Ohio’s Richest Soil Dwindling

Ohio’s Richest Soil Dwindling
The more the muck fields are farmed, the more they disappear

Story by Alayna DeMartini, Photos by Ken Chamberlain

Willard, the “salad bowl” of Ohio, has about 3,000 acres of soil so rich in organic matter, it’s black.

They call it muck. Once a swamp, the muck fields here now grow lettuces, squash, cilantro and radishes among other veggies. Willard contains the state’s largest muck region in cultivation, but the more the fertile soil is planted on, the more the muck disappears.

Draining the land and farming it introduces oxygen into the muck, speeding up the breakdown of the organic matter that enriches it. And winds, particularly in the fall and spring, carry the light soil off in black, drifting clouds.

“Growing on muck is like growing on a compost pile. It keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller,” said Bob Filbrun, manager of the Muck Crops Agricultural Research Station run by the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) at The Ohio State University.

Over a century ago, the muck fields in Willard, about 80 miles north of Columbus, were drained so they could be farmed. At the time, the muck descended 8 to 12 feet deep into the ground. Now, on average, the richest of soils extends only about 2 feet down, though there are sections that exceed the height of a telephone pole. Every year, wind and decomposition take away a layer roughly a quarter- to a half-inch thick.

“That’s the sad thing,” Filbrun said. “We are producing on a very finite resource.”

Bob Filbrun manages the Argricultural Research Station in Willard, the state's largest region of muck in cultivation.

For now, the muck is plenty deep to grow 10 percent of the state’s vegetable supply. Still, many who help growers farm in the muck are concerned. Employees at the research station teach farmers ways to avoid or contend with the hurdles that come with growing crops on muck: disease, insects and prolific weeds.

The muck region is lined with drainage tile so when the land floods, the water slowly trickles down through the soggy soil into underground pipes that funnel the water into a canal, sending it away.

“It’s basically like farming in a bathtub,” Filbrun said.

If not for the underground pipes, the muck region could not be farmed because muck saturated in water is much like quicksand.

“You would sink in it,” said Mike Gastier, Ohio State University Extension educator in Huron County which contains the Willard muck fields. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of CFAES.

Immigrants from Mexico and Central America typically work in the muck fields, enduring the extreme heat and gritty soil that kicks up with the wind.

Live microorganisms and the organic matter in the soil act like sponges, soaking up the water so farmers can still stand in a muck field or drive their tractors over it. The muck holds water well, but also dries out easily.

While most of the soil in Huron County contains 2 to 3 percent organic matter, muck soil holds 40 percent organic matter or more, Gastier said. As a result, more nitrogen, a critical nutrient for crops, is available to them through the process of soil bacteria breaking down the organic matter. 

“That offers a steady supply of nutrients to crops,” he said.

Being black, muck soil heats up quickly. For the people who work on the muck, the soil can seem like a frying pan, and any wind whips up clouds of black soil that workers breathe all day. 

But muck’s ability to absorb heat so rapidly works well for crops, cutting down on the typical time it takes them to grow. Every year there’s a running competition: who can grow radishes the fastest. Last year, the shortest time from planting the seed to harvest was 19 days. That’s about two weeks faster than it would grow in most other parts of the state where the soil is heavy with clay.

As much as possible, the people who work in the muck are trying to preserve it, in part by keeping crops on it into the late fall and winter so the roots of those crops will help hold the soil in place and keep it from eroding.

In 50 to 75 years, Ohio may only have a limited amount of muck left to farm, Filbrun said.

“We hope we can slow it down.”