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.

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 "refurbishes" grassland where the rocks were removed and the trees cut and piled.

A recently “refurbishes” 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A beautiful buffer found in Chippewa County.

 

 

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This entry was posted in He Said by John G. White. Bookmark the permalink.

About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

3 thoughts on “Bygone Ethics

  1. Excellent commentary and photo documentation, John. The images are all too easy to capture throughout the Upper MN River Valley. In these days, with the “ghosts of former wetlands” not draining fast enough to rescue every last corn plant, I see the plans being made to make the drainage ever more “effective.” Mother Nature will bat last.

  2. Pingback: A Minnesota Writer Muses on Being Called “Anti-Farmer’ | Big Picture Agriculture

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