After a dozen decades of overgrazing and overcropping, our western agricultural lands — both public and private — are in real trouble. But help may be on the way in the form of the Dixon Land Imprinter.
For a good many months, the media have kept us painfully abreast of the starvation, death, and general misery being visited upon the African continent — misery arising, in part, from the effects of desertification of the land as a result of years of overgrazing and poor farming practices. Unfortunately, those same newspapers, magazines, and television stations have been slow to point out that the same tragedy could happen here.
Combating the Effects Of Desertification
Of course, if you know about the Depression-era dust bowl, then you know that a soil crisis has already occurred in the Great Plains region of the U.S. It could certainly happen again, and it could be much worse the next time. In fact, some climatologists and soil scientists not only believe that America could suffer a far more devastating replay of the dust bowl in the not-too-distant future, but maintain that we undoubtedly will if the present trend toward desertification of farmland and pastureland in the semiarid West — especially on the dreadfully overgrazed and chemically abused public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — isn't halted and reversed in the near future.
It's been said that a country's long-term strength can best be gauged by the health of its topsoil, and it's true; once those precious few inches of decomposed organic matter that directly or indirectly sustain all life on this planet are cow-chewed, plowed, and herbicided into sterility, then washed and blown away because there's no longer any vegetation to hold the soil in place, the American West could become another Ethiopia, capable of sustaining life only through the compassionate generosity of those who have better guarded their legacy of arable land.
For that reason, many environmentally concerned soil scientists feel that the present rapid rate of degradation and loss of topsoil worldwide is the single most formidable threat facing humanity today, with the present misery in Africa being only the leading edge of what's likely to follow.
And while there's a limit to what can be done to help Africa, it's not too late to halt the trend toward desertification here at home. Consequently, the staff of THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS is vitally interested in spreading the word about natural, nontoxic approaches to conserving (and restoring) the topsoil and increasing the sustainable productivity of our land.
In MOTHER EARTH NEWS N0. 91, for example, we presented an article detailing Allan Savory's controversial Holistic Resource Management (HRM) theory. In brief review, Mr. Savory has gathered a convincing amount of empirical evidence indicating that the creeping desertification we see today in the American West is a direct result of a century and more of the relentless overgrazing of cattle and sheep. But that's hardly late-breaking news; environmentalists have long lobbied for a reduction of the number of animals being grazed on the western public lands. What is new and different about Savory's HRM theory is the idea that you can actually increase the number of animals being grazed on a particular range while simultaneously improving its soil and vegetation.
How? By fencing the expansive western rangelands into numerous smaller pastures and rotating the stock from one cell to another according to a carefully formulated schedule. Thus, says Savory, the animals will be forced to graze all the edible vegetation in each area or go hungry — rather than having the luxury of overgrazing only a few favored plants while neglecting less tasty but nevertheless wholesome foods, as they'll invariably do if given the run of the range.
In theory (and quite possibly in practice), HRM produces non-selective grazing, the soil benefits from the pocking of the animals' hooves (which form rain and seed traps), and — since the stock is confined to a small area at a time while the remaining pasture is fenced out of bounds — the land and grass are given much-needed breaks between periods of intensive grazing . . . breaks that allow the topsoil to, in effect, heal itself.
But HRM isn't without problems, especially when the theory is applied to public grasslands. And chief among these pitfalls is the method's requirement that we lace even more fences across the range — fences that disrupt the feeding, watering, and seasonal migration of large wild animals such as pronghorn antelope, elk, and deer; fences that lie like rusty scars on the face of the land to mar its natural beauty.
Furthermore, by increasing both the number of cattle and sheep and fences on public lands, HRM would make those areas decidedly unattractive for human recreation. (And such lands, remember, were set aside for the benefit of all Americans — not just those who would use them as a means of making a living.)
Surely there must be ways of providing the beneficial effects of hoof depressions — which were historically tromped into the soil by migrating herds of wild bison — that are superior to fencing the land to death . . . and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) soil scientist Dr. Robert Dixon may have found one of them. Dixon calls his invention the land imprinter, and it's really nothing more than a large metal drum embossed with the equivalent of a herd of steel hooves arranged in purposefully random patterns.
As the land imprinter is pulled along behind a tractor, the angular "hooves" on the drum make funnel-shaped depressions in the earth — depressions designed to form perfect seedbeds, trap water, increase soil aeration, and crush competitive vegetation into the ground, where it will serve as mulch and gradually decompose to become natural fertilizer for the grass, grain, or other seed that can be dropped automatically into the imprints via a broadcast seeder attached to the imprinter.
The Dixon land imprinter promises dramatic rangeland improvement without more fences, without large herds of livestock tromping down stream banks and polluting the watering areas essential to the survival of wildlife, and without poisoning the soil and water with herbicides such as tebuthiuron in an effort to destroy mesquite and other "problem" (that is, competitive) vegetation.
Not unexpectedly, Robert Dixon's progressive, nontraditional, antiherbicidal views were received with skepticism by some members of the government bureaucracy for which he worked until recently as a soil scientist specializing in arid lands recovery. After all, that very bureaucracy endorses and even encourages the use of bulldozing, burning, and highly questionable herbicides! As a result of this policy-versus-progress conflict, Dixon took an early retirement from the USDA this past October to set up a private, not-for-profit organization he's calling The Imprinting Foundation.
