Big crops: A way of life in southwestern Minnesota
By Augie Kerr

Augie Kerr is a freelance agriculture writer. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Lower Minnesota River Watershed District Board of Directors.

An historical overview

If you’d been around 9,000 or 10,000 years ago in the River Warren, in far western Minnesota, where the current Minnesota River begins, you’d have seen a landscape eerily strange and yet familiar. A river valley four to five miles wide. A giant river churning rocks and sediment. Granite outcroppings. Prairies of oak and grasses. Yet this prairie featured much more diversity in flora and fauna, and was full of lakes and watery potholes. The humans of the time, not long after crossing the Bering Straits, were dressed in animal skins. And the game, abundant everywhere, included bison, wolves, big cats, and monster fish that would make contemporary anglers drool.

What you would not have seen, in the headwaters of the current Minnesota River and downstream, is today’s regular quilt work of large-scale corn, soybean, and sugar-beet farms. A land largely denuded of vegetation except for these monocrops. Drained of the potholes and lakes that greeted the first indigenous settlers thousands of years ago and the first white settlers, too, in the mid-19th century —which they made haste to obliterate.

According to the expert testimony of Tom Kalahar, an Olivia, Minnesota conservationist, the land has gone downhill fast — and taken the river with it. The soil is depleted from too many plantings, without rotation, of the same corn and bean crops. The water is impregnated with the wastes of this kind of intensive commercial farming — and the Minnesota River, at the southern boundary of the county, is suffering as a result. Our only hope, suggests Kalahar, is to change the direction in which we’re headed — through wise leadership, which may not seem likely in this political climate, and heroic individual decisions on the part of farmers, which won’t be easy at all.

We would be foolish to imagine a wholly innocent or idyllic land- or waterscape in the Minnesota River Valley, an area that extends about 335 miles from the river’s source at Big Stone Lake to its mouth at the Mississippi. From the Ice Age glaciation that created the River Warren and then the Minnesota River to the present day, water and soil have always managed to have management issues.

Yet, according to Kalahar, it was the white settlers who arrived in Renville County in the 19th century who set to work at once draining the extensive lakes, wetlands, and prairie potholes of the area. All this moisture was an obvious obstacle to farming, and if farmers wanted to wrest crops from the soil they must clear the land. They did it so well, in fact, that today more than 90 percent of the county’s original water bodies have been drained. And excess moisture is wicked away from the fields through the state’s longest, strongest system of drainage ditches (built “deep and cheap,” he says), two-thirds of which empty into the Minnesota River (the rest into the Crow River).

A tour of Renville County

On a beautiful late May morning, Kalahar leads us through a stretch of three towns, east to west, on US Highway 212: Olivia, the county seat and biggest town, at 2400; Danube, population 500 and shrinking; and Renville, just over 1300 and also losing people. The tour is both refreshing and depressing. Refreshing because the land is so obviously fertile and abundant. Depressing because the Minnesota River, into which the land drains, is so obviously polluted.

What you’ll see, under Kalahar’s expert eye, is a stretch of agribusiness offices on the main drag in Olivia — seed companies like Monsanto, BASF, Pannar, Mycogen, Hefty, and Thurston Genetics. An airport that will be abuzz, come June, with chemical-spraying planes. A gargantuan sugar beet processing plant, with its attendant wastewater lagoon, wastewater treatment plant, and drainage ditches. Farmland planted in monocrops of corn, beans, and sugar beets that extend fence row to fence row. A few brave farmers buffering their ditches with grasses, thanks to government conservation programs. A closed school in Danube, a shuttered tractor dealer in Renville, and myriad other signs of consolidation under agribusiness influence and desolation in the towns and fields.

Productivity has risen astronomically, of course, thanks to the changes of modern industrial farming. Since the days of Norman Borlaug, the U of M Nobel Prize winner, US farm policy has encouraged greater and greater yields from the same acreage. And now we are feeding not just ourselves but the world.

What we are feeding ourselves, however, Kalahar feels, is a mixed bag of goods.

The monocrops of corn, beans, and beets that predominate in southern and western Minnesota reflect an emphasis on production, and the capital necessary to assure it, above all other values. “You can’t blame the family farmer for wanting to make a living,” opines Kalahar. And it may be, that in the monoculture of our political lives, where representatives of both parties decry pork yet legislate for it (pork in the form of subsidized crops like corn, beans, and cotton), and where big seed companies practically own the land, the rugged individual family farmer is fast becoming a thing of the past.

