A Smear on the Land

A drive through Farm Country this winter is a revelatory experience. Revelatory in that the impacts of planting the landscape to monocultures of corn and soybeans and plowing the ground black as soon after harvest as possible are there for all to see. The revealer? All that "snirt" one sees in road ditches across the region. January snowdrifts stained with eroded soil reveal June sins committed against the land.

"Snirt"—a mash-up of the words "snow" and "dirt"—is leaving a grayish stain on the edges of farm fields across the Midwest. Its presence is a tell-tale sign that a field's soil had no ground cover going into the winter, not even a little corn stubble. It's also a sign that the soil is so impoverished biologically that it cannot resist being blown about by even relatively minor wind events.

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Snirt has been a fact of farming ever since the first prairie was broken by the moldboard plow, but it seems like the past two winters have been particularly bad for this phenomenon. Farmers and other rural residents are reporting wide expanses of smeared snow, often noting they've never seen it so bad.

Land Stewardship Project member John White recently made a drive from northeast Missouri through Iowa and back to his home in rural western Minnesota. White reports in this week's installment of his "A Road Being Taken" blog that fields all along his journey were producing bumper crops of snirt.

"A field near Raymond, Minnesota, had lost so much wind-blown soil that only the tracks of the Burlington-Santa Fe Railroad provided a border between the shoulder of Highway 23 and the actual field," writes White.

He took several snirt photos of the "terrible beauty" variety in western Minnesota recently, including the two featured here. For more of these troubling images, see White's blog.

As White points out, it's striking how even just a little cover on the land prevents the production of snirt in a localized area. Cover crops such as rye and other small grains keep the snow white, as well as, of course, pasture grass, hay ground and restored prairie. No surprises there. But even leaving corn stalks or other crop residue on the field's surface can be significant snirt-stoppers.

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However, even minimally protected soil is an increasingly rare site in the Midwest. The recent rush to plow every last acre of land has even taken its toll on the few remaining lines of trees and shrubs present on the former prairie. Look beyond the snirt on the field edge and it's likely you will see a hump or two of recently bulldozed trees—a harbinger of even more besmirched snow next winter.

"…miles of piles of former field windbreaks and groves await burning," writes White of his neighborhood in western Minnesota. "While more land is laid open for more corn to be planted, little is left to prevent wind erosion."

Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.