But in contrast to the doubts of some of his former USDA associates concerning the viability of land imprinting, the majority of the ranchers and farmers who have tried Dixon's invention swear by it, claiming the imprinter has returned their semi-desertified land to productive savannah after the traditional, USDA-sponsored methods were tried and had failed . . . and it has done so quite economically by comparison.
So how does one come by a Dixon land imprinter? You can buy one, but it won't be cheap: Laird Welding & Manufacturing Works of Merced, California, custom-manufactures huge imprinters for use on large ranches and farms . . . at $8,000 to $10,000 each. That's a heck of a lot of money — though perhaps not so much to a big-time rancher or farmer who's accustomed to laying out ten times that amount and more for various single items of heavy equipment, or nearly twice that amount for a new 4 by 4 pickup truck, and who's faced with losing it all to impending desertification. And $8,000 to $10,000 is certainly not too much — a drop in the bucket — for the BLM to pay for an item of essential equipment that will virtually never wear out.
But it certainly is too much for the average homesteader or arid-lands gardener to pay to rejuvenate a half-acre pasture, to render tired, dry soil suitable for a small garden, or to get a patch of grass growing in the parched front yard. But Dixon recognized this need for small-scale, inexpensive land imprinting and designed a single-hooved model that he calls the hand imprinter. This inexpensive tool can be fabricated at home with the help of a plan-and-instruction packet available at cost from The Imprinting Foundation, and — in some instances — virtually does away with the need for tilling and plowing. Additionally, Dixon has designed intermediate-size, drum-type imprinters suitable for pulling behind small tractors or draft animals.
While we at THE MOTHER EARTH NEWS don't claim to be experts in arid-lands agriculture, our western-states editorial representative does follow this vitally important subject closely, and we attempt to keep an open mind concerning the various organic, holistic proposals for regenerating western America's depleted topsoil and returning it to productive status. Furthermore, it appears to us that the federal government's long-standing policy of encouraging the deficit overgrazing of our public lands by offering ridiculously low grazing fees and granting overgenerous grazing allotments, its poor enforcement of land-use regulations, its direct and indirect destruction of publicly owned indigenous wildlife in favor of privately owned cattle and sheep, and its preference for slash, burn, and poison techniques over a commonsense reduction of grazing allotments (all of this to protect what amounts to less than 4% of the country's total production of beef!), are undemocratic, uneconomical, counterproductive, and just plain wrong .
And while Allan Savory's Holistic Resource Management has proven effective on private and Indian tribal ranchlands and could also be a valuable tool for landowners who graze a small number of animals on limited pasture, we can't endorse increased fencing and heavier grazing pressure on America's already overworked and overfenced public lands.
That leaves Robert Dixon's land-imprinting system — indenting the soil with mechanical hooves, then seeding, rest, growth, and finally a return to farming or grazing within the restraints of sensible moderation — as the most promising method we've yet seen for restoring and improving the depleted grasslands of the semiarid American West. Like Holistic Resource Management, land imprinting is no panacea — but it certainly appears to be a long stride in the right direction.
For additional information concerning land imprinting and the various designs of Dixon land imprinters — or for answers to specific questions — write to Robert Dixon at The Imprinting Foundation, Tucson, AZ (and please include a stamped, self-addressed, legal-size envelope to help defray the foundation's costs).
Four Air-Earth Interface Processes
Land imprinting stabilizes the soil surface with funnel-shaped depressions that maintain high infiltration rates and reverse desertification. (See the image gallery for diagrams of the four air-earth interface processes).
HYDROLOGIC AND BIOTIC FUNCTIONS OF FUNNEL-SHAPED IMPRINTS.
If you live in the semiarid western United States and would like to improve the water-holding ability, aeration, and fertility of your garden, lawn, or small pasture, try this inexpensive new tool.
The Dixon Hand Imprinter
The accompanying article discusses the various ways a multi-ton, drum-type land imprinter may be able to benefit arid-lands farmers and ranchers who measure their holdings in square miles rather than acres . . . but what earthly good could such a monstrous device be to the backyard gardener, or to the family who'd like to grow a bit of grass on the patch of desert that passes for a lawn?
Absolutely none, of course.
Rather, what these folks need — says land imprinter inventor Robert Dixon — isn't the massive, drum-type unit, but the hand imprinter . . . a foot-powered tool designed to do exactly what the big land imprinter does, only on a greatly reduced scale.
With a hand imprinter, according to Dixon, you can forget about doing all that traditional backbreaking tilling and turning of soil; instead, you simply work through your garden area or yard with the shovel-like imprinting tool in hand, pausing every little bit to step down on the foot plate that drives the imprinting head into the soil to form a funnel-shaped depression. When you're done with the imprinting you make a second pass — this time dropping seed into the depressions created by the imprinter — then a third to sprinkle a little soil over the seed in the bottom of each imprint . . . and you're ready to sit back and wait for rain (or break out the garden hose if you can afford the water).
That's about all there is to tell about the Dixon hand imprinter without getting unnecessarily technical — except how to acquire one.
A newly formed, nonprofit organization called The Imprinting Foundation (Tucson, AZ) will soon be offering hand imprinters by mail order for the cost of their manufacture and shipping (around $25; the exact price has yet to be determined at press time). Or you can fabricate your own hand imprinter (some light-duty welding is required) at a materials cost of around $15, with the help of a detailed plan-and-instruction packet Dr. Dixon has offered to provide — for the foundation's $5 printing and mailing costs — to any MOTHER EARTH NEWS reader who requests it.