In studying water quality in Renville County, and other points upriver, our main focus, says Kalahar, should be on “how hard the landscape is used.” Arne Carlson’s 1992 call to clean up the Minnesota River within ten years appears now both ideal and naïve. The river won’t be cleaned up “without the input of agribusiness, which ain’t gonna happen because politics won’t let it happen. We must change the farm bill first, which is responsible for the way the landscape is sculptured. Farmers will grow what they’re paid to grow. Hell, they’d grow pineapples and raise giraffes if the government paid them to do it.”

How do we measure how hard the land is used? Let’s start with these factors:

  1. All commodity farmers use commercial pesticides and fertilizers. If they don’t, they can’t produce a viable big crop.
    The drainage ditches that carry away water are a huge and never-ending infrastructure — something akin to the spreading freeways around a metropolis like the Twin Cities; they carry more and more water, with the pollutants caused by pesticides and fertilizers, into the Minnesota River — and from there down the Mississippi to the Gulf. (Imagine downstream residents thanking us for these gifts.)
  2. Farms are becoming bigger and bigger, consolidating often under the ownership of very large producers, and require fewer and fewer workers. “Big ag doesn’t need people,” suggests Kalahar, “it needs profits.”
  3. Towns are becoming smaller, losing population and social cohesion, becoming more monotonous and superfluous. Olivia, the county seat, now numbers 2,400-some residents, down five percent from the 2000 census. Danube, with its closed school, is a mere blip at 500. And Renville is trying to keep its head above water with 1300+ residents.

Evidence for these points can be found in the photos we took on this late May morning. Click on the image in the right-hand column to access the album — and get a running account of our journey through Renville County with Tom Kalahar.

An agrarian ideal

It would be hard to imagine a landscape shrinking away faster from the agrarian ideal advocated by Thomas Jefferson. At Monticello he envisioned a new country full of independent small farmers, who tilled the soil and, in doing so, instilled moral virtue. "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God," he wrote in Notes on Virginia. Small farmers could be economically self-sustaining, he believed, and politically and personally independent. He would have shrunk in horror from how beholden today’s farmers are to both corporation and government. “Dependence,” he wrote, “begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." (The ambitious, in his view, were moneyed interests and government.)

Easy to say such noble words from the heights of Monticello, we might rejoin. Easy to say from a patrician distance of more than two centuries. Our country now is, in every way, more complex than it was in Jefferson’s day. And our problems appear more intractable.
What can we do, then, city cousin and country cousin alike, about this state of affairs?

The current farm bill

A quick look at the current farm bill and the new one just shaping up will help orient us to where we are — and where we need to go. According to the Congressional Research Office, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 (the official name of the current farm bill) authorizes spending of $284 billion, divvied up approximately so among the following categories:

Program
Title
Dollars in billions
% of whole
Nutrition
IV
189
66.55
Commodities
I
42
14.79
Insurance & disaster
XII
26
9.15
Conservation
II
24
8.45
Trade, production, development, forestry, energy
XV
10
3.52

 

For a good layout of these farm bill titles, and a comparison of the 2008 farm bill with the previous bill, see http://www.ers.usda.gov/FarmBill/2008/.

It may be surprising that a relatively low share of the entire farm budget owes to Title I, or commodity supports. But the ruckus raised in recent years over such spending centers around the large payments made to large corporate farms or investors who live off the land.

See, for example:

  1. “How Farm Subsidies Became America’s Largest Corporate Welfare Program,” by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank.
  2. A Huffington Post piece, by Paula Crossfield, called “A New Vision for the 2012 Farm Bill?”
  3. A recent Washington Post article that traces the inflated salaries of food industry executives.

The USDA justifies commodity payments by arguing that farming is not usually profitable until the size of the farm is substantial. The more acres farmed, the heftier the commodity payments received. This numerical logic is invoked by our representatives in Washington, who support their constituent farmers. If they want to be re-elected, they won’t let crop supports falter; nor do they tend to thwart the will of Big Ag.

The Heritage Foundation argues against the logic of these protections, which were put in place under FDR, when 25 percent of our population lived on the farm (today just one percent do). In “How Farm Subsidies Harm Taxpayers, Consumers, and Farmers, Too,” Brian Riedl argues that “Farm subsidies are intended to alleviate farmer poverty, but the majority of subsidies go to commercial farms with average incomes of $200,000 and net worths of nearly $2 million.”

