Over the weekend, I found time to read an article in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine called “Broken Heartland: The Looming Collapse of Agriculture on the Great Plains,” by Wil S. Hylton. Hylton paints a sobering picture. As farming has become increasingly consolidated and mechanized, the population of rural communities on the Great Plains (which accounts for a fifth of the land in the lower forty-eight states) has declined steadily for the past eighty years, ever since the Great Depression. Six thousand towns have disappeared entirely in Kansas alone. Meanwhile, researchers at Texas Technical University, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have found that the Ogallala Aquifer—which lies beneath 100 million acres in eight states and provides irrigation water for much of the farming on the Plains—is being drawn down at the rate of five to six feet per year in some places, and will be essentially depleted by 2030. In the words of the lead researcher, “there will be very little irrigated agriculture on the high plains twenty years from now.”
In spite of all this, I came away from the article feeling hopeful. Why? Because I saw nothing in the article to justify its dire subtitle. Clearly, agriculture as it has been practiced on the Plains for the last few decades is not sustainable and cannot continue. I would argue that that’s true most places in the world, if not all places. Farming will have to change, and farmers will have to learn and adapt—as they always have, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly. This does not mean that agriculture is on the brink of collapse, on the Great Plains or anywhere else.
Hylton writes about a future imagined and championed by academics Frank and Deborah Popper, where Plains residents embrace “smart decline,” allowing their region to empty out and eventually become a huge national park known as “The Buffalo Commons.” To me, this is an interesting thought exercise, but not a compelling vision for the future. Far more compelling are two (mutually compatible) possibilities also highlighted in the article: a return to large-scale cattle grazing, and the development of perennial grain crops.
Since European settlement began, the Great Plains has been cattle country. Cattle are a natural fit with the ecosystem, roughly taking the place of bison as the dominant large grazing ruminant. However, with the rise in corn-fed, feedlot beef over the past sixty years or so, open range-land filled with drought-tolerant native plants has been replaced with thousands of acres of irrigated monocultures. As the land has suffered, so have the cows, becoming sicker and sicker on a diet totally unsuited to their digestive systems. (The health consequences for people have been just as bad.) If we reduced our meat consumption moderately, put the cows back out on pasture where they belong, and used Holistic Management and rotational grazing techniques, the Plains could sustainably preserve its traditional identity as cattle-country and the main source of meat for the rest of the country for decades to come, with or without the Ogallala Aquifer.
Any landowner with a little capital could begin raising grass-fed beef today: the information, resources, and, increasingly, the markets are all out there. Perennial grain is a more distant possibility, but it’s getting closer every year. Since 1976, Wes Jackson and his colleagues at The Land Institute have been working to breed perennial versions of wheat, as well as other grain, legume and oilseed crops. Perennials have deep roots, which gives them access to water and nutrients annuals can’t reach. And if new seeds did not have to be sown each year, there would be no need for annual tillage, eliminating most agricultural erosion. This long-term breeding project is now closer than ever to commercially viable results. When it is complete, agriculture on the Great Plains could look a whole lot more like native prairie: a deep-rooted perennial polyculture that builds rather than depletes topsoil.
For my part, I’m grateful to be farming here in the Upper Midwest. We do share some challenges with the Plains. The “get big or get out” mindset continues to dominate, and it forces a whole lot of small farms to “get out” every year. Jobs outside of farming are scarce too, and most young people leave the area after high school. Our county has a lower population now than it did in 1900, although it is growing again after a long decline. But at least both rainfall and groundwater are relatively abundant, and the aquifers, so far, seem able to replenish themselves as fast as we use them. This is an easy climate to farm in—but I believe farmers are smart and adaptable enough to keep on farming for years to come even in much more difficult climates.