MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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
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
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.