In our quest to profit from the land and feed a hungry planet with annual crops such as corn and soybeans, we have abandoned one of the most powerful conservation practices known to science – contour farming. Used since ancient times to slow the flow of water across the land to make it soak into the soil, contour farming is a method of planting crops across the slope of the land or perpendicular to the flow of water.
Contour farming captures twice the soil moisture and reduces soil erosion up to eight-fold
The simple act of planting across the slope instead of up and down the hill does two very important things: it captures at least twice the rainwater and reduces soil erosion up to eight-fold.
I laid out many contour strip cropping systems in my career with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, formerly the Soil Conservation Service. When I was working in Augusta County, Virginia some of our soils were very erosive, one soil, Berks-Weikert had a very low tolerance for soil erosion at two tons per acre per year. We call this the soil’s “T” value. The science of soil conservation is to develop a cropping system below this value. If the cropping system is below the “T” value for the soil then we are building soil health. Above the “T” value means we are losing more soil than we are making which is not sustainable.
We can calculate the annual average soil erosion rate by using a formula agronomists call the Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s I was working with a farmer in Stuarts Draft that had a lot of Berks-Weikert soil and it took every soil conservation measure we had to get his annual average soil erosion rate down to “T” or below. He installed a system using contour farming and alternating bands of crops and perennials. The picture above shows some of his contour, strip cropping systems.
The farmer believed in building soil health; he wanted zero erosion. Many years later this farmer sold his land and a new farmer bought it. The new farmer did not want the contour strips because it took more time plant. He wanted to plant the whole farm in one crop. He said he would use no-till and didn’t need to plant on the contour.
The new farmer destroyed years of soil building conservation
I did the calculations. His cropping system yielded an average soil erosion rate of 4 tons per acre per year. I informed him that he would not be building soil and eventually his soil resources would be exhausted. Unfortunately, the U.S. Farm Bill allows farmers to continue receiving USDA benefits as long as their soil erosion rates do not exceed 2 X “T”.
Bottom line: the new farmer has twice the soil erosion that agronomists know is sustainable and still receives USDA benefits.
I lamented as the strip cropping systems I laid out in Stuarts Draft were destroyed, replaced by a no-till, monoculture system.
With the coming of “no-till” farming, I witnessed farmers taking out their contoured, curving bands of crops and abandoning the practice of planting on the contour. It was much faster to just plant in the most expeditious manner whether it be up and down the hill or around and around the field, this at the expense of capturing more water which is a priceless asset for crops in July and August.
Farming is like making a fine cabinet; it takes a lot of tools: a table saw, planer, miter box, band saw, drill press etc. The cabinetmaker needs them all. A farmer planting annual crops on sloping land needs a lot of tools as well: no-till planter, cover crops, crop rotation, and…contour farming.
Like the table saw in building a cabinet; contour farming is one of the most important tools in building soil health.
In the 1938 Yearbook of Agriculture, “Soils and Men”, there is a table from an experiment where 11 inches of rain fell. The field that was planted on the contour captured 6.7 inches of the rain compared to only 2.1 inches from the non-contoured field.
In a letter to William A. Burwell in 1810, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “…we have had the most devastating rain which has ever fallen within my knowledge. Three inches of water fell in the space of about an hour. Every hollow of every hill presented a torrent which swept everything before it. I have never seen the fields so much injured. Mr. Randolph’s farm is the only one which has not suffered; his horizontal furrows arrested the water at every step till it was absorbed…Everybody in this neighborhood is adopting his method of ploughing, except tenants who have no interest in the preservation of the soil…”
In another letter to Charles W. Peale in 1813 he wrote, “We now plough horizontally following the curvatures of the hills and hollow, on the dead level, however crooked the lines may be. Every furrow thus acts as a reservoir to receive and retain the waters, all of which go to the benefit of the growing plant, instead of running off into streams”.
No-till farming is a great conservation practice but it is not the panacea of soil conservation. It takes a combination of conservation practices to anchor the soil and nutrients on the land where they belong – not washing away with rainfall into the streams where they become pollutants.
