It’s not reasonable that all farmland be converted back to wetlands and prairie but there does need to be balance and today balance is missing.–Greg, Minnesota Landowner
In our current world of oversupply and low prices for agricultural commodities, it is time to consider a better way of farming in the Midwest. The pendulum has swung far enough in one direction, a direction that has focused on short term gains derived from mining the topsoil. Both farmers and consumers are frustrated with this broken, policy-induced model. We all feel helpless and we’re not especially proud of today’s production trends, whichever side of the fence we’re on. For the farmer, it’s the constant hamster on the wheel problem of spend more to make more, and then suffer of the resulting low prices from overproduction. For the consumer, it’s the concern over food quality, animal conditions, healthy diet, and environmental degradation.
Crop prices have returned to below-input-cost levels. The taxpayer has grown weary of supporting farm policies that don’t make sense. Middle of the nation demographic trends are dismal. The world is over-supplied with too much grain, cotton, milk, you-name-the-commodity. The dollar is high which hurts our commodity exports. There is enough food, in fact, there is overproduction of everything. That’s a reason why we’ve started burning our crops in our gas tanks. But now, we’ve got too much oil and gas, too. We can’t even use the biofuel we’re producing so we’re trying to create export markets for it. And these policies have made farmland so expensive that the next generation can’t afford to begin to farm. In short, we’re in a mess of problems in farm country.
In this special post, you will read one reader’s story about what is going on in the middle of corn country in central Minnesota. He’s a keen observer and he’s dismayed with what he’s seeing. Lucky for us, he’s also a good writer and photographer, and is able to show us a window into his world.
But before we read Greg’s writing, let’s get back to agricultural policy. Scientists are telling us that agriculture has a leading role to play in solving our global warming problem. The carbon dioxide cycle produced from monoculture cropland is so extreme that it is raising CO2 concentrations as much as 50 percent in the northern hemisphere at certain times of the year. A Univ. of Nebraska meteorologist explains that the corn crop can take up as much CO2 as an Amazon forest during the growing season, only to be released after the growing season ends.  But, these same scientists say we need to figure out how to take more carbon from the atmosphere to put “under” the Corn Belt.
Another new study is telling us that healthy grasslands enriched with compost and grazing animals have a huge potential to sequester carbon, and, that by restoring grasslands, resulting soils could serve as an important carbon sink.  One additional new study, from the tropics, shows that soil microbes are the critical drivers of Earth’s carbon cycle, and that the carbon in tropical subsoils is, in fact, stable.  (This has been a subject of previous debate.) Living in this time period of desperation and urgency from scientists and policy-makers over how to sequester carbon, this seems like a golden opportunity to restore prairies in the Midwest.
Restoring Midwestern prairies would fix so much of what is ailing in this farming region right now. With the right approach, it could even help transition from the older farmer norm towards a younger population and help jumpstart an economic vitality in these regions. Too many people are moving to the biggest and most expensive urban centers today, and there is a need to drive some of this job growth back to rural America. Rochester, Minnesota, which is the number two rated city on Livability.com could be used as a great Midwestern model to emulate. New Midwestern growth centers that offer outdoor recreation including hiking and biking trails, local food growing, hip grocers and retail, along with outdoor accessible spaces, would rank high in what millennials seek in deciding where to locate. If these amenities are available, then the lower cost of living and lower priced real estate in Midwestern towns might strongly entice this younger demographic.
That’s the human side of making a case for taking some of today’s Corn Belt farmland out of production and converting it back to prairie.
By taking some land out of production, commodity prices would rise for the producer. The farmer may be able to profit from hunting leases or grassfed meat products, dairy, and eggs.
For Nature, we could see many, many welcome gains. These would include a return to a biodiverse countryside, healthier pollinators and monarch populations, songbirds and other wildlife, less soil loss from today’s farming methods, less fertilizer runoff, healthier waterways and a smaller Dead Zone in our Gulf, and, finally, a significant amount of carbon sequestration.
A coordinated effort between the Departments of Agriculature and the Interior should be used to accomplish a shift in policy resulting in Midwestern grassland restoration.
Now, let’s hear what Greg has to say…
Hi, Kay, I stumbled upon your blog the other day and thought you might be interested in seeing a couple photos taken last Sunday, January 18th, near our farm in Meeker County, Minnesota. There is little snow cover, and open fields and high winds are causing exceptional soil erosion this winter on the northern plains.
This first picture is a drainage ditch running into the South Fork of the Crow River. Tons of topsoil has blown off already and the most extreme problems with erosion in this part of the country is typically in early spring, so the worst may be yet to come.
The second photo is the now channelized South Fork of the Crow River that eventually (about 50 miles upstream) empties into the Mississippi. Note that the adjoining fields have no crop residue that could hold back some of the top soil that’s already blown into the river (evident in the lower right).
It seems that farmers in this part of the country are practicing less soil conservation measures than they did 10 years ago. Neither the state or federal government enforce existing soil conservation practices and don’t want to take on the big agricultural guys. Minnesota has laws on the books that require buffer strips along waterways including open drainage ditches but those laws have never been enforced.
I grew up in southern Minnesota on the farm that we still own. These pictures were taken near our farm. The farms that were 160-240 acres a few decades ago are now 2,000-5,000 acres. As you can see in the photos a single field now spreads to the horizon.
