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Earth Sense: Protecting topsoil important key to plants, food production
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The word “resources” comes up frequently in discussions about the environment. Among those, the importance of topsoil is often overlooked.

Soil that’s capable of growing food plants is a nonrenewable resource, and Georgia is heavily burdened by mistakes made when cotton was king among the state’s crops. 

Gardeners know it’s difficult to produce vegetables in the red clay loam that’s so common here. Lack of nutrients, acidity, and the fact clay soaks up lots of water but is reluctant to share it with plants require careful treatment.

Until the middle of the last century, almost half of the farmers in Georgia were sharecroppers. Since someone else owned the land they were tilling, there was little incentive to protect the topsoil.

Plentiful rain led to erosion, washing away the most fertile layers at the top and exposing the largely infertile subsoil below.

Cotton isn’t really “hard on the soil,” as is often said. It can actually do quite well on land that isn’t very fertile to start with. But farmers often lacked the knowledge and resources to protect “the dirt.”

Cotton seeds, which can be a good supplier of nutrients to the soil, tended to be used to fertilize food crops produced at the same farms. Neglected cotton fields, laying bare to erosion during the cold season, soon lost their ability to produce. 

But the topsoil washed away by the rain didn’t simply flow down the streams until it ended up in the ocean.

The Oconee River shows good examples. Local shoals, and especially dams built to power cotton mills more than a century ago, trapped sediment and led to further deterioration of agricultural land.

Between Watkinsville and Greensboro, near Ga. 15, is Scull Shoals. It once had the biggest water-powered mill on the Oconee.

In 1860, the owners built a dam to increase water levels and produce more hydraulic power. Soon, the river was depositing huge amounts of sediment in the reservoir, leading to periodic overflows.

The great flood of 1887, a direct result of sedimentation, rendered the mill inoperable. Swampy conditions made the adjoining fields useless for agriculture. Today, the dam is completely buried underneath the river surface, along with old mill structures and machinery. 

This and many other local examples of misguided practices point out the importance of protecting the topsoil, our premier producer of food, with modern agricultural techniques.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University.

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