Runoff from agricultural fields is one of the largest contributors of pollution to the streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Planting annual crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat have always had inherent risks for soil erosion and polluted runoff because they have to be planted every year. The steeper the land is, the more conservation measures need to be applied to the land to reduce erosion and increase the infiltration of water into the soil – contour farming achieves both.
To get help with contour farming and other Best Management Practices contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District or USDA office.
It is hard to believe that contour farming originates from as far back as the time of Thomas Jefferson. Even the former president caught on to the benefits of the practice. I also did not realize that runoff from fields is one of the largest contributors of pollution within the Chesapeake bay watershed, which is very close to my home. I think in order for farmers to succeed without stripping and damaging their soils, they need to begin opening their minds up to the benefits of contour farming. As an aside, it seems a little outrageous that farmers are still getting funding and USDA benefits, despite damaging their soils at an alarming rate, well above the safe average. This needs to change if we are to become sustainable in the future. I look forward to learning more about contour strip farming on our class field trip, as it seems that it is a great practice that maintains a promising future for farming, our soils, and the environment.
I am pretty confused about why the U.S. farm bill would allow farmers to continue receiving benefits while using unsustainable farming practices. The USDA recognizes the benefits of contour farming in protecting soil, and they even have a whole page about how damaging soil erosion is to crop productivity, water quantity and quality, air quality, biological activity, and even the economy. Knowing this, it seems crazy that they would still be supporting farms that are operating at 2 x “T”. Additionally, I’m not sure why the farmers wouldn’t want to put in the work to improve their farming practices when it could result in a higher yield and less money spent on irrigation. It seems like a no-brainer. It would be interesting to hear from a farmer who is not practicing contour farming about why they choose not to.
Chelsea, good comments. Yes, it is confusing but laws in a democracy are built on compromise and votes. Congress passed the law much to the disdain of the environmental community. The farmers didn’t want any regulation at all and their lobbyists prevailed in the halls of Congress. As a soil conservationist working for the agency in charge of carrying out the law, I always tried to “sell” the conservation and economic benefits of farming below “T.”
After reading this post, my questions are similar to Chelsea’s, like why the government would continue to provide benefits for farmers with unsustainable erosion on their farms. I also wonder what the economic loss is for the farmers that choose to practice contour farming, because it seems like the implication of those who do not practice contour farming is that it just takes too much time. I’d like to know more about why exactly the time it takes to implement contour farming is enough for them to abandon a tried-and-true practice for maintaining soil health that has been around for so long. It’s also interesting to see that no-till farming seems to be more popular than contour farming, and I wonder what the cost-benefit analysis of each is for farmers on different scales.
All very good questions, Leah. No-till is an excellent BMP but it is not the panacea for excessive soil erosion and the deterioration of soil health. With no-till comes more chemicals. It’s complicated. Why would a farmer abandon contour farming when it increases soil moisture for example?
Farmers often have very slim profit margins. They want to do whatever they can to produce higher yields to make the most profit, so it makes sense why they wouldn’t want to use sustainable practices while farming. What does not make sense to me though, is abusing natural resources and exhausting them to the point where they won’t be productive at all. Farmers know this, they know that it is a bad business model and that it has no real long term benefits. They understand and accept the consequences, yet they still choose to ignore it. It’s baffling. But I don’t know, I think it’s easy to judge someone who’s shoes you’ve never been in. I have very limited experience with gardening, so I can’t even imagine the stress and difficulty that comes with farming. I’m sure farmers have tough decisions to make when choosing how to farm their land.
Good comments! Thank you.
Contour farming not only is an amazing BMP, but an absolutely essential one to preventing soil erosion, precipitation runoff, and making the soil viable to farm on infinitely. I wish BMP’S such as this one and many others were valued more than a profit and haphazardly quick methods-at the environments expense. I also understand that it is expensive to simply be alive, but the focus should be more on the future outlook of the situation. Even if something costs a bit more time and money to invest in, if will bring prosperity in the future, it will have been worth it. I believe this can be applied to many other instances as well. The value of environmental conservation is undeniable, and until this is accepted by all, what is our environmental outlook?
