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Walking the roads on the farm hosting Wisconsin Farm Technology Days, it was easy for me to figure out what had worried Jethro Tull. Not Jethro Tull the 1970s rock band—Jethro Tull the agricultural reformer of the 18th century. Under my feet the prairie soil had been squashed by tractors and harvesters into a peculiar surface that felt like the poured-rubber flooring used around swimming pools. It was a modern version of a phenomenon noted by Tull: When farmers always plow in the same path, the ground becomes "trodden as hard as the Highway by the Cattle that draw the Harrows."

Tull knew the solution: Don't keep plowing in the same path. In fact, farmers are increasingly not using plows at all—a system called no-till farming. But their other machines continue to grow in size and weight. In Europe, soil compaction is thought to affect almost 130,000 square miles of farmland, and one expert suggests that the reduced harvests from compaction cost midwestern farmers in the U.S. $100 million in lost revenue every year.

The ultimate reason that compaction continues to afflict rich nations is the same reason that other forms of soil degradation afflict poor ones: Political and economic institutions are not set up to pay attention to soils. The Chinese officials who are rewarded for getting trees planted without concern about their survival are little different from the farmers in the Midwest who continue to use huge harvesters because they can't afford the labor to run several smaller machines.

Next to the compacted road on the Wisconsin farm was a demonstration of horse-drawn plowing. The earth curling up from the moldboard was dark, moist, refulgent—perfect midwestern topsoil. Photographer Jim Richardson got on his belly to capture it. He asked me to hunker down and hold a light. Soon we drew a small, puzzled crowd. Someone explained that we were looking at the soil. "What are they doing that for?" one woman asked loudly. In her voice I could hear the thought: MEGO.

When I told this story over the phone to David Montgomery, the University of Washington geologist, I could almost hear him shaking his head. "With eight billion people, we're going to have to start getting interested in soil," he said. "We're simply not going to be able to keep treating it like dirt."

Charles C. Mann is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and Science. Jim Richardson is an Honored Citizen of Cuba, Kansas, and 2007 Kansan of the Year.
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