A Minnesota Writer Muses on Being Called “Anti-Farmer”

John G. White is a “somewhat retired” award-winning newspaper journalist from the state of Minnesota. Besides newspapers, has written for numerous magazines and is a free lance photographer. I was lucky to have discovered his writing and photography in this piece below, as he echoes my own thoughts and photography which I’ve done a few times on this site before, mine with a Nebraska perspective, his with a Minnesota perspective. Same song, different verse, or, if you will, same subject, different state.

His writing is enviable as he explains what he stands for when a farmer-friend accuses him of being “anti-farmer”. John was gracious to allow me permission to republish his post here. Please, I encourage you to visit his site, Listening Stones Farm – Life on the Western Minnesota Prairie.

Bygone Ethics

Recent rains have given us a rare opportunity to revisit the long-gone prairie potholes that were part of the original, post-glacial landscape.”

Recently a friend who happens to be a farmer asked, “When did you become so anti-farmer?”

After my initial surprise and denial, and later, after subsequently rolling through the countryside, I began to realize how my comments and rants could be taken in that manner. My growing up as a child and teenager was in a different era, when having a thick thatch of grass growing where water could create rills of erosion in a field was not only expected, but common. Also common was leaving a swath of anchoring vegetation along riverine embankments. I can also remember my father’s concern when Earl Butz, as Secretary of Agriculture, began preaching his “fence row to fence row” philosophy.

“That will ruin farming,” my father said. He meant the land, although it has also altered farming into a Catch 22 cash chase.

A recently “refurbished” grassland where the rocks were removed and the trees cut and piled.

Realize, please, that my father and I had many rifts and disagreements, politically and otherwise. Despite that, I grew to firmly respect his attention to real conservation farming practices as well as his trepidation on the Butz preamble.

My father lived long enough to watch as neighboring farms grew quite large over the hills of northeast Missouri where grass and grazing was a better ecological fit. He watched as abandoned farmsteads were leveled, burned and the ashes buried, and he watched as hedge rows were dozed along with tree lines and windbreaks. Fences were pulled, wires rolled, and posts, mainly hedge, burned. Forty acre fields became 80’s, and 80’s 160’s, causing him to sadly shake his head. Folks back in my home country now call this “Minnesota farming.”

“Where’s the grass? Tons of soils have washed off fields where rills and gullies were created by heavy rains and moisture.”

Yes, this is precisely the treatment of the land we see all around us. Industrial road grading equipment is used to extract glacial rocks from fields (which are then stored for sale in faraway cities to landscapers), and groves and farmsteads dozed and burned. Sod and prairie grasses, CRP land … all being plowed. Painstaking efforts are made with a blade to cut just enough of a two-foot deep furrow through fields to aid in the rapid flush of water. In many cases these furrows are too shallow to qualify as a legal ditch, meaning a mandate for buffer strips, and once cut, are carefully skirted by tillage equipment and planters. Cattails are allowed to grow … until hit by contact killing Roundup.

In fields already tiled, new and more efficient patterned tile systems are being installed. Although the technology is readily available that would allow farmers better water table management, the devices have been a tough sell despite years of positive presentations at many winter meetings. At least one watershed project had staffers basically begging farmers and landowners for a single demonstration installation … to no avail. Flush is seemingly the norm for managing water tables, not the holding back or storage of melt nor rain.

Shallow water escape routes are cut in fields that won’t technically qualify as a drainage ditch, therefore not mandated for buffer strips.

Hilly lands that should never have been tilled stretch for miles with no regard for erosion. In wet springs and early summers, like we’re having again this year, runoff water carries tons upon tons of soil off the higher land. We passed a field with corn nearly two feet tall in the valleys with spindly, four-to-six inch stalks poking up on the rest of the acres. “That’s where all the good soil has washed off to,” said Rebecca. Typically, 20 percent of a field has the healthy stalks. The rest? Will it qualify for USDA emergency subsidies?

Indeed, an observer can easily see the change in soil color and tilth … light tans compared to a rich darkness … in field after field, mile after mile. A keen observer can also tell that many are ignoring either the advice or statutes that call for grassed buffer strips along artificial drainage ditches, and any thought of a grass “waterway” would be considered absurd!

Most of us know by now that 99 percent of the wetlands are drained, with a like percentage of native prairie tilled. Where is the rage you see with the distant Brazilian rain forest?

The banks have held and the buffer strips on either side have kept both the field and the drainage ditch in good condition.

