Thursday, July 7, 2016

My Letter to Harper's Concerning their "Broken Heartland" Story

Mammals are the dominant terrestrial vertebrates of the Cenozoic. Photo: Wikipedia.

Because long-time reader, Steve, a wheat farmer in Washington State who grows wheat for Shepherd’s Grain, tipped Harper’s off to this site upon their publication of the July issue that contained two articles about agriculture, an editor Harper's contacted me and asked if I’d contribute a follow-up letter. I did, and here is a slightly modified version.

What a delight to read two pertinent articles about agriculture in the July issue of Harper’s. Wil Hylton’s subject of the demise of the Great Plains is as interesting today as it was in 1987 when the Poppers coined the phrase “buffalo commons”. Dan Halpern described what is happening behind the Walmart grocery store scene as it has rapidly transitioned to buying ten percent of its food from local farm growers. Since Walmart now makes more than half of its revenue from grocery sales, this has significant repercussions.

The loss of 98 percent of the short and tall grass prairies from the middle of this country a little more than a century ago is now taken for granted by our citizens. They think it is normal to see huge corn fields irrigated with center pivots when they gaze down below from their airplane windows. It is unfortunate that the Homestead Act didn’t preserve large swaths of the rich grassland ecosystems. If it had, this would be a richer nation today, and hunting and tourism on preserved prairies might provide a surprising level of economic activity. Instead, we have exploited our natural resources of water, soil, and biodiversity in the Midwest to attain profits mostly for a short list of agribusiness companies.

In Iowa, in 2007, soil erosion was 5.1 tons per acre, down from 7.4 tons in 1982. The loss of soil caused by growing annual monoculture crops is an ugly truth seldom talked about. Civilizations never realize what a precious resource their topsoil is until it is gone. The two largest land owners in America today are Ted Turner and his friend John Malone. Together, they own over four million acres of land, seemingly for stewardship purposes and much of it is grassland and grazing land for large herbivores including bison. In addition, Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Reserve, is successfully funding his dream-come-true project of restoring Lewis and Clark’s idyllic northeastern Montana grassland landscape which spans 5,000 square miles. Today, if there is any hope, it is that the private sector may be capable of projects lacking will by the public sector.

Water is the topic of this coming century. This nation’s Southwest is expected to lose much of its water supply due to climate change. In this new energy age of difficult and expensive to extract oil from unconventional sources, a lot of water will be required — and contaminated. Fights will ensue. People will migrate.

In agriculture, when we export meat, dairy, ethanol, DDGS product, corn, cotton, wheat, soybeans, rice, and other food crops, we export large amounts of our water.

As for the exodus of young brains from the Heartland, this is happening everywhere around the world. A mass exodus of young people are gravitating towards cities in China, India, Africa and elsewhere. Farming is hard work in isolation and requires sweating. It requires taking on financial risks akin to gambling each year, and in reality, few want to do the job. Farms and the huge capital required for today’s modern equipment continues to trend larger. Efficiency gains with slimmer profit margins continue to rule the sector. Our mid-sized farms of today, which still dominate farming in America, could be gone in a decade. What could reverse that trend? In debt-ridden Greece and Spain, the high number of unemployed younger people are returning to the countryside to eek out a living not possible in the urban areas. It could happen here.

Corn richly rewards agribusinesses due to the high inputs required to grow it. Our ethanol program is dominated by these same agribusiness companies. The policy of using forty percent of U.S. corn for ethanol, or fifteen percent of the world’s crop, was created to boost a corn market which was failing to cover its input costs. As a consequence, today’s higher corn prices have driven greater production around the world and other nations are competing with us quite well. There is no shortage of food in the world, rather we have overproduction. If we grew just the foods that people need to eat such as dried beans, tuber crops, nuts, fruits and vegetables, and some grains along with smaller meat animals, we could have a biodiverse world with healthier populations.

Grocery stores need to charge what quality food is worth and the consumer needs to quit buying food that “doesn’t rot” as Joel Salatin would say. An organic farmer in my area recently said that grocery store vegetables are their loss leader, and that he is attempting to make a profit from the category that loses money at the grocery store. Unless you have a population of people willing to vote with their dollars through CSA memberships, people like him simply can’t make a go of it. And as long as the food processors and packagers reap a greater percentage of the consumer’s food dollar than the farmer does, the small farmer will become extinct as predicted.

Western Interior Seaway during the mid-Cretaceous, about 100 million years ago. Photo: Wikipedia

Speaking of extinction, during my 30’s I had the opportunity to collect fossilized bones from animals that roamed what is now the permeable Ogallala Aquifer region of central Nebraska in the Sandhills. I found bones of camels, rhinoceros, and prehistoric horses and dogs which had thrived there during the Cenozoic period. Many years prior to that, most of Nebraska was covered by the Western Interior Seaway.

The land and weather are never constant, but constantly changing. We humans are fairly insignificant in the overall scheme of things.