Hands holding soil

Until about 10 years ago, spring wheat was a favorite crop for farmers in North Dakota.

Erickson: “Beginning in 2007, when the government heavily incentivized corn production for ethanol use, corn production really reached into North Dakota, and people began growing corn as a replacement for spring wheat.”

That’s Emeric Erickson, a farmer in North Dakota. He says that shift is harming soil health. Here’s why:

Erickson: “Spring wheat is a cool season crop and it gets up and establishes quickly and shades out the soil.”

The state has a very high water table in the spring. Because wheat shades the soil, it traps the moisture. But corn takes a lot longer to establish, leaving the soil exposed to direct sunlight.

Erickson: “It evaporates the water away – the ground water is carrying salts with it, and these salts are left behind after the water evaporates away.”

Erickson says the salty soil left behind is not as fertile. He’s started growing a variety of crops in addition to corn, to give the soil a chance to heal. Farmers must choose between short-term profit and long-term soil health. It’s an unintended consequence of the ethanol boom.

Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.
Image graphic: Created by David McCarthy.

Samantha Harrington

Samantha Harrington, Associate Editor of Yale Climate Connections, is a journalist and graphic designer, with a background in digital media and entrepreneurship. "Sam" is especially interested in sharing...