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Food in Dry Times

An old North Dakota farm is a laboratory for growing food when water runs short.

spread kirschenmann

I learned the important lessons about water very early in my life. My father and mother began their life on our family farm in North Dakota in 1930. Their years as beginning farmers were thus spent in the midst of the Dust Bowl. My father understood intuitively that the devastation was not solely about the lack of water; it also was about the way land was farmed. The weather, including the scarcity of rainfall, was the immediate cause of the Dust Bowl, but the farming methods of that era had left the land vulnerable to incredible soil loss. As a result my father became a radical conservationist, and from the time I was five years old I can remember him admonishing me to “take care of the land.” As far as he was concerned, that was the most important moral duty imposed on any farmer—not only for the sake of the land, but also for the economic survival of the farmer.

Consequently, water has never been an isolated “thing” for me. I understood from my father’s tutelage that water was only one part of a complex web of living relationships that included, among other things, soil, climate, biodiversity, and husbandry. He understood ecology before most people had heard the word.

No Separate Parts

Although the science of ecology has been evolving for decades, it has barely begun to influence agriculture in the 21st century. We still manage farms as if all of their parts, including water, are separate entities. However, that method of farming is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and the philosophy that informs it is being questioned more rigorously.

Cultural historian Morris Berman points out that since the dawn of the scientific revolution we have gradually adopted a “mechanical philosophy” that “insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed” and assumes that our personal well-being is contingent upon acquiring personal wealth through the exploitation of natural resources.

Our attempt to isolate the welfare of the human species from the health of the rest of the biotic community is a direct outgrowth of this worldview. And perceiving water as if it were a separate entity, a thing, a commodity, is part and parcel of this same compartmentalized scientific culture.

But we now know that nature is not a collection of objects. It is not a machine. We are not the end point of evolution. And we are not, as environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminded us, “conquerors” of the land community, we are simply “plain members and citizens of it.”

The water issues we are facing are tightly coupled to a complex, interconnected set of relationships. We are unlikely to solve our water problems without addressing comprehensive ecological health.

One of the reasons that we are using such large quantities of water for irrigation is that we have not paid attention to the biological health of our soils. Soil is not a thing, but a dynamic web of relationships with billions of microorganisms at the base of soil life. Industrial agriculture treats soil as if it were nothing more than a material to hold plants in place while we insert the synthetic nutrients plants require.

Rebuilding My Home Soil

In 1976, after my father had a mild heart attack, I decided to leave academic life and return to manage our family farm operation. This provided me with the opportunity to explore alternatives to industrial agriculture.

A 40 Gallon Water
Chaser For Your Beer?

The food we eat and the products we use contain “virtual water”—the water used to produce them. Cut down on home use, but here’s where you can really save some water.
Embedded Water in Beer, YES! Magazine graphic
Water to make 1 pound of:
hamburger       2,029 gallons
chicken                 468 gallons
apples                     72 gallons
tomatoes                16 gallons
bread                     171 gallons
cheese                  600 gallons

Source:  A.Y. Hoekstra & A. K. Chapagain
Water footprints of nations, 2006.

Being on the farm with full management responsibilities for the first time gave me the opportunity to explore theoretical questions I had: Were there ways to manage soil so it would absorb and retain more moisture to sustain crops during drought periods? Could I design a farming system with sufficient diversity to increase its resilience? Or one that was less energy intensive? Was it possible to create a farming system that was more self-renewing and self-regulating?

There was some immediate repair work to do. In addition to his passion for taking care of the land, my father was a progressive farmer, and he had always been interested in exploring technical innovations. When synthetic fertilizers first became available in our community in the early 1940s, my father was intrigued. He was deeply interested in increasing his wheat yields, and this seemed like an efficient way to do so.

But he also was concerned about the effect such inputs might have on his land and checked with our county extension agent and with other farmers whose judgment he respected. Everyone assured him that synthetic fertilizers would not have a negative impact on the health of his land. Based on those assurances, my father became the first farmer in our township to use synthetic fertilizers. The results were spectacular.

With this new technology he could plant wheat in successive years or grow it on simple rotations. And since wheat was the best possible cash crop in our part of the world, it simply made practical sense to raise more wheat and abandon other crops.

Replacing complex rotations with monocultures increased weed pressure. The more often we planted a cool-season crop like wheat, the more often cool-season weeds would produce seeds. So my father had to begin applying herbicides for weed control. By the time I returned to manage the farm, it was a fairly specialized wheat and sunflower monoculture farm operated in accordance with typical industrial farming practices—and the quality of our soil was significantly impaired.

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