As the recent Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) annual meeting was winding down, I had a conversation with a long time friend and farmer who had ambled up. “Like to say those are nice pictures,” he said, nodding toward the row of canvases on the wall. They’re not, just for the record.
He was referencing my Art of Erosion show that had been featured as a backdrop during the all-day event for the clean water advocacy group at the Maynard Event Center. His comment was not uncommon nor unexpected, for many find themselves equally astounded and disturbed by the natural beauty created by the wind and black dirt on the clean white snow. Which is precisely the reason behind focusing my camera on what is commonly called “snirt” here in the prairie, all taken along roadsides in three western Minnesota counties. This was the third hanging, with the fourth coming up this weekend, and that “bipolar” response between the beauty of the artful patterns and the ugliness of the wind-blown dirt has caused many to simply stare at the images.
“My dad told me when I first started farming many years ago that the key to controlling thistles and pigweeds was to keep the soil black,” he told me. “That first winter my ditch banks looked just like your pictures. That spring, before planting, I took my tractor and front end loader out and scraped the dirt out of the ditches and back into the fields. It was a harsh lesson and my field edges haven’t looked like these pictures since.”
He and his family, including his son and son-in-law, farm just under 600 acres in the midst of the “black desert” in Chippewa County. Because we were in a conversation rather than a formal interview, he will remain nameless. Back when I was an editor of the country weekly in Clara City, he was the subject of several stories. He seemed to come up with interesting ideas, including once leaving his corn crop unharvested through the fall and winter because of high moisture content and incredibly high propane costs. In the end he figured he came out ahead since the spring price of corn is typically higher than he would have fetched in the fall, and he didn’t believe he had lost as much ear and kernel drop as he anticipated.
This was before his son returned from a college basketball career with a wife and new born son in tow, and before his daughter’s husband joined the family business. Their collective decisions to join in created one of those “ah ha” moments with the realization they had to do something different if their farm was to survive. Land prices were escalating right along with both machinery and crop input costs. It was a time when neighbors were coming to grips with having to join the USDA rat race or hire an auctioneer. What they decided to do instead was go organic. “We didn’t know what we were doing,” he said. “But we learned. Right now we’re supporting three families, and we’ve put two kids through college with two more almost through, and none with a college loan. After this batch we have two more. We couldn’t have done it if we’d stayed conventional. We just couldn’t have afforded to keep going in that direction.”
When they first went into organic production, and obviously before certification, he was reluctant to share his story. “I get in enough trouble around my neighbors,” he told me at the time. Those first years were tough, especially with the weed infiltrations. Going organic meant that the family had to learn not only how to farm, but also how to market. Financial survival meant the end of “plant and dump” marketing. Saying “no” to Round Up farming meant developing cultural farming practices practiced by a very few organic commodity crop farmers, who like his family, raises corn, soybeans and sunflowers.
They did find sources of information and peers, and eventually settled into very productive crop rotations that have virtually eliminated weed issues while helping with natural fertility. “Our soils are totally different now. We can hold moisture like we couldn’t before. It is more pliable and alive. This past harvest we had the best soybean crop ever, averaging almost 60 bushels per acre. We beat our next door neighbor who farms conventionally by 25 bushels an acre. The key is learning the right rotation. Like that real estate slogan, it’s ‘rotation, rotation, rotation.’”
He told of attending a recent meeting over the buffer strip controversy going on in Minnesota and found many of the comments made by those attending bordering on asinine. My word, not his. “One guy asked why we needed buffers to keep nitrates out of the rivers when there is more nitrogen in the air than in the soil. ‘What are they going to do,?’ he asked. ‘Make us buffer the sky?’ This was met with a round of laughter and cheers. Finally one guys stands and suggests that as farmers we need to do something, that continuing to drain and let the runoff ruin the rivers just wasn’t neighborly or sustainable. The place was completely silent, so I clapped, then another two or three others clapped. You should have seen the hatred of those toward us.” He paused. “For us, we maintain 100 foot buffers on either side of our ditches. not the 50 feet the governor (Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton) is proposing.”
Obviously going organic isn’t for everyone, yet he made some interesting points. One hundred foot buffers. Supporting three families, including two with college-aged children, on just under 600 acres of tillable land. Rotation, rotation, rotation. Pliable soils with good moisture holding capacity. Significantly reduced crop and machinery inputs. Learning how to both farm and market what is raised..
“This ‘snirt’ situation is getting worse each year around here,” he said, once again nodding toward the canvases. “I’ve taken pictures of it, too. Used to be you could count on having snow cover, which we haven’t had for the past couple of winters. We don’t fall till, so our soils are staying put. But as farmers we need to do something different, whether it’s leaving stalks in the field until spring or planting cover crops. Soils all around us have blown all winter, and with this dry spring the winds are picking up even more of it. Bottom line, we have to take better care of our soils.”
My goal with the Art of Erosion photographs was to spark conversations by showing the ugly beauty created by the snow and wind. Hopefully some of those conversations will lead to change. Our civilization is farming the last of the earth’s tillable soils, and once those soils are eroded by both wind or water, where will those farmers of future generations find resources to grow food? How will humans eat?