A ‘Gray’ Christmas

Many of us living in the temperate zone dream of having a White Christmas. Crooners have given voice to Irving Berlin’s “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas …” lyrics on nearly every holiday album for several decades across two centuries, from Bing Crosby and Perry Como to the Surfers, Bob Marley and even Lady Gaga. 

Thanks to the “weather gods” we were all set up for having our iconic white Christmas thanks to a blizzard that blew through the prairie two days before our celebration for the “birthday child.” It was to be our first snow since early October. The horizontal snow came with 40 to 50 mph winds, though, cutting across millions of acres of croplands bared to the skies since early November. And that snow for our “white Christmases” acted just like fingerprints at a crime scene … showing us in stark detail the ills of deep and dangerous farming practices. Yes, Virginia, dirt lifts into the heavens even without the snow, for the snow only shows us the devil in the details.

A Christmas wreath in Swift County, MN, covered with grit!

Here on our Listening Stone Farm prairie, evidence of blown dirt was visible throughout in both our restored grassed prairie and in the grove despite the effort of the farmer across the road who planted one of the extremely rare fields of cover crops over his harvested soybean field back in September. We know this fine sheen of black dirt didn’t come from him, yet from whom? Ah, ha! That’s the mystery, and opens a curtain to an old prairie tale that says, “It’s really no big deal if ‘dirt’ blows around. Because it will just end up in someone else’s fields and make their land better.”

How’s this for a friendly front porch setting … in Swift County, MN.

Tell that to all the historical civilizations that are no more because of eroded and blown dirt! Have you ever seen a picture where relics of past civilizations have been uncovered by several deep feet of dirt? Ever wondered where that might have come from? 

In September this was a barren soybean field the farmer then planted to a cover crop to keep his soil in place.

So, we were certainly not alone. On a day when you would expect pictures of smiling families filling the feeds of Facebook we had pictures of people in other prairie localities sadly posting pictures of dirty snow. No, not yellow snow, but grayed snow. Dirt covered snow. We first noticed it going to town the day after the blizzard just down the road. Said one farmer over in Chippewa County, “It’s hard to say our farm is organic when the neighbors send us their dirt.” Their yard on Christmas morning was simply blanketed with windblown dirt.

Dirt blown in Big Stone County, MN, sometimes offers interesting patterns of what is popularly known as “snirt.”

Which is hardly surprising, actually, for if one were to travel from Milan to Willmar on County Road 40, those 41 miles are almost completely laid bare by fall tillage practices. If you take State Highway 7 from Hutchinson to Dawson you would be hard pressed to see a single field like the one across the road. It’s all bare, mile after mile after mile. If you take Highway 12 east out of Ortonville, you won’t pass a single tilled field protected with a winter cover crop to Benson, nor from Benson to Willmar, then from Willmar to the Twin Cities. Let’s choose another route … say from Clinton to Glenwood on Highway 28. Same story. Or, from (pick a town) say, Wheaton south on the King of Highways, U.S. 75, down to Blue Mounds State Park, itself a “grassland oasis” surrounded by plowed fields, the fields all black and barren. So, let’s go east a bit to Highway 71, from Sauk Centre to the Iowa border … it all looks the same, thousands upon thousands of acres of plowed fields that are left open to blow from November until the next crop is high enough to protect the soils. For most, this comes in June. That’s nearly a full term for the birth of a baby.

This was the lawn of a Chippewa County organic farmer on Christmas morning.

It’s not just dirt, either. As a friend who lives in the middle of this “black desert” west of Clarkfield, says, “Unfortunately, the ‘new’ soil particles that cover our entire place is most likely laced with glyphosate.”  The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as “probably” carcinogenic to humans, and it is blamed for non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Another farmer who focuses on growing organic barley for the brewing industry, lamented, “We have ugly gray snow all around. A snowy dust bowl!”

A wind “poem” on my Listening Stones Farm prairie … accented by a layer of gray grit!

A retired Soil and Water Conservation Service technician in Renville County, Thomas Kalahar, wrote, “So much for a white Christmas in corn country. $50 billion the last few years in farm subsidies should buy us a better environment. Hard to support an industry that seems not to care enough to protect our soil and water.” Later he added, “Cover crops would eliminate it. Depending on the percentage of residue left, minimum tillage would lesson the erosion. But we keep paying them so why should they change? We get the landscape we are paying for! We demand nothing in return for our generous subsidies. So it comes down to us.”

Shared from a friend who lives west of Clarkfield in Yellow Medicine County, MN.

David. R. Montgomery, in his frightening book called, “Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations,” wrote: “Projecting past practices into the future offers a recipe for failure. We need a new agricultural model, a new farming philosophy. We need another agricultural revolution. Unlike the first farmer-hunter gatherers who could move

around when their soil was used up, a global civilization cannot.”

This is where we’re at after celebrating a Gray Christmas, accepting whether we wish it or not, gifts of grit from our nearby neighbors. Several years ago I put together a series of images for my “Art of Erosion” exhibitions, a series I could repeat year after year. Montgomery, as well as a vast number of other scientists and authors, have long warned us of the frightening ills of these farming practices. It doesn’t have to be this way, for there are ways to avoid losing soils to the winds ­— as inexpensive as simply not plowing down the corn stalks to using cover crops, as my neighbor has across the road.

And in Renville County, MN, this is a roadway on Christmas morning … a scene that could be shown on any number of country highways. So, are you counting? These images were all taken on Christmas morning in Big Stone, Swift, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine and Renville Counties, pretty much the heart of prairieland farming.

A few years back in an interview with Redwood County farmer, Grant Breitkreutz, he spoke of his trepidation of planting his first cover crops before realizing the benefits far exceeded saving his soil from wind erosion. He had better water retention, that worked wonders for his crops later in the summer. He reduced his use of chemicals and realized increased tilth and soil health. “We have eliminated erosion and improved water infiltration, which means we now keep the water where it’s supposed to be,” he said. “What could be better than that?”

Not just the water, but also saving the soil … while bringing an end to gray Christmases like we just experienced. And what could be better than that?  

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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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