Whatever passions are generated by crop subsidies and whatever pressures work to trim the overall budget, current budget hearings suggest that House members won’t easily let crop supports falter. Farm state reps signal they wish to continue supporting undiminished subsidies at the same time they are willing to slash conservation funds and hundreds of millions from domestic and international food programs. (See for example “House Rejects Farm Subsidy Cuts in Spending Bill.”)
According to the Congressional Research Office article cited above, the Title II conservation programs of the 2008 farm bill, which are under attack in the current round of negotiations, include primarily programs that pay farmers for

  1. Taking out of cropland “environmentally fragile land” such as The Conservation Reserve Program and The Wetlands Reserve Program
  2. Creating practices that help farmers steward natural resources, for example, The Environmental Quality Incentives Program and
    The Conservation Stewardship Program

These are the programs, in fact, that Tom Kalahar works hard to sell to farmers in Renville County. The problem is that conservation payments, even now, are not adequate, for it’s much easier and more lucrative to sign up for a commodities check than to “jump through hoops to participate in conservation programs.” Enrolling in CRP or EQIP, for example, demands a fair amount of work — both paperwork and changes to the land. “There must be another structure in place,” asserts Kalahar, “to drive farmers to take less [money] to do something better.”

What can we do about this?

For starts, given adequate funding (a very big if these days), farmers can sign on to government conservation programs in order to mitigate the unsustainable effects of fence row to fence row farming, slowing down the deposition of chemicals like phosphorus and nitrogen into our common waters. They can grow a little forage and host a few head of cattle. They can make their operations less monocultural, more varied, more sustainable, and more proud. In short, they can cultivate smaller farms and more diversified farming.

Yes, these are very tough choices for farmers, Kalahar and other think. Yet to break the power of Big Ag, and big government for that matter, farmers have to be willing to say no to the easy choices.
(For a full list of government conservation programs, see the Norrthwest Farm Bill Action Group website )

And city dwellers can think much more consciously about the food choices that we make. (Food for thought can be found in “The 2012 Farm Bill: It’s Not too Late to Think Big,” which cites a new Facebook page designed to get people talking about food policy, Understanding the Farm Bill: A Citizen’s Guide to a Better Food System.) Whether it’s corn-fructose-sweetened soda that we suck down by the case, fast food that we grab from the drive-through, or processed food in our market’s dairy or frozen food case, we have to be more aware of how our eating affects both farm and city. Relegating our diets to corporate decision makers, whose decisions are based on profit not health, makes us all less healthy; saturated with chemicals whose effects we may not realize; and beholden to decision centers that are not in us but elsewhere.

A raft load of literature is available online about the effects of corporate food processing — and the highly inflated salaries of food industry executives.

Processed food, junk food, and fake food, to adopt the nomenclature of one recent article, can have “a devastating effect on our bodies.”

Another source lists highly processed foods like white flour, refined sugars, including high fructose corn syrup (from that superabundance of publicly financed corn), and margarine, warning that food processors often obscure the exact ingredients used in their products. This is a good argument for being careful and literate about our food choices (reading the labels, being skeptical about things that don’t seem clear or don’t add up).

The Washington Post article cited above, tracing “The evolution of executive grandeur,” points to studies suggesting that “executive compensation at the nation’s largest firms has roughly quadrupled in real terms since the 1970s, even as pay for 90 percent of America has stalled.” The article also speculates that salaries have risen so absurdly because greed is now socially acceptable.

If greed is acceptable, in fact, and we’re indifferent to what we eat (and who we are), then the fix is in. But shedding more light on such important issues can have healthy effects. It can begin to change farm policy, food choices, country living, and social relations. It can help us clean up our soils, our waters, ourselves. If we see clearly and communicate our vision to others, even our congressmen may begin to see the light.

But is it possible that our choices aren’t as stark as they might seem?
Michael Pollan, the healthy food guru, believes that even corporate America may be embracing food change. Wal-Mart for one is pressing producers to eliminate antibiotics in farm production and to grow organic vegetables. To make the debate “a choice between the small, diversified, sustainable farm and the highly productive massified farm,” Pollan insists, “is a false choice.”

Neither producers nor consumers have to be happy with the status quo. They can change, whether they are big or small. They can be more conscious of the healthy choices out there; they can live as if their lives, and the lives of those they love, depended on such choices.

Because they do.

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