Wayne Fredericks walks out into a cornfield on his northern Iowa farm and points out the first bits of spring growth of a cover crop shooting through the cornstalks.

“We didn’t use cover crops years ago,” he says. “In fact, when I first started farming in 1973 … we didn’t treat the land very well.”

That’s ironic, Fredericks says, because at the end of the day, farming always comes back to the land.

That idea is one that Jerry Hatfield has been talking about for years. Hatfield served as head of the USDA’s National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment (once known as the National Soil Tilth Lab) in Ames before retiring this winter.

He has spent years leading research into soils and land use, and he says it is difficult to really address issues in agriculture without talking about land.

It always comes back to the land.

Hatfield and Fredericks both say soil health has become a hot topic in the past five years or so — a welcome trend. Farmers are starting to talk about organic content and carbon levels and about long-term soil quality issues. Attention is turning toward the idea of improving the land farmers use to grow crops.

That wasn’t the case a generation ago. When Fredericks was a college student studying agriculture, there was plenty of discussion about silt and clay and soil PH and about levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, but few people talked about soil biology.

Of course, it is worth noting that the land has been managed and changed throughout history. For those who talk about letting land go back to nature or who reminisce about the good old days, a historian’s view may be useful.

History of land

As far as Tom Morain is concerned, it all goes back to the ice ages, or at least to the early settlers.

Morain, who teaches history at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, and is a former state historian, says the glaciers of the ice ages came down into parts of the northern U.S., flattening the land and grinding the soil.

As the glaciers receded, the land gradually became covered with evergreen forests then deciduous forests, and finally they became grasslands.

Iowa, Illinois and Missouri were at the edge of all of this change. The grasslands covered some parts of those states and all of Nebraska, Kansas and the Dakotas. And those prairie grasslands built soil.

Of course, when settlers came to the region they didn’t always realize the incredible fertility of the prairie soils. The Great Plains were often referred to as a desert where nothing could grow, Morain says.

Those settlers, Morain says, did more to change the landscape than most of us realize. They cut down forests. They drained the prairie potholes that made large parts of northern Iowa unfarmable. They put in miles and miles of drainage tile. They changed the course of streams and rivers.

Picture the life of an early settler. In this part of the world those settlers were largely families, as opposed to the individual men who led the way for other parts of the west. Farming was a family occupation. They came and settled a plot of land.

During that first year they concentrated on building a log cabin that would provide temporary housing, Morain says.

They would use oxen to break up a small amount of prairie so they could at least plant some kind of garden. Their livestock would likely roam. If they were ambitious and lucky they might get a small barn built for the animals.

And breaking the prairie was tough. The grass was often 8 feet tall with deep roots. It might take five yokes of oxen to pull a plow through it. The ground that was plowed would often be left for a year so the roots could rot.

Eventually the land would be farmed and a society would develop quickly, as well as an emphasis on schools and education.

“The landscape was filled very quickly,” Morain says.

Fencing was an important piece of the story of how the land changed, he says. Before barbed wire became the norm, most fences were built around gardens to keep roaming livestock out. Gradually it changed to the idea of building fences to keep livestock enclosed.

“Only when fencing is in place did it make sense to raise purebred livestock,” Morain says.

The bottom line, he says, is that man changed the face of the landscape.

To the future

Today, as Fredericks walks across his farmstead, he thinks of those historical trends, and he also thinks about the way future generations will continue to change the landscape.

He is excited about the possibilities of cover crops and no-till and the way farmers could gradually re-build organic matter levels in their fields. He is hopeful farmers will do more to treat the soil as an asset to be preserved and improved, instead of just a piece of dirt to be farmed.

And he expects that eventually farmers will develop some type of measurement better than CSR2 that will actually help indicate soil health. With that type of measurement, land values could reflect the quality and value of the soil.

Fredericks is not sure if such trends will require a new farm bill that encourages soil health, just as the 1985 farm bill took aim at conservation and erosion. And he’s not sure if such changes will require a move away from a corn-soybean rotation into some type of longer rotation with more varied crops.

But he is sure that soil quality is only going to become more important, because it always comes back to the land.