Harvest 2015 has been going on for a while. We have been eating greens (oakleaf lettuce, spinach, swiss chard, arugula, beet greens, kale, pea shoots), peas, new potatoes, and herbs (thyme, basil, parsley, sorrel) for some weeks. Our first big crop harvest though is the garlic harvest.
Without a solid education, farmers and scientists who work in agriculture-related science would not succeed. Farming requires science which means that farmers need a solid education. As well, the folks who study water quality, agronomy, agricultural engineering, and seed science must learn both the content of their fields as well as research methology.
Unfortunately, states in the midwest are shirking their duty in funding public higher education. This is true in Minnesota, where I work at a university and it is true in Iowa and Wisconsin. These three states account for 3 of the most important land-grant universities where much agricultural research is done: University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of Minnesota, and Iowa State University.
This point was put well in On Wisconsin (Spring 2015) by Kirstie Danielson, a 2007 Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Writing about Wisconsin, “…the state is failing in its moral responsibility to support affordable education and opportunities for its citizens to prosper, abdicating the responsibility to overly burdened middle-class families.” She continues, “Let’s therefore hold our elected officials responsible to make sure that all who profit from an educated citizenry reinvest in future generations.”
So, the connection is that farmers and agriculture-related researchers need high-quality science-based higher education. Without this grounding in science, in climate change, seed science, water quality, soil conservation, precision agriculture, and agronomic research, the future of agriculture is in jeopardy.
In our discussions about human-induced climate change we sometimes get weather and climate confused. They are not the same thing. What is the difference between climate and weather?
According to the NASA article I reference above, “The difference between weather and climate is a measure of time. Weather is what conditions of the atmosphere are over a short period of time, and climate is how the atmosphere “behaves” over relatively long periods of time.
A good source of science research into climate change can be found at Iowa State University’s Climate Science Institute
One of U.S. agriculture’s important sectors is under pressure. It’s the honey industry that is suffering from colony collapse disorder and this is leading beekeepers to doubt the wisdom of staying in business.
We have read recently that the Bakken pipeline, a project of Dakota Access, plans to build a pipeline across Iowa from the northwest to the southeast. Many of us are skeptical if not outright opposed to this pipeline crossing Iowa. One person who is doing something about his conviction is Ed Fallon. Ed is keeping an interesting daily blog as he walks the pipeline from southeast to northwest Iowa, “rolling the pipeline back up” as he walks.
The Meskwaki people have come out against the pipeline and the mainstream media, while not digging deep enough into the topic, is beginning to cover this challenge to agriculture and the environment in the Hawkeye State.
Not only is the Bakken pipeline through Iowa problematic (the reasons include destruction of farm drainage tile and the likelihood of leakage) the production of the oil itself is also problematic. There are two aspects to the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process (the process by which the oil is extracted from beneath the North Dakota plains), that deserve examination: first is the fracking sand industry, the second is the use of the water that is necessary for the fracking process, and a third that has to do with the way the business is being conducted on the Fort Berthold reservation.
Fracking sand is a necessary ingredient of the fracking process. A special kind of sand is required. Fracking sand mines in Trempeleau County, Wisconsin, for example, have turned the county up-side down.
A large amount of water is required for the fracking process but water is required on both ends of the process. Water is necessary for the initial work to force the petroleum from the cracks in the underground rock and then the chemical-laden water, as a by-product of fracking, is returned underground. About 3 to 8 million gallons are used in the lifetime of one well.
Third, about 30% of the Bakken production comes from the Fort Berthold reservation where the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara native peoples live (they were moved to this land to make way for Lake Oahe on the Missouri River). The business of oil production has been rife with corruption and shenanigans on the reservation. For interesting background about the way that the Three Affiliated Tribes (Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara) have dealt with the oil boom on their land, read about Marilyn Hudson and her research.
After all is said and done, the “sweet” crude from Bakken is not so sweet; it seems more like a bitter harvest.
2014 was a good year on the conservation front. Our third season of cover crops and a new wood-chip bio-reactor installed a year ago are reducing the nitrates our tile water puts into the Four Mile Creek watershed. (For an interesting interchange on the reporting of nitrates in Iowa agriculture, read the article about Dan Charles and Sarah Carlson. This article sheds light on the nitrate problem in the Midwest.) For more on the effect of excess nitrogen and phosphorus in our watersheds, read this report from Science Daily magazine. It’s not only about the water we drink, the wildlife, or Gulf hypoxia. In addition, we were able to make progress with renewable power generation for our home. We made 2,242.3 kWh in 2014 from our 6-panel PV array.
There are two kinds of farming that go on in rural Iowa, but very few people, urban or rural, are well-informed. Most residents of rural Iowa are no longer farmers. We work at desk jobs in cities and towns, we are teachers, accountants, graphic designers, professors, business people, bankers, and retail workers. While most of us, whether we live in town, in a city, or in rural Iowa, are only 2 generations off the farm (our grandparents were farmers). That does not mean that we really have much idea of the modern industrialized agriculture that our neighbors are engaged in (you might say caught up in, whether they like it or not). These folks raise grain (corn and soybeans) and sometimes confinement hogs. Dairy farms are nearly completely gone from central Iowa and beef cattle farmers are more common but still rare. A second growing, but small industry, is direct marketing agriculture. These are the farmer’s market folks or the folks that supply your CSA vegetable basket each week. They might market to you through the Des Moines Farmers Market, the Iowa Food Cooperative, or a CSA in the area. Many of these folks have to work other jobs to make a sufficient living, but there are a few that are large scale enough to make a go of it. The upshot of all this is that no matter where we live, if we are not farmers, we may not have much idea of the agricultural practices that are going on around us. So, to get to my point, do we know more than Mark Bittman?
I just read an article in the New York Times by Bittman, who clearly is a city guy. He has read about prairie strips as a conservation technique in Iowa and latched on to it as the next best thing after sliced bread. While prairie strips are interesting, they will not catch on for reasons that Bittman may not understand. Most of my neighbors rent the majority of their crop ground (farm fields, for you city people) from landlords. Often these landlords are retired farmers or their descendants who care most about the rent check on December 1 each year. Some farm ground in my area is owned by investors too. Therefore, as any good businessperson knows, the farmer (the renter) attempts to maximize his return each year. The quickest way to do that in our current system is to raise corn and soybeans, or continuous corn.Why would he spend on conservation measures when he doesn’t own the land?
For the record, I agree that we need to do much more conservation in the countryside. The two greatest concerns for many of us are (1) preserving soil health and topsoil and (2) cleaning up the water in our watersheds. Therefore, prairie strips, waterways, bio-reactors, no-till, cover crops, and terraces are all valuable conservation measures that we should be pursuing. However, a deep understanding of current agricultural practices in Iowa is necessary to understand how and why we do or do not use these conservation methods. It goes without saying, of course, that the number one consideration is to keep farmers on the land in a sustainable lifestyle.
Also for the record, conservation does not mean our grandfather’s farming methods. Precision agriculture, that is GIS-guided tools and software (yielding technical data) that farmers are using in their combine and tractor cabs, fits well with conservation farming. It’s not a question of low-tech conservation ag versus high-tech industrial ag at all. It’s a matter of utilizing all the tools we have to save our topsoil and our water; put another way, we need to farm with a long-term sustainable model in mind not a short-term profit minded model.