In conservation with soil expert Steve Darcey
By Lani Furbank, photography by Laura Chase de Formigny, from the Edible DC spring issue
Steve Darcey knows soil is more than just dirt.
“Soil is the sustainer of life,” he says. Throughout history, “the civilizations that destroyed their soil destroyed themselves.”
That’s why Darcey, a fourth-generation farmer born and raised in Prince George’s County, has spent nearly all his life protecting soil. In the 1950s, his family grew tobacco and had a herd of cattle on their farm in Upper Marlboro, MD. Today, he still tends that soil—growing corn, soybeans, wheat and straw.
Darcey, 60, started at the Prince George’s Soil Conservation District in 1986 as an entry-level engineer, eventually working his way up to district manager in 2013. Through it all, he’s never wanted to leave his hometown or stray from farming. “My love is the land,” he says. “I have a really hard time ever thinking about parting from that farm.”
Today, Darcey splits his time between the farm and the soil conservation district, where he and his team work to implement soil and water conservation practices on farms and in urban communities. “Everybody uses soil,” he says. “If they live in an apartment, guess what: The soil is providing support for that building. As they play in the playgrounds, maintain small gardens or play golf, everybody is using the soil.”
As the Prince George’s Soil Conservation District prepares to launch a new branch focusing on urban agriculture conservation, we sat down with Steve Darcey to ask him about the past, present and future of soil.
Why did you join the Prince George’s Soil Conservation District?
It’s the best job an old country boy like myself could ever want. I took all my knowledge from the farm and brought it to the job, and then as I learned things on the job, I took it back to the farm. If there was a program that came along, I tried it, then I could come to your farm and tell you “yes, do it,” or “no, don’t do it.” It gives me more depth and knowledge of how to sell conservation to you, because conservation work is basically a sales job—the only one where the more product you sell, you get no more commission. You just get more work. So, you have to have a passion. Conservation—I feel it’s God’s bidding, and I’m glad to be able to do that.
What is a soil conservation district and why are they important?
There are about 3,000 soil conservation districts nationwide. Our mission is to develop and implement locally led soil and water conservation programs. Soil conservation districts were a direct result of the Great Dust Bowl [of the 1930s]. That was when the government gave people free land to go out to the Midwest and homestead. Farmers started tilling this black soil that was tens of thousands of years old, not really realizing what they were doing. Then, there was an extended drought, and everybody learned a really hard lesson. In 1937, President Roosevelt passed legislation to form the Federal Soil Conservation Service, which directed each state to come up with local soil conservation districts.
What are the challenges of selling soil conservation?
Believe it or not, there are some places in the country that are still doing conventional tillage, and they’re having Dust Bowl–type symptoms right now. Perspectives are hard to change. That’s why I’m a big proponent of incentive-based conservation. If you can give farmers a monetary incentive, it works so much better than non-incentive and legislated. There’s a bad taste in a farmer’s mouth when the government tells him he has to do something.
How does the Prince George’s Soil Conservation District support the community?
We have five main programs. We’re working with farmers every day. Then we have our outreach and education program—reaching the kids, that’s critical. In urban development and review, we’re not only charged with erosion sediment control, but we’re also charged with dam safety. Then we have our ag land preservation—that gives stability to the whole system. If you can preserve that land, it will never be developed. And then, of course, our newest program is urban agriculture conservation. This gives us a whole chance to reach a much broader audience and really have a positive impact on where our food comes from, how much we can produce locally, and do it in an environmentally friendly way.
What are the top soil conservation practices that you recommend?
We’re trying to get commodity crop producers to implement no till-planting, to plant cover crops every year to protect the soil in the winter and add organic matter, and to rotate crops and diversify. Biodiversity is key because soil microbes are very much like us: They like a varied diet. The more varied their diet, the healthier and happier they are. Healthy happy microbes, healthy happy soil, healthy happy crop.
What’s the cost of soil conservation to farmers?
It’s more of how you look at soil and how you look at your commodity crop. You really have to think, “Am I raising a commodity or am I raising soil?” If you start folks on soil health and farming to build soil, the commodity will come with it. From an economic standpoint, we’ve always looked at increasing yield to make more money. That’s not necessarily true. With good soil health practices over time, we may be able to keep the yield the same, but my inputs are much less. If I can cut my commercial fertilizer in half or to zero, I don’t care if my yields haven’t improved, because all my inputs are a lot less. It’s not all about maximizing yield; it’s about maximizing your output with minimal input.
As the climate changes and the population grows, how do you see your work changing?
I don’t think our work is going to change at all. Farmers have been blamed for a lot of woes in the environment. The fascinating thing is the soil is a huge carbon sponge. If we could get the entire nation to really practice good soil health, we could actually help offset emissions by being a carbon sink. I think our mission is still as viable as it was back in the 1940s. Different programs come along and we learn as we go, but I think we’re as relevant now as we ever were.
Lani Furbank is a freelance food writer who’s always looking for a new restaurant to christen as the home of "the best meal she ever ate." Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @lanifurbank or read her work at www.LanisCupOfTea.com.