications is tied together by a philosophical knot: Who should pay? Can private land owners, be they farmers or developers, be fairly made to pay for measures to protect the public interest? Can taxpayers fairly be made to pay a farmer to be a good farmer? What are the precise boundaries between private property rights and public interest? Who determines the public interest in the first place? And which public should policymakers represent: the public that buys food or the public that buys houses?
Ultimately the most crucial reform will be in people's attitude toward the land. In the past, Americans could afford to view land as a commodity because there was so much of it, and so few of them. The world has changed. Speaking of farmland preservation incentives, University of Illinois economists Folke Dovring and John Braden note that their legitimacy "does not depend on impending crises of food supplies. Rather, they reflect an awareness that the future cannot be clearly foreseen and that market transactions fail to capture some important land use considerations." When it comes to the nation's ability to grow food, they conclude, "it is better to be safe than sorry." ●
Farmland acreage: Depends who's counting
Measuring the land in farms is more than merely a matter of counting. Should one count the suburban five-acre homestead with a vegetable garden and a few chickens? Is a road running between two fields "farmland"? Complications abound. For example, the quantity of farmland is not fixed but varies according to economics. When grain prices zoomed in the mid-1970s, roughly 37 million additional acres were put to the plow nationwide—many of which had been considered too steep or too wet to plant when prices were low. Higher prices "made" new farmland.
Data-gathering procedures also vary, with confusing results. The Illinois Cooperative Crop Reporting Service (ICCRS, a joint USDA-Illinois Department of Agriculture agency) compiles its own annual estimates of Illinois land in farms using survey data from county and township assessors and its own probability land surveys. The U.S. Census Bureau, on the other hand, conducts its 5-year surveys by mail. The U.S. Census counted 29.7 million acres of Illinois land in farms in 1978. The ICCRS's revised estimate for the same year is only 28.8 million. The difference? ICCRS officials privately hint that the census count includes duplications stemming from the use of overlapping mailing lists. Such duplication, they say, would cause an error of 1 percent to 2 percent, enough to account for 600,000 acres. ICCRS also admits that the census may have counted some very small farms that their surveys missed.
If the 1978 U.S. farm census overstates the land in farms in Illinois, most officials believe that the 1969 and 1974 censuses understated it. Instead of the anticipated decline, the 1978 census showed an increase in Illinois farmland compared to 1974 of 639,000 acres. However, as the chief of the census's agriculture division later explained, "We believe that few, if any, of the Illinois counties actually had an increase in land being used for agriculture since 1974." Coverage evaluation studies had shown that many small farms had not been on mailing lists for the 1964 and 1978 surveys, resulting in undercounts. Adjusting their numbers, census officials have since put the farm acreage for 1969, 1974 and 1978 at 30.7, 30.2 and 29.7 million acres, respectively.
Clearly, if one does not know how much land one has, one cannot know how much one is losing. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service has put the annual loss in Illinois at 100,000 acres. This widely quoted number is at odds with ICCRS numbers, however, which show that the annual loss in the early 1970s averaged 120,000 acres. And using adjusted U.S. Census data, the average annual loss between 1974 and 1978 turns out to be 125,000 acres.
Clearly some caution is in order. Given that the 1974 U.S. Census farmland count was too low and the 1978 count too high, ICCRS officials note that the real rate of loss may have been closer to 50,000 acres than 100,000. Those officials also note that while farmland losses were considerable through the mid-1970s, they seem to have leveled off since then. The ICCRS' own surveys show an annual rate of loss since 1975 of only about 20,000 acres, and they estimate that since 1978 there has been no significant drop in farmland at all.
Similar confusion prevails at the national level, where estimates for annual farmland loss range from one to five million acres out of a total resource of cropland (both actual and potential) of between 525 and 600 million acres. With a land resource so vast, what is a few million acres more or less? It is true that the U.S. is unlikely to run out of farmland. But farmland, especially prime farmland, nonetheless is a finite resource, exploitation of which has economic as well as physical limits.
An analogy borrowed from the energy debate may help make the point. There is plenty of petroleum left buried on the planet. However, each barrel of cheap accessible oil that is consumed must be replaced by a barrel which, because it must be taken from Arctic reaches or from deep beneath the seas, is very much more expensive.
So it is with farmland. Every time an acre of prime farmland is destroyed, the cost of growing the same crops on lesser land—land which must be irrigated or terraced or massively fertilized or is subject to fickle weather—goes up. The U.S. certainly has a lot of land on which it could grow crops. Whether it could grow them affordably is far less certain. ●