“Don’t bury your head in the sand like an ostrich” is a popular way of expressing the opinion that one should not avoid or ignore problems but rather deal with them. In reality ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand when they are frightened. They are flightless, ground-nesting birds. To avoid some of the hazards common to all ground-nesting animals they bury their eggs to protect them. It is a very rational strategy that makes them look like they have their heads buried. But people sometimes avoid or ignore problems simply by denying their existence. “Ignorance is bliss” is another commonly used saying to describe this condition.
Soil erosion is a daunting problem today and has been for many years. It is daunting in part because it happens too slowly to grab our attention and prompt action. Occasionally, violent rainstorms falling on soil that is unprotected by vegetation will cause erosion that makes front page news. More often it occurs in ways that are too subtle to notice, but eroded soil is slowly making its inexorable march to the sea. Soil erosion in most of the Corn Belt is happening faster than the rate of soil regeneration. And we are slowly losing our layer of loess, the wind-blown deposits from glacial times, that gives our topsoil such high productivity. The rising crop yield potentials and increasing annual rainfall help to obscure this deterioration and give us false optimism about the future. It makes it easier to deny that we have a problem, to “bury our heads in the sand”.
If we do not want future generations to deal with the consequences of our poor stewardship we must face these problems squarely. This is easier said than done and will involve all of society working collectively together, not just farmers. We seem to be swimming in “solutions” that are not very helpful for one reason or another. Some are overly simplistic because they issue from a poor grasp of ecological, agronomic, and economic reality. Others recognize quite well the ecological parameters of the problem but not the economic realities. Farmers grow for existing markets. We seldom have the luxury of creating markets for crops that might be more environmentally suitable. We will make little contribution toward solving soil erosion and water quality deterioration until we have a scientifically based grasp of the basis of the ecological discord and realistic assessments of the potential of suggested solutions to bring our practices into accord with all of our objectives. We should be heavily dependent on our scientific community for keeping us knowledge based in this process.
Good solutions will come from imaginative people who are willing to address all of our concerns to reach environmental accord. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is another proverb that should be in our toolkit of words to live by. To be inventive is “to have the ability to create or design new things or to think originally” (Oxford Dictionary). We should not expect instant and easy answers to deeply entrenched problems. Our first solutions are likely to be short lived and replaced by better solutions over time. But good solutions lead to better solutions, and all of us can participate.