Prayers for the Prairie

Ah, yes, the wind. Gales. Gusts. Lulls. Then, more of the same. All we’re missing is the popping of the sails. Rather, on this remote Minnesota farm, chimes dance beneath anchoring limbs, adding tingling percussion to the seemingly constant low roar.

This is the prairie, after all, where grasses once grew. And the winds continue to blow. In the near distance nowadays, a softness of color hangs along the low horizon just above farm fields. Especially in areas where the grasses are long gone and the fields were tilled bare months ago. Some fields were worked last July and August following wheat harvest, meaning they will have been exposed to the prairie winds for 10 or 11 months before a new crop emerges enough to protect what is left of the soil. Most of the ground was worked after corn, soybean and sugar beat harvests in November. And that softness along the horizon? Dirt, aloft in the winds, misplaced, adrift and gone. Forever.
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At a showing of my “Art of Erosion” images at the traveling Smithsonian “Water Ways” exhibit last summer, a man asked why he doesn’t see dirt along the ditch banks beyond the winter months. “It’s there,” I explained. “It’s the snow that provides contrast, making it easier to see.”

That contrast is an integral part of a showing of the “Art of Erosion” now displayed on the brick walls of Java River Coffee House in Montevideo, which will hang through March. An artist’s reception is scheduled for this Friday, March 10, with the wonderful women’s musical group, Homemade Jam, providing entertainment. We’re calling the event “Prayers for the Prairie.” This will be the first public display of the “Art of Erosion,” which has made the rounds at many sustainable and organic farming conferences, plus the Smithsonian exhibit at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, over the past three years. Common comments fall into the “beautiful but sickening” genre.
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Choosing to hang the 19 canvases and call-out boards came about with much thought and discussion, especially considering the political climates in both St. Paul and Washington, D.C., where a political party seems intent on loosening regulations without much concern for the health of the planet. Consider this a protest display, if you wish, for it is certainly meant as a statement. The “Art of Erosion” was made possible by a manifestation of failed farm policy and a neglect by individual farmers of healthy soil stewardship practices. The images were made on a Sunday, January morning after returning from a trip to Marshall the previous day and seeing the miles upon miles of “snirt” — a colloquialism describing the combination of snow and dirt — along the entire trip. All were made in an area of Lac qui Parle, Chippewa, Swift and Big Stone Counties, and beyond minimal cropping, were not enhanced in any way with computerized post production software.

Interestingly, this idea came on top of a longer drive home from Missouri the previous Thanksgiving when we witnessed snirt along the highways from Missouri through Iowa and into the former prairie region of Minnesota. Hundreds of million tons of dirt, all blown away. Online research showed that Land Grant universities in much of the Midwest, and even into Canada, were concerned enough to post instructions on how to protect our valuable croplands from being misplaced by the winds. Simplest and least expensive was simply holding off tillage until spring. Indeed, that is evident along our roadsides, where ditches along stalk fields remain quite clean.
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Thankfully there has been a lot of conferences and efforts since to convince farmers to plant cover crops, explaining multiple benefits such as a softening of the hard pan, better moisture retention and the addition of crop nutrition elements. All on top of preserving a key component of life … our soil.

Numerous soil experts such as Rick Cruise, professor at Iowa State University and the director of the Iowa Water Center, points that besides cover crops, no-till, terraces, grassed waterways and any number of practices can contribute to saving soil in row-cropping enterprises. He emphasizes that some landscapes are sustainable only under an agronomic system that includes perennial crops – trees, prairie and pasture.

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David Montgomery, author of “Dirt—The Erosion of Civilizations”, points out that the earth’s “last frontier” of farmable lands are now being cultivated, and once that thin layer of life sustaining food production is eroded away, then what? Erosion has brought an end to man-made civilizations throughout history. Will snirt be end of ours? Does anyone care? Aren’t farmers and others aware of what is being allowed to happen to this soil?

After a recent Water Quality Conference, a Minnesota State Representative who has since introduced legislation to eliminate a soil saving buffer strip initiative, was quoted as saying that farmers in his district were “great stewards of the land.” A quick trip down Minnesota Hwy. 28, which was the likeliest route for his way home from the gathering in Morris, showed miles upon miles of blown dirt in the ditches and road banks, and several places where windbreaks had been dozed from the ground, eliminating even more protection for this “last frontier” of farmable soil.

Which led to a friend to ask, “What? I wonder which route he took on his drive back home?”

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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.

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