Dust Storms

By: Woody Woodruff

On May 18, I spent about three hours in a road closure on Interstate 72 East of New Berlin. If I was about five minutes earlier it could have been a different situation. Two people were killed in fatal crashes from the dust storm that day. That time in stopped traffic got me thinking about why I was sitting in this situation. I was coming home from a meeting in Champaign at the Illinois State Natural Resource Conservation Service with Green Lands Blue Waters, an “organization that promotes economical crops through continuous living cover,” and their Illinois partners, Illinois Stewardship Alliance being one of them. Our meeting was a discussion about the benefits of perennial crops, like Kernza, and how they keep the ground covered and hold onto soil.

During the two hour drive from Champaign it was upsetting to me to see so many dust storms covering the horizon. Most all of them were originating from equipment planting into tilled soil. As a farmer myself, I understand that farmers are under pressure to get their crops planted between these ongoing heavy rains. I also understand that some some farmers are paying high cash rent to land owners and high prices for inputs, so they are under pressure to get crops planted before the cut-off date to be eligible for crop insurance. This is all part of a farmer’s decision to plant or till on a day with sustaining 45 mile per hour winds.  And according to climatologists, this weather pattern will be more normal for Illinois in years to come.

On the drive back from Champaign, I also saw farmers planting into no-till fields, and these were creating much less blowing dust. I even saw one farmer drilling no-till beans into a field full of green cover crops, and I thought to myself that was the one farmer who had done the most to minimize top soil losses from wind and erosion. But we can’t stop there. We need to keep evolving our efficiency in using our precious non-renewable natural resources, like soil, and we need to get more farmers, more legislators, and more citizens on board.

The climate is only projected to get worse. We are seeing signs globally of floods and drought. We can’t continue a system of agriculture that does not support conservation practices. Tilling on a day with 45 mile per hour wind gusts may be inevitable, but the resulting dust storms are not. As farmers we need to stay focused on the signs we are seeing from our land and local community. We need to adapt to the changes that will work to actually reduce the risk that these threats pose to our current cropping system. As researchers, we need to do the same as well. I will repeat a quote I use quite often, “The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself,” Franklin D Roosevelt.