Maybe we could learn something about caring for the soil from those at the bottom rung of our profession in terms of resources.
In Burkina, Mathieu Ouédraogo was there from the beginning. He assembled the farmers in his area, and by 1981 they were experimenting together with techniques to restore the soil, some of them traditions that Ouédraogo had heard about in school. One of them was cordons pierreux: long lines of stones, each perhaps the size of a big fist. Snagged by the cordon, rains washing over crusty Sahelian soil pause long enough to percolate. Suspended silt falls to the bottom, along with seeds that sprout in this slightly richer environment. The line of stones becomes a line of plants that slows the water further. More seeds sprout at the upstream edge. Grasses are replaced by shrubs and trees, which enrich the soil with falling leaves. In a few years a simple line of rocks can restore an entire field.
For a time Ouédraogo worked with a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo. Innovative and independent-minded, he wanted to stay on his farm with his three wives and 31 children. "From my grandfather's grandfather's grandfather, we were always here," he says. Sawadogo, too, laid cordons pierreux across his fields. But during the dry season he also hacked thousands of foot-deep holes in his fields—zaï, as they are called, a technique he had heard about from his parents. Sawadogo salted each pit with manure, which attracted termites. The termites digested the organic matter, making its nutrients more readily available to plants. Equally important, the insects dug channels in the soil. When the rains came, water trickled through the termite holes into the ground. In each hole Sawadogo planted trees. "Without trees, no soil," he says. The trees thrived in the looser, wetter soil in each zai. Stone by stone, hole by hole, Sawadogo turned 50 acres of wasteland into the biggest private forest for hundreds of miles. [More of a superb article about the world's soil]
The two most important requirments are for good agriculture seem to me to be personal freedom (to own, operate, compete and market) and information. Top-down programs are usually too inflexible and economically counterproductive. If farmers can't see the wisdom in appropriate soil conservation practices, they will soon be replaced by those who do.
The argument is offered that too much damage will be inflicted on the land by foolish operators before they go under, but simple result-based measurements (no more than X T/a erosion per year, for example) can identify them earlier. Of course, our professional community does not take much of a shine to performance-based referee calls. But as we struggle to evolve from artisans to a true profession (I know - how elitist is that?) we're going to have to get used being expected to meet standards of conduct.