Category Archives: drought

A September Trip Through Nebraska in Drought Year 2012

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.”

Agriculture News August 31 2012

Last Saturday the USA Pro Cycling Challenge raced through Boulder twice. It was fun to be a spectator and no event could have fit this town better. Our son took the above photo of the breakaway group entering Boulder canyon to begin their climb into the mountains to loop around Nederland to Lyons before returning through Boulder to finish on Flagstaff Mountain, just West of town.

On a personal note, my family farm in Northeastern Nebraska had a visit from the insurance adjuster a few days ago and their estimated corn yield is 45 bushels per acre. Thankfully, they had crop insurance. Now, their question is whether any of it is safe to store or feed to their cattle. Unfortunately, I won’t get there to visit until later in September, and though I’ve begged them to take photos, they have no desire to do so. I don’t think they want to remember this year. Last week continued to break heat records there (it was 100F yesterday) and rainfall continues to miss this region.

Next, is the Ag news for the week….

Eyes on planting in South America (DesMoines Register)

Wild rice gene gives yield boost (BBC)

A humble soil bacterium called Ralstonia eutropha has a natural tendency, whenever it is stressed, to stop growing and put all its energy into making complex carbon compounds. Now scientists at MIT have taught this microbe a new trick: They’ve tinkered with its genes to persuade it to make fuel — specifically, a kind of alcohol called isobutanol that can be directly substituted for, or blended with, gasoline. (MIT)

Compared to other harvest seasons, a 30 to 40 percent shortage of skilled harvesters this year has been confirmed by California farming organizations, which note that peaches, cherries and other premium crops are going unpicked. … Roughly 60 to 70 percent of all fresh produce eaten in the U.S. is grown in Mexico, but production and transportation of these fruits and vegetables can be easily disrupted by climatic disasters, social conflicts, or national policy shifts. By Gary Nabhan (Civil Eats)

The World Bank said that drought in the US and Eastern Europe crop centers sent global food prices soaring by 10 percent last month, raising a food security threat to the world’s poorest people. (AFP)

Wheat producers are concerned about the high cost of fertilizer and don’t see it going down in the future due to global demand. (Southeastfarmpress)

Pork Industry Faces Record Losses (Farmdocdaily)

Increased rainfall and temperature due to climate change could bring benefits to South-East Asian agriculture, a study suggests, contradicting more common expectations that a warmer planet will reduce agricultural productivity in the region. (Scidev)

● This FT article describes the thin profit margins many UK farmers are dealing with and that three strategies are emerging: using sustainable “back to nature” methods that rely less on expensive bought-in feed and inputs; co-operative structures; and a move up the value chain or into exports. (FT)

Nestlé Official says agriculture needs to solve water issues, and that GMO’s aren’t necessary (Takepart)

The world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc has joined an alliance of other Fortune 500 companies, including Cargill and Kellogg Co, seeking to make agriculture more sustainable. (Reuters)

● Alternative fuels – Difference Engine: Competition at the pump (The Economist)

President misses mark on livestock aid (Capital Press)

Cocoa Hits 9-Month High (WSJ)

Insurers face big agriculture losses (FT)

Hog operations are going belly-up in China due to high feed costs (NYT)

Sapphire completes construction of the Green Crude Farm: algae biofuels heads for the next level (Biofuels Digest)

Avista investment to help Matrix strike oil in algae; Seattle-based Matrix Genetics is spinning out of Targeted Growth and launching its business of developing biofuels made from algae. (Seattle Times)

Ag commodity advisors like to say that it’s all about China. This article explains how a change in China’s policy of reduced taxes for farmers and increased subsidies have led to more prosperity and an eighth consecutive year of grain production growth last year. They have become nearly self-sufficient in rice and wheat. (xinhuanet)

● Syria’s rural economy adapts as conflict spreads (Reuters)

● Energy: 10 most expensive energy projects in the world (CNNMoney)

● Energy: The Real Reason Behind Oil Price Rises – An Interview with James Hamilton (

Weatherman predicts a wet fall in the corn belt. (Brownfield)

The costs of cheap water are far too high. (National Geographic)

Counting Your Cantaloupes – Amid volatile climate patterns, conversation at markets like the Mohawk Valley Produce Auction reveals the plight of regional farmers (Metroland)

● MACRO: The unintended consequences of QE: not what you think by Izabella Kaminska. (FT/Alphaville) What White seems to be saying is that if and when the QE ruse runs out and the time comes to influence markets through direct price level targeting, it could theoretically be too late. That’s to say there’s a good chance that the credibility of the central bank will have been damaged so much, that it will be impossible to sway markets through policy declaration alone. In short, the central bank will have lost control. And with the central bank not there to steer the economy, there’d be little stopping real-world deflationary forces — if they do exist — from running wild.

● MACRO: Finance is in need of a technological revolution (FT)

● MACRO: If Interest Rates Go Negative . . . Or, Be Careful What You Wish For by Kenneth Garbade and Jamie McAndrews. (Wonk Warning!) … The weak recovery has led some commentators to suggest that the Fed should push short-term rates even lower—below zero—so that borrowers receive, and creditors pay, interest. (Federal Reserve Bank of New York)


Crop Year 2012 Map: Primary and Contiguous Counties Designated for 2012 Crop Disaster Losses

Impressive, eh? Note that Hawaii is also “red”.