In a normal year, terraces may just be a headache for maneuvering planting and harvesting equipment, but in a wet year they can save a lot of soil, which makes sense if you think about how they were designed.

Cleveland County, N.C., for example, once had the nickname “County of Terraces.” Full of rolling hills and sandy, clay loams, the county had more than 6,000 miles of terraces by 1915. Now the nickname is largely forgotten, but most of the terraces remain.

By all accounts, 2013 was an extremely wet year, and the western piedmont of North Carolina hasn’t been hurting for rain (or snow) this winter. During the past year we’ve seen erosion problems on no-till tracts with plenty of residue—on tracts we’re farmers wouldn’t normally experience problems. On several of these tracts, terraces have been either rounded-off or completely removed.

If staked out by a county agent or soil conservationist, most terraces were sized and spaced to hold at least a 10-year storm without over-topping. Level terraces hold water like a small pond until the water infiltrates the soil, but most terraces in our county have some fall to them and divert water to a stabilized ditch or meadow strip.

The majority of terraces were installed in a time when farm equipment was smaller or “thrown up” by mule and plow. The earlier terraces had a narrow base, with a steeper ridge and channel. These narrow-based terraces were left in permanent sod, and cotton was planted in strips between them. Later terraces where broader based, more rounded, and capable of cultivation. All were intended to prevent water from picking up speed and soil.

The question many farmers face is “What to do with terraces designed in a bygone era?”  Obviously, terraces were there for a reason, and if they’re removed altogether soil may start washing.  We’ve also seen terraces with tops rounded-off that overtop and bust in a heavy rainstorm. If unnoticed, a busted terrace can lead to a gully quick.