It frustrates me to hear of a farm bought with every conservation measure already in place, and the new farmer did not adopt the practices available to save time. I feel like taking a little extra time to plant on the contour strips should not deter from using them. The reward of continuing to build soil health out weights the time saved by not adopting conservation methods. Using contour lines helps get the cropping system below “T” which builds soil health and ensures the land will be usable in the future. As well, with better soil health there is a likelihood of higher yields and less of a need to spend money on chemical inputs. The USDA allowing benefits for unsustainable practices does nothing to further entice farmers to switch to better farming methods. In my opinion, farmers should want to keep their land healthy, and the USDA should reward only the farmers doing so.
After reading this article, my questions are similar to Chelsea’s in that I wonder why the government would encourage (through benefits to farmers) practices that result in unsustainable erosion. It makes me wonder what the argument of the farmers was to keep these benefits. They seem to argue that the time it takes to use contour farming is the reason they are unable to use it, but I wonder what exactly the profit loss is as a result of this lost time, because if it is simply more time but no loss in profits, it does not seem to be a super strong argument. I also wonder what the cost-benefit analysis of contour farming is vs. the cost-benefit analysis of no-till farming, because from the article it seems that farmers view no-till farming as easier than contour farming.
Despite the benefits found in contour farming, some farmers have prioritized environmental quantity over quality. This is interesting because it seems that contour farming would benefit farmers more in the long term compared to no till farming. I initially found it surprising, however, that initial reaction faded when after realizing that “doing things right” almost seems like a thing of the past, and it’s been that way for a long time now.
It’s a shame that many farmers abandon the sustainable practice of contour farming for the quicker cheaper way when in the long run it’ll end up ruining land and costing them money. Hearing this makes me draw parallels to a lot of the unsustainable practices that we do today. Opting for the quicker, cheaper option when we know it’ll end up costing us. Especially these days, humans are much more accustomed to instant gratification, and quicker results are more likely to be how we do our business. This especially reminds me of fossil fuel use and nonrenewables in general – using up a finite supply that is extremely detrimental to our environment, when the other more sustainable option may cost a little more upfront but pays off immensely in the future.
Excellent, Nick. Thank you.
I can’t believe how long we have known about the benefits of this practice even without the full knowledge of the scope of the impacts on the ecosystem. I had never even heard of contour farming before discussing it in the class. And people still opt out of the practice… while receiving full benefits from the USDA? I guess I don’t fully understand what the economic or labor costs might be to the farmer. Outside of the benefits to surrounding streams in preventing sediment pollution, it does seem to be beneficial in the long run to preserve their land. This is an incredible management practice that allows the farmer to blend with the natural shape of the land. I can’t believe the massive damage the lack of erosion control had in the case discussed above.
Thank you, Sophia. It takes longer to farm on the contour. But there is an incentive program that pays farmers $30/ac to do it.
It has been interesting to witness management practices resurface after soil has been destroyed over the decades. Practices that people used hundreds to thousands of years ago are coming back now. Mass production and monoculture have drained our lands, and after decades of watching our environment deteriorate, society has circled back to old, well-used practices. I knew about the revamping of things like cover crops, organic fertilizer and herbicide use, and no-till, but contour farming is a newer topic for me. I hope it becomes more mainstream as the benefits are clear. I don’t think farmers should be left with all the blame, as many of them are just trying to make a living under society’s pressures. If the government could incentivize more programs for these practices, it could give the farmers more freedom.
Anna, thanks for your comments. We have been incentivizing BMPs for 30 years. Cover crops, no-till, and nutrient management have been the most successful. There is a $30/ac incentive for contour farming but I think today’s bigger, faster, cheaper, mentality has infected most everyone, including farmers. Contour farming, unfortunately, is a forgotten BMP.
