Unfarming: The Way to Win a Million Dollars

Above: May 2011 flood on the Mississippi River. USDA Photo.

A little while back there was an announcement that anyone who could solve the world’s dead zone problems like we have in the Gulf of Mexico here in the U.S., could win a million dollars. Instantly, I thought my ship had come in, because I knew the answers to the challenge right off the top of my head. It would take me five minutes to do an outline, an hour to write it up, then, bang, a million bucks and I’ve bought my way into New Zealand. But then I caught the clincher “solutions must meet a suite of simultaneous and sometimes conflicting needs – from protecting water resources and near-shore ecosystems to ensuring the capacity and vitality of agricultural productivity” — at which point I gave up without trying. Appropriately, the contest comes out of Tulane University, based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

For starters, how I’d love to see a minimum natural area bordering all waterways, scaled to the size of the waterway. But, why is it that when something makes such obvious sense, then, it just cannot happen? Look at this from George Monbiot excerpted from his lengthy rant against corporate agriculture yesterday over at The Guardian:

We should turn the rivers flowing into the lowlands into “blue belts” or “wild ways”. For 50 metres on either side, the land would be left unfarmed, allowing trees and bogs to return and creating continuous wildlife corridors. Bogs and forests trap the floodwaters, helping to protect the towns downstream. They catch the soil washing off the fields and filter out some of the chemicals which would otherwise find their way into the rivers. A few of us are now in the process of setting up a rewilding group in Britain, which would seek to catalyse some of these changes.

Fifty metres is only 164 feet. Along the mighty Mississippi, we should have at least 2-5 miles of natural forest and prairie land — so George is being really conservative in his baby step plan.

There is good news today in industrial farming practices as they relate to the Dead Zone. There is less overuse of fertilizers, and precision agriculture and cover crops are helping.

But we need a wiser long-term vision, a vision which would bring back a healthy biodiversity to the Midwest. I’d like a lot of shelter belts to return to farming areas, “agroforestry” if you will; and, wildlife corridors which would run up and down the former prairie lands which would be available to the public for enjoyment and help to attract a vibrant younger population back to the Midwest; and let’s throw in a minimum percentage of taxpayer-funded natural land, or buffer strips, on every farm, too. By removing tiling from beneath buffer strips, those areas could actually catch fertilizer run-off. Finally, we could turn more of corn country into grasslands on which to raise large herbivores, and other livestock. All of these things could really help to reduce the Dead Zone… but what will NOT reduce the Dead Zone is the monoculture crop status quo.

The U.S. Midwestern industrial agriculture farmer ails economically today from the monoculture commodity oversupply problem. We have not gained export market share of our major three commodity crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) in fourteen years (see graph). This land which is polluting the Dead Zone due to fertilizer runoff is not, unfortunately, feeding the world. No, it is feeding our cars and the end-points of crony capitalism.

Are these things feasible? Yes, anything is feasible given the right policy support… over time.

Unfarming. Now that’s a word for this century.

4 thoughts on “Unfarming: The Way to Win a Million Dollars

  1. john

    Hi Kay. Great topic.

    In the U.S., Wetland mitigation banking is one form of “unfarming” that increases natural areas bordering U.S. waters. It is a rapidly increasing practice that is transforming landscapes and restoring the ecosystem services provided by wetlands.

    Landowners can monetize the environmental resource values of the land by servicing the demand for compensatory environmental mitigation. In the case of a rancher or farmer with riparian areas on their land, the landowner can in some instances alter practices and increase wetland and wetland buffer acreage by cutting back on stocking rates (cattle numbers) and acres farmed. if permitted as a wetland mitigation bank the landowner has wetland bank “credits” that can be sold to developers, ie wind farmers, who may have current or possible future environmental liability and wetland impacts associated with their project.

    The farmer/rancher can make more selling mitigation credits than farming the same land, and the increased wetland is protected into perpetuity under a conservation easement and wetland banking agreement . The economic return from the environmental assets not only boosts revenues, but also decreases landowner risk by diversifying traditional ag and ranching cash flows from the land

    It’s law – impacts to U.S. wetlands must be mitigated onsite or offsite by way of permitted wetland mitigation. Many farmers and ranchers and other private landowners are incorporating mitigation banks within their operations, and doing so profitably.

    Even some of your industrial farmers and institutional timberland owners/managers are becoming wetland and biodiversity (species) bankers.

    a good read on the topic Conservation and Biodiversity Banking: A Guide to Setting Up and Running Biodiversity Credit Trading Systems Jessica fox


    John Watson
    Terraqua LLC

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge on this topic with us. I do hope the momentum is picking up on this, as all I ever see is bulldozed areas in the Midwest and the photos coming out of the Dakotas where the former Prairie pothole region has been plowed to farm. Whenever I see a wetland being destroyed I always wonder if it is being done on the sly or if it permitted. Because policy right now supports farming “all out” on marginal lands, and every farmed acre is guaranteed a return through crop insurance. While I haven’t traveled the Mississippi River regions, I’m quite familiar with the stretch of the Missouri River which spans the Nebraska border and there is much room for improvement along it.

  2. Joanne

    I think one system that might have some potential is Restoration Agriculture, as defined and developed by Mark Shepard, of New Forest Farm in Wisconsin. It’s basically an alley-cropping system, using productive species such as chestnuts, hazelnuts, apples, grapes, currents, raspberries as the woody species (grown in rows), with forages and some annual crops in between. Forages are grazed with a multi-species, intensive rotational grazing system. This system also captures and stores water within the landscape by establishing all the tree rows (and consequently all other farming activities) along near-contour lines that move water from the wet primary valleys out to the dry ridges, slowing down and spreading out the water. The end result is a system in which nutrient cycles are similar to natural ones, movement of contaminants in water is virtually eliminated, biodiversity is enhanced, and lots of staple foods (starches, oils, proteins) as well as vegetables and other crops are produced.
    Check it out at http://www.newforestfarm.net/

    1. K. McDonald Post author

      Thanks. Looks like a superb model you’ve linked. The midcentury methods of rotational grazing are also not a bad model but it’s just so much easier for grain farmers who don’t have livestock — so there is a work and lifestyle difference. That is a big reason that more of these “Joel Salatin” type systems and your New Forest Farm systems aren’t readily adopted. In my opinion, if everyone else was doing it, and farms were smaller, then the communities would be more vibrant and healthy and then these methods could be more successful. But policy has encouraged the exact opposite to happen, preying upon the amount of labor required for the farmer as selling point.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>