Driving through the rural byways in the winter months can just be sickening with mile upon mile of “snirt” — that dirty combination of snow and dirt. Overwinter cover crops are rarely planted, and any thought of leaving stalks to hold soils in place is basically unheard of. Our food supply is threatened in that one day fields will be barren of healthy prairie dirt. Realtor’s will be challenged to barker farms with no soil left to sell.

One wonders where the crops will be grown, of how subsequent landowners and farmers will continue to “feed the world.”

Have we become so selfish as farmers that we can only think of today, of mining the soil for the most cash possible with crops with little direct food value and staunch government policy support?

If we’re blaming policy for the woes and goals of the tractor jockeys, then perhaps some teeth should be placed into the policy smile … a net zero erosion factor as a qualification for any USDA commodity benefits ­— mandated buffer strips on all riparian waters, including drainage ditches; grassed waterways; winter cover crops, especially following soybeans and sugar beets; an actual crop rotation that includes nitrogen fixing legumes; banning practices that threaten pollinators; and so forth.

Common to many ares around the prairie are “ghosts” of the old prairie potholes — wetlands — that perhaps should not have been drained.

Am I anti-farming? Or, am I simply someone concerned about a future that appears ever more ominous for a climate challenged earth that will be incredibly feeble environmentally for our children and grandchildren — indeed, for all future generations.

Am I anti-farming, or am I someone who simply wishes for the bygone ethics of conservation farming practices that promotes soil health and keep earth’s dirt in place?

Am I anti-farming, or someone who wishes to keep our people, our land and our rivers healthy, and in place for future generations. Surely this answers your question.

A beautiful buffer found in Chippewa County.

Dan Glickman and Tom Vilsack Video from the Aspen Ideas Festival 2014

The above video is a give and take between two long-running U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture, Dan Glickman and current secretary Tom Vilsack, from the Aspen Ideas Festival live streamed on June 26, 2014. The question posed by the session is “Where does the future lie?”

Two US Department of Agriculture Secretaries, one past, one present, come together to talk about American food policies. Agricultural supports and other decisions made on US soil, and the trade agreements we negotiate around the world, have powerful effects on the global food supply; land conservation; the use of water, nitrogen, and pesticides; and animal and plant disease management.

How do US policy choices impact the safety, price and accessibility of the food we feed the nation?

How do we balance consumer and industry concerns to keep food affordable and nutritious while protecting the agricultural economy?

(The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer is moderator.)

As a personal aside, it is no secret to readers here that I am no fan of our current Secretary of Agriculture, because U.S. policy under his watch has led to some of the most environmentally damaging agricultural policy in U.S. history. I only see him defend how things are and continue to promote the basic tenets of this destruction.

Another hour long video from the event related to agriculture and food is “How do we nourish nine billion people?” (The word “nourish” is a welcome change from the usual word “feed” used in this much-too-oft-repeated question that appears in headlines everywhere all the time.)

In Honor of Luddite Day: How Overfishing Got its Start

Original Caption: “Save the products of the land. Eat more fish – they feed themselves.”, ca. 1917 – ca. 1919. Created By: U.S. Food Administration. Educational Division. Advertising Section. From: World War I Posters. The U.S. National Archives.

How would you change the wording on this poster today? Eat more fish – until they’re gone? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Just a note to my Luddite Day photo-fans. I know I haven’t done a “Thursday is Luddite day here…” for quite a while. For those who don’t know, I did a Luddite photo day every Thursday for several years up until a few months ago.

As this site shifts its focus and as the internet takes and expands, I’ve decided to pass the old farm photo torch to Modern Farmer. Not long after they launched, I got a note from their online editor saying how much he loved Big Picture Agriculture, and, then I noticed they were posting old farm photos in large batches once a week. (Not sure why “Modern Farmer” would like old photos but that’s not my decision.) So, I will still do an old photo from time to time, because I still love them, too, but for now, I’ll focus more on written posts. Thought Luddite photo fans here deserved an explanation, however.

Africa: Scaling Up Food Production. From July’s National Geographic Issue.

This featured piece is the latest from National Geographic’s eight-month long “Future of Food” series. This month’s subject title is FOOD: THE NEXT BREADBASKET. It explains the story of Africa’s potential to increase food production, the subject of land grabs, and the subject of optimal farm sizes and methods.

The following is an excerpt from the July issue of National Geographic:

She never saw the big tractor coming. First it plowed up her banana trees. Then her corn. Then her beans, sweet potatoes, cassava. Within a few, dusty minutes the one-acre plot near Xai-Xai, Mozambique, which had fed Flora Chirime and her five children for years, was consumed by a Chinese corporation building a 50,000-acre farm, a green-and-brown checkerboard of fields covering a broad stretch of the Limpopo River Delta.