It’s interesting to see how much more efficient contour farming is at reducing erosion than other methods. It’s unfortunate that some would choose to not practice contour farming due to longer planting times. However, this thought process is common in many different industries since profits/efficiency usually takes priority regardless of alternate methods’ sustainability potential. Perhaps increasing the incentives for contour farming would encourage more farmers to practice it as it would increase profit margins while also allowing for longer lasting soil. Hopefully as time goes on we will develop more sustainable agricultural methods that are ideal for farmers, but for now we can hope that contour farming will be used more frequently than it is.
I think it is ridiculous that the USDA continues to shell out benefits to farmers who do not practice contour farming and other soil conservation methods. The entirety of the agricultural business lies in the fertility of the soil farmers are planting on. The USDA should understand by now with all the science dating back hundreds of years that there are environmentally friendly ways to farm which will create longevity for future farming. If the USDA were serious about looking toward the future, they should not incentivize farmers to continue poor farming practices because it will not benefit them in the long run. If anything, the benefits should be increased for those who practice soil conservation methods in their farming. It may take some more effort to implement these methods, but in the long-term, the individual farmer will be better suited to pass on their business to their children, or others if they wish to sell the farm.
The practice of contour farming seems like a no brainer for farmers to adopt, yet I can see why no-till farming gave farmers the idea that they could stop contour farming. It seems like it gives them the impression that they are practicing soil conservation without having to make the compromises it takes to practice contour farming. The USDA obviously has some work to do in this space, as farmers that are actively contributing to an increase in soil erosion are still receiving benefits. It is confusing to me how farmers, who’s livelihoods are dependent on the soil on their land, can just watch it be swept away and not feel the need to implement BMP’s.
I noticed some comments asking about incentives for Contour farming it seems that 30$ an acer would be pretty little. I was wondering if there were another disadvantages to planting along the contour other than cropping/ harvesting time. I also was curious to get an estimate of just how many farmers use this method today (in the Shenandoah valley lets say). I was also impressed that this method could decrease T by up to 50%. What exactly are the BMPs or incentives for reaching a negative or neutral T value is it just receiving USDA benefits. Do farmers that actually produce more soil than is lost receive anything other than benefits to their own soil health and crop growth?
Nick, good questions. In the 80’s there were thousands of acres of contour strips in the Valley. Today hardly any. The no-till, one-practice, fantasy–panacea has a tight grip on farmers–allowing cheap, fast, production at the expense of soil health. No-till is one BMP, one. As erosivity increases, more BMPs are necessary to achieve T. No-till plus contour farming, plus cover crops, plus crop residue use, plus crop rotation, plus . . . is our path to sustainability.
I found this article to be incredibly interesting. Before taking this class I was unfamiliar with the practice of contour farming but I was familiar with some of the other BMPs mentioned above. This article was very informative about its history and current use. It is unfortunate to see that something that is known to be beneficial is still ignored for practices that cause more soil erosion and less infiltration. Especially with how long this knowledge has been around.
Seeing farming practices like these put into practice is something that I have not been aware of since taking this class with professor Whitescarver at JMU. I have thought that farming practices from the past were antiquated and not useful anymore but seeing just how great of an impact it can have was eye-opening and made me reconsider my presuppositions on how farming has evolved. No-till farming seemed like the solution to many problems, but I now see that contour farming can have impacts just as important and necessary as no-till farming. It is a best management practice that should be much more used and publicized than it is.
Indeed, thank you, Nathan.
I always find it extremely interesting how so many BMPs that are extremely helpful to local farms and environments are typically quite simple. The concept of contour farming falls into this as well and it amazes me that this is not always that common of a practice. With USDA and personal benefits from simply changing the ways you lay crops and lines it seems like it would be a no brainer. Its a shame that many people choose to practice only certain BMPs and try to focus on the profitability and ease of now instead of focussing on the longevity of their systems. Damage and degradation are not sustainable and often I wish that this simple concept would just resonate with people more because there are so many easy things we can do to prevent the destruction of our resources.