Wednesday, November 13, 2013

As Prairie Vanishes, Our Morals Follow

I read too many articles that just really fire me up, get me angry -- piss me off (better off than on?). It always frustrates me when people say we need more corn fields to feed the world. First, the majority of corn goes to make ethanol. Second, corn is used to quickly stuff cattle in finishing lots, making the meat fattier and a leading contributor to human heart disease. Third, we already waste something like 50% of the food we have due to spoilage at home or in the grocery store or in transport from half a world away.

"This expansion of the Corn Belt is fueled in part by America's green energy policy, which requires oil companies to blend billions of gallons of corn ethanol into their gasoline. In 2010, fuel became the No. 1 use for corn in America, a title it held in 2011 and 2012 and narrowly lost this year. That helps keep prices high."

"What the green-energy program has made profitable, however, is far from green. A policy intended to reduce global warming is encouraging a farming practice that actually could worsen it. That's because plowing into untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been naturally locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. In turn, that destroys native plants and wipes out wildlife habitats."

"It appeared so damaging that scientists warned that America's corn-for-ethanol policy would fail as an anti-global warming strategy if too many farmers plowed over virgin land.The Obama administration argued that would not happen. But the administration didn't set up a way to monitor whether it actually happened. It did. More than 1.2 million acres of grassland have been lost since the federal government required that gasoline be blended with increasing amounts of ethanol, an Associated Press analysis of satellite data found. Plots that were wild grass or pastureland seven years ago are now corn and soybean fields. That's in addition to the 5 million acres of farmland that had been aside for conservation - more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined - that have vanished since Obama took office."

"Nebraska has lost at least 830,000 acres of grassland, a total larger than New York City, Los Angeles and Dallas combined."

"...much of the land being converted is not suited to crop production, and South Dakota's strong winds and rains will erode the topsoil."

Full article here.

And so I feel a moral imperative to cash out all I own, buy as much land as I can, and seed the crap out of it with prairie. And this is also why you should use as many native plants out your door as you can -- not because you're helping preserve prairie or their ecosystems, but because you're aware of the power of prairie, ready to learn more about it, saying to your neighbors this is not who we have to be, we can be better. 


danger garden said...

I read this same article and I must say it scared me.

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

Government agricultural policies are not born out of practical need, but out of hubris and avarice. Though we have forgotten our lessons of The Dust Bowl as shown by policies and government intervention in agriculture, we can point to the most significant harm to the Great Plains by the policies of Earl Butz, one time Secretary of Agriculture.

Let me offer a suggested solution to prairie degridation. Or rather, a bridge from our current industrial agriculture to a more sustainable agriculture. That bridge is perennial grains.

Imagine a farmer in Nebraska with a thousand acres of what used to be native prairie but was plowed under for row crops. Imagine that farmer going out once and planting perennial wheatgrass which will never have to be planted again, never require artificial inputs, and the only time machinery will have to move over the land again is to harvest it at the same yields of traditional wheat. Imagine what that would do to transform agriculture.

You don’t have to imagine because The Land Institute in Kansas has already developed this grain and is growing it and it is being used for bread flour and in a small brewery. To learn more about what they’re doing, please visit their website.

What I would say about morality will be based on my faith system and adherence to biblical principles. As I examine the scriptures, I’m struck with the notion that man’s morality hasn’t changed since the fall. I often hear people of older generations lament about the morality of younger generations. Yet, what I find in the Bible is that man has not changed at all since the fall. We have been doing reprehensible things to as great a degree as now all through history.

You wrote about cashing out. I have done something close and for nearly the same reasons. I have staked my future with my wife on a 10-acre farm we bought in December last year and I’ve spent 2013 completing early steps to convert it from a pasture to a permaculture farm so that it can sustain my wife and me in our retirement years. Will a few of the things growing there not normally be found there in northwest Missouri? Yes. But, its current pasture form is not native prairie either. I believe I’m dramatically improving it with water catchment techniques, such as swales and ponds, and increasing the biodiversity to a great degree from the current brome-fescue mix of grasses. Hay had been taken off the land for at least 20 years, so there’s been no return of any biomass back to the soil. I informed the person who was cutting and taking the hay that he could do it one more year in 2013, but that I would let the pasture lay fallow in 2014 and cut the pasture 3-4 times next year to allow the grass to fall and compost into the topsoil which has become compacted. In the spring, I’m going to broadcast plant a couple of acres of daikon radishes that will help break up the compaction and accelerate the process of soil regeneration and hydration when the radishes die and decompose.

We certainly can just let land go and it will morph into a sustainable form on its own. And, there is a lot of land that we should do exactly that … land that is growing corn for ethanol and cattle feed (cattle aren’t created to eat corn, but grass). But, with just a bit of careful understanding of how our biosphere works, we can help our lands heal from being scarred by plow.

I realize that we do need to feed people and you are exactly right in pointing out food waste and poor uses for corn. If we stop those things alone we’ll feed everyone. But, to help farmers make a more gradual change and still make a living, I suggest that perennial grains will be the bridge needed to get us from our current model of industrial agriculture to a more sustainable life that does not commit abominations to the creation in which we’ve been placed.

Dan Grubbs
Hebron Acres
Holt, Mo.

P.S. I’m a Nebraska boy who has been transplanted to Missouri, but they can’t take the Nebraska out of me.

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Planting a prairie garden is the first step.
The next objective ought to be relentlessly educating the public with more documentaries on PBS, news clips on mainstream media, talking heads on cable TV, and articles posted to online news sites.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Dan -- appreciated your thoughtful note. Yes, the Land Institute is doing great things down there. I'm all for fewer farms, or farms that use prairie buffers as a way to increase yield, soil fertility, and prevent erosion and runoff. No brainer it seems. I'm not from Nebraska -- I'm a mix of Oklahoma / Minnesota -- but it wasn't until I moved here that I found prairie, and my soul. :) We hope to get an 80 acre property and run multiple business off of it. Scary. Thrilling. Scary.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Allan -- yes, more PBS, even more HGTV if they ever do REAL garden programming again. I've thought about making my own tapes to air on the cable access channel.