Sunset on Willa Cather Memorial Prairie
From My Ántonia: “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”
One night of my recent trip through Nebraska was spent in Red Cloud, where Willa Cather grew up. While there, I spent time reading the writing of those who first settled this region. Back then, it was the land of new opportunity for overcrowded Europeans who could no longer make a living in Europe. It was man against nature for these new settlers, and unless man conquered the land, there would be no living to be made. It didn’t take long, however, for the White Man to drive out the Red Man, to kill the bison and the passenger pigeon, and to plow up the prairie sod for crop cultivation.
While some saw and others still see the prairie as nothingness, Cather said after moving from Virginia at age nine, “So the country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.” She and her contemporaries didn’t know what nature-deficit-disorder was. They grew up wading in creeks, playing with frogs, running from snakes, and herding cattle.
Though seldom noted, Cather’s writings (I have read most of them) are interspersed with her concerns for conservation. Like Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Robinson Jeffers, her thinking was far ahead of her time. She criticizes the draining of marshes for crop profit, as one example.
Downtown Red Cloud in 2012
Interestingly, today the town of Red Cloud at population 1,000 is about half the size that it was in 1890. Cather lived there during its most vibrant time.
Corn at railroad grain terminal near Central City
Fast forward to today and we have conquered Cather’s land. The most productive Nebraska farmland is now a giant industrial operation devoid of most life save for corn, soybeans, and cattle.
I always try to note what is changing in the state that I grew up in and spent most of my life in when I visit. One observation this year is that there is more irrigation everywhere. The county that I grew up in is not in Ogallala Aquifer country, yet irrigation pivots now surround my family’s farm. One was installed just last month. My family is worried because their own well will probably run dry eventually, as a result. High corn prices drive more irrigation installations.
Pile of bulldozed trees from a low-lying area in northeast Nebraska to make way for more cropland.
Ethanol policy and resulting high corn prices cause marginal land to be farmed. Corn is being grown between railroad tracks and highways. Piles of dead trees lay in fields which have been removed from low-lying pastures and waterways, to grow crops. Fences have been removed from fields to gain another row or two on the edges, and besides, if you don’t rotate the cattle through, you don’t need the fences. In one location, some very steep hillside pasture which had never been farmed before became a cornfield this year. There isn’t much CRP (conservation reserve program) land to be seen as compared to five years ago. Fields are ever-larger than the year before and there are always fewer farm places, something I’ve noted for decades.
DDGS by-product being spit out from the ADM Ethanol Plant in Columbus
I can’t drive by Columbus, Nebraska without turning in to see what’s going on at the second largest ethanol facility in the U.S. This wet and dry mill ADM ethanol plant was built a few years ago as a coal-fired co-generation plant which burns high and low sulfur coals, tire derived fuel, and biomass such as trees to produce steam and electric energy. Last year when I visited, I saw through clouds of dust, trucks filled with corn lined up more than twenty deep to deliver Ogallala Aquifer irrigated corn for distillation into ethanol at this plant. This year, there were only a couple of trucks delivering corn and the main activity seemed to be the DDGS production pictured in the above photograph.
These rural farming regions grow more dependent upon fossil-fuels each passing year. Farmers and their spouses work in off-farm jobs, often an hour’s drive from home. Little towns such as Oakland are now referred to as “bedroom communities” for Omaha, which is seventy miles away. The small towns are often food deserts and many farms don’t have gardens, either. The nearest Walmart provides groceries and about everything else. The farming operations rely upon diesel, fossil-fuel derived fertilizers, and chemicals, as do the roads, infrastructure, and trucks which move the commodities. It’s all about fuel and machinery substitution for human labor in industrial farm country. What it’s not about is aesthetics.
The entire region looked horribly dry and the trees were suffering, like those you might see in West Texas. Alfalfa is a drought tolerant crop so fields of it are bright green, as compared to everything else. Though alfalfa quality has been good, the quantity was very low this drought year. Nebraska fared about the worst of all of the states in drought and heat conditions this year. My family farm has received about 65 percent of normal rainfall to date and had a corn yield of 43 bushels per acre. In agreement with other comments I’ve been seeing online, it was a mystery to this area’s farmers as to why yields were higher in one place, and lower in another, sometimes within the same field.
Glyphosate resistant marestail growing in soybeans on my family farm
Undermining industrial agriculture a huge problem is creeping up — superweeds. I witnessed it first hand in the above photograph. My family had problems with marestail in the soybeans this summer and had to hand-cultivate. Nature always wins.
Now, I will close this post with a final Cather quote from O Pioneers, which seems relevant for our time and for this summer of extreme drought and heat in Nebraska. “The air and the earth are curiously mated and intermingled, as if the one were the breath of the other.”