Erosion degrades soils and undermines agricultural productivity. For agriculture to be sustainable, soil erosion rates must be low enough to maintain fertile soil. Hence, quantifying both pre-agricultural and agricultural erosion rates is vital for determining whether farming practices are sustainable. However, there have been few measurements of pre-agricultural erosion rates in major farming areas where soils form from Pleistocene deposits. We quantified pre-agricultural erosion rates in the midwestern United States, one of the world's most productive agricultural regions. We sampled soil profiles from 14 native prairies and used in situ–produced 10Be and geochemical mass balance to calculate physical erosion rates. The median pre-agricultural erosion rate of 0.04 mm yr–1 is orders of magnitude lower than agricultural values previously measured in adjacent fields, as is a site-averaged diffusion coefficient (0.005 m2 yr–1) calculated from erosion rate and topographic curvature data. The long-term erosion rates are also one to four orders of magnitude lower than the assumed 1 mm yr–1 soil loss tolerance value assigned to these locations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Hence, quantifying long-term erosion rates using cosmogenic nuclides provides a means for more robustly defining rates of tolerable erosion and for developing management guidelines that promote soil sustainability.

You do not have access to this content, please speak to your institutional administrator if you feel you should have access.