Exhausted soil? look no further


I’ve never been one for innovation, it is one of my biggest personal challenges. But growing up in the Midwest that is farm country to say the least. I noticed that often towards the end of the harvesting season, say October or Novemberish there were very large bales of unused cornstalks sitting in a barren field. Now I did not know why or what they are for but commonly they are sold by farmers for livestock feed. However these cornstalks are more important to the earth, then they would be to the livestock eating them. According to Whitescarver Natural Resources Management it costs roughly $50-$60 to make one ton of these bales that contain only 4% protein, farmers can only sell them for $12. Economically it makes absolutely zero sense. That is not the only reason for farmers to stop though. Once they pull the cornstalks and bale them, there is generally not enough time in the season to plant a “cover crop” to protect the soil from winter. If the soil sits open to the elements for the whole winter there are several things that happen. The first is that the soil is at a much higher risk of being washed away by rainfall and the second is that when that rain falls it flows through the soil and collects all of the pesticides and fertilizers in the soil which then pollutes our rivers and watershed areas.

This is where my proposed innovation comes into play. My innovation is some sort of system for farmers to use in order to check and protect the health of their soil. Simply leaving the cornstalks in the ground can help the soil but winters are still cruel. I want to create a biodegradable “sheet” of sorts in order to protect and even invigorate the soil over the course of the winter. This invigorated soil would produce both healthier crops and higher yields for the farmer. This would help with the cornstalk problem as well as with the overused and malnourished soil problem. Being the CIO of a company like Cargill can be extremely hazardous, because most of the time people just want us to be more efficient no matter the cost to the environment. My team and I have been behind this soil rejuvenation process for years and it has taken all of our efforts to convince the higher ups to go ahead with the plan. The team that I have assembled is a small team of new idea thinkers. The first of which is David Bornstein, he is focused on social entrepreneurship and is helping to turn our company from being detrimental to the environment to doing our best to help it. The next is the group from Green Mountain Coffee Roasters who went down to Central America and taught those farmers how to farm efficiently and more effectively and still not harm the environment. If they are able to reconstruct how well they handled the situation in Central America it has the potential to be an enormous profit for our company. If we can receive corn as well as a small amount of other foods from our farmers it will make our net on the food industry that much more expansive.

Now there is one person who I have in mind that will be very proud of how we are taking the initiative in the sustainability aspect of our business and that is David Orr. I say this because it of the many Crises that he discusses and his view on sustainability ethics. He talks about how human beings have the desire to conquer nature. I believe that my innovation is the best of both worlds. It gives us the feeling that we are in full control over nature but without doing nearly the damage that would normally happen. There is a specific quote of his chapter “The Problem of Sustainability” where he quotes Aldo Leopold as saying “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” What Cargill was doing before with their farming techniques was wrong. And I think that my innovation fixes their farming problems and makes them right.

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5 thoughts on “Exhausted soil? look no further

  1. And you say you’re not innovative?

    I think this is legitimately not a bad idea at all to think through. Definitely innovative.
    I could imagine a faction of sustainability advocates saying that we shouldn’t be constantly depleting soil nitrogen and other nutrients with mono-crops and capital intensive agriculture anyway, but rather rotating crops, planting and cultivating responsibly, etc – but, I think that that argument often is unhelpful in actually addressing the issues at hand, soil depletion is a problem now, and this a possible way of addressing it now, whether it is the ultimate optimal solution isn’t always the question.

    Kind of like the natural gas as a bridge fuel vs crutch argument, and it’s an interesting argument. Do we have a innovative solution/modification or patch to the problem, or simply stop doing the action causing the problem but take fifty years to do so and let the planet die because we thought the patch wasn’t a good enough solution. Kinda dismal.

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  2. Great post, Ben! Like Josiah mentioned, it definitely seems like a feasible innovation. As we’re seeing /reading more and more about the importance of organic and local crops, saving and protecting soil for farmers is extremely important and your proposed innovation seems like it would be a really cost-effective way of doing so!

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  3. Especially in the central PA area, where corn is grown around every corner, this innovation could change the world. Even if the innovation comes at the cost of efficiency in the short-term, the long-term gains from this for a company like Cargill are immeasurable. I think Jensen would like this one as well.

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  4. I, too, wrote about Cargill (except from the “supporting the little guy as a helper” point of view) and found it interesting the fine line that they were trying to walk with trying not to be another Monsanto and not a glorified farmer’s market. It’s a difficult, but obviously successful niche that they’ve found, and to imagine a possible connection between them and Green Mountain Roasters would be interesting because I wouldn’t be sure of whom was helping whom more actually with the sustainable development on both sides.

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  5. Ben, I rally enjoyed your post this week! Your innovative “sheet” is such a great idea to protect the soil from all the elements during the winter. Taking an interest in the farmers, noting the economic problem, and coming up with a feasible solution is what really made me enjoy what you had written. I also think the team you constructed can really help you out with what you want to achieve for soil rejuvenation. Like West said, this innovation could change the world and how farmers are able to sustain the soil during the harshest months of the year. Great idea and great post!!

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