The land is now widely treated as another real estate asset like a warehouse or strip mall where the game is to suck out immediate profit. Many of the sloughs and small lakes have been drained and the rivers engineered into drainage ditches designed to get the waste water downstream as quick as possible. Along with the water goes the top soil, chemicals and fertilizers. Nearly all the waters in western and southern Minnesota are officially state designated as impaired.
I don’t understand the attitude of big agri-business. I guess they look at the soil as just the substrate to hold the corn and soybean plant upright with no concern about sustained soil fertility. Corn can be grown in a bucket of rocks if the right chemicals are used.
Wildlife? Do you know any creature capable of living in the environments shown in these first two pictures?
There are, for sure, some local farmers who are great conservationists, but contrary to the PR of the big Ag outfits, they are a minority. For most it’s profit now – end of story.
Attached is another photo taken this past Sunday. The top soil is the result of just a single storm earlier last week. By spring, a cross section of any snowdrift will be layered like an archaeological dig with snow/soil/snow/soil – except that it will all wash downstream in April.
Although there’s a huge interest in good food, conservation, wildlife, the “prairie” and “farms”, unfortunately, that interest and potential advocacy and action can’t stand up against the engrained and focused money interest of industrial agriculture. I’m talking about, for example, Cargill, Archer Daniels, John Deere, Wells Fargo, Monsanto, Dow – you know who they are. And, let’s not forget the politicians that they fund.
In full disclosure, I’m not a farmer. I was raised on a 200 acre Minnesota farm that was purchased from the railroad by my mothers’ grandfather in the 1880s. My mother continued to live there until, for health reasons, she moved to town. While on the farm, she was able to subsist on land rental income, but when she needed to pay for an apartment in an “old folks home” she sold all but 80 acres to a neighbor. I purchased the remaining 80 acres that contained the actual homestead. The place was then vacant for years and fell into complete disrepair.
I have degrees in biology, anthropology and geology and work in the telecommunications technology business. Because I have good income I had the luxury of treating the “farm” as a hobby and re-established prairie and restored the wetlands (known as sloughs in this neck of the woods) without worry about income from the property. The old decrepit farm house was replaced with another of similar architecture and the other old building like the barn were restored to the point that they were no longer in danger of falling down.
I only bring this up because I could easily, and probably accurately, be described as an elitist, spewing judgment on others who ARE dependent on the land for a living. Nevertheless, I fervently believe that big industrial agriculture is leading to a depleted country side and eventual disaster.
The prevailing philosophy of farming today is get bigger or die. I dispute that idea, but for farmers, who have purchased extremely high cost land, the need for maximum income to pay down loans on land and equipment is reality. In addition, to make ends meet, the big farmers are dependent on continued high commodity prices i.e. corn and soybeans. Frankly, in my opinion, the combination of high debt and dependency on high prices is a disaster waiting to happen. But, for those who have taken that route, conservation is tertiary at best, a livable income AND keeping the bankers satisfied is the priority. So, for farmers in this predicament, I do have sympathy.
Now, big outside land investors are another story altogether. These are the vultures with zero interest in anything but maximum short term financial return – the future be-damned.
There are good concerned people working on making a difference. A good example of a concerned group is The Land Stewardship Project, here in Minnesota, does excellent work and has recently researched the disastrous consequences of the Federal Crop Insurance programs.
Next, are a couple more recent photos. This first one shows soil blown from an adjacent field last week.
And this second one is another ditch a.k.a. creek that’s been channelized and now collects huge amounts of wind and water born topsoil from surrounding fields. This “ditch” empties into a large wetland that over the years has become almost completely choked with sediments. (I’m working on documenting this with before and after photos.)
So far I’ve painted a pretty ugly picture of the northern plains but if given a chance, nature can be resilient.
Here are a few photos taken on an August day at our re-established farm prairie which was a corn field twenty years ago.
It’s not reasonable that all farmland be converted back to wetlands and prairie but there does need to be balance and today balance is missing.
You said it very well, Greg. Thank you.
Aren’t Greg’s prairie photos beautiful? The loss of 98 percent of our nation’s prairie ecosystem is one of the most-important, under-appreciated, ecological happenings over the past two centuries, here in North America.
For all of the reasons listed earlier, it feels like the time is right for a vast new conservation program which would convert a certain amount of monoculture cropland back to carefully managed grasslands. Since most farmland is privately owned, these landowners would be financially rewarded for this land use change.
As the title proclaims, “We have two choices.” We can continue on our current agricultural policy path which isn’t working for anyone. Or, we can pick the logical one which includes prairie restoration.
Thankfully, that choice is also the beautiful one.
(I also recommend my previous post, Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of Conservation Reserve Program Land in Five Years, if you haven’t read it.)
If anyone else has a similar story that they would like to share with readers here, along with photos to illustrate it, I’d love to have it.–Kay M.
1. Corn Belt farming boosts the global carbon cycle – http://harvestpublicmedia.org/article/corn-belt-farming-boosts-global-carbon-cycle
2. Farmers Rewarded for Practicing ‘Carbon Farming’ – http://ecowatch.com/2015/01/26/farmers-rewarded-carbon-farming/
3. How tropical subsoil microbes could affect the carbon cycle – http://phys.org/news/2015-01-tropical-subsoil-microbes-affect-carbon.html
ALSO SEE: FAO China Study Grasslands – http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/233025/icode/; and, Irish Times Report – http://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/ireland-could-benefit-from-greenhouse-gas-finding-1.1982401.