“No one even talked to me,” the 45-year-old Chirime says, her voice rising with anger. “Just one day I found the tractor in my field plowing up everything. No one who lost their machamba has been compensated!” Local civil society groups say thousands lost their land and livelihoods to the Wanbao Africa Agricultural Development Company—all with the blessing of the Mozambican government, which has a history of neglecting local farmers’ rights to land in favor of large investments. Those who managed to get jobs on the giant farm are working seven days a week with no overtime pay. A spokesman for Wanbao denied such allegations and stressed that it’s training local farmers to grow rice. (Read the rest at National Geographic)

These next images are also from the July 2014 issue of National Geographic:

© Robin Hammond/National Geographic
Berbera, where these sheep and goats are being led to the ship bound for Saudi Arabia, has been a key port for Arab traders since the second century. Saudi Arabia imports 80 percent of its food, with meat consumption projected to rise this decade—good news for Somaliland’s nomadic herders.

© Robin Hammond/National Geographic
Using hand tools and draft animals, a family harvests wheat in Ethiopia’s famine-prone highlands. Education has helped small farmers become more efficient, but wheat yields are still a third below the world’s average. With more than a third of Ethiopians malnourished, the government is courting industrial farms to help close the gap.

© Robin Hammond/National Geographic
This land outside Maputo provides a snapshot of Africa’s agricultural choices: Will its food be produced on giant, leveled plantations like Bananalandia (at left) or on small farms, called machambas? “It must be a mix of big ag and small,” says Dries Gouws, the sprawling banana farm’s founder.

(July 2014 Cover of National Geographic)

How are California’s Almonds Harvested?

Almonds are dominating agricultural production in California. Their water requirements have been in the news this year because of California’s serious drought. We’ve heard that they use 10 percent of the state’s water. And we’ve heard that it takes a gallon of water to grow one almond.

Besides the water requirements of almonds, they have an annual pollination requirement which has resulted in a spring pilgrimage of bee hives to the West Coast each year via commercial beekeepers. Almond growers may pay around 150 to 225 dollars per hive for pollination. According to ScientificBeekeeping.com, a few years ago “it took about 1.5 million colonies of bees to pollinate 750,000 bearing acres of almond trees, producing nearly 2 billion pounds of nutmeats in 2012.” The business is lucrative for the bee keepers who participate, and the service provided by the worker bees is vital to the almond growing industry.

But, did you ever stop to wonder how almonds are harvested?

This seven minute youtube video shows you the whole process from shaking the trees, sweeping the ground, harvesting using a tractor with “Jack Rabbit” equipment, hulling and shelling. It is impressive to see how much automation and machinery is involved. (Never mind that the narrator pronounces the word almonds “amonds”.)

The almond that we eat originated in the Mediterranean climate region of the Middle East.

In 2012, almonds were a $4.35 billion crop in California, and have become the state’s second highest dollar valued commodity, after dairy, and higher than grapes. Almonds are the leading exported commodity crop out of California, with $2.83 billion in foreign sales.

When you think of industrial agriculture, you usually think of corn or soybean row crops. Almonds certainly fall into the industrial production category, as well.

How to Weed Organic Vegetable Fields Mechanically

When farmers grow vegetables organically, they need to figure out how they will get rid of weeds and pests. Many remove the weeds mechanically with cultivators, but it is also very common to use black plastic row cover fabric which blocks the weeds from growing and helps retain moisture from drip irrigation, too.

Other things that matter for weed management include crop rotation, soil health, fertilizing methods, and overall design options for the farmer.

Using hired help to remove weeds is never as simple as it sounds. Too many workers quit after a few hours once they find out the reality of the weather and working conditions in mid-July on the farm.

The University of Illinois Extension Service video, below, nicely demonstrates weeding a field of onions with two different pieces of mechanical weeder equipment. Note that the timing is critical. The weeds need to be removed very early, when they are only around an inch tall, or in the “thread” stage. This is yet another good example of how vigilant a farmer must be to manage crops successfully.

Cornell has also provided a series of 4 videos on weed management for organic farms. The last one addresses mechanical equipment used to remove weeds and includes a few other options besides the tine weeder and the basket weeder. (Youtube video link here.)

There are small push cultivators, gas powered cultivators, and electric cultivators, too. (Go to Google – shopping – “cultivators” and you will see quite an interesting variety of small equipment on the market.)

Finally, this previous post describes using a flame weeder to remove weeds from fields.

Robotic weed removers are also on their way.

Plus, there’s always the hoe. And mulch, mulch, mulch.