Good things go bad when out of their rightful places. Take farm fertilizer and soil, essential ingredients in the field but all wrong in the 27 percent of Minnesota lakes now too contaminated to drink.
Last month’s report from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) blasted corn-and-soybean agriculture as the major source of nitrogen contamination of water in Minnesota. Many fingers justifiably pointed at the debacle that is Congress and the Farm Bill. Fix it, yes. But we don’t have to wait for that day in order to shape a better route for food and farming, in Minnesota and everywhere.
We already know what to do. It’s in the roots. Food on the table, fish in the lakes, farmers making a living: everything good on the land starts here.
It’s a two-fer, really: milk and cheese from pastured cows tell a farmer how important those roots are in producing good food. Beef, pork, lamb, bison, poultry same thing: dinner and roots, dinner and soil in place, dinner and songbirds, dinner and a thriving farmer with roots in a community.
We do not need 50,000 water samples and 35 years of compiled data to be convinced of the changes that conventional row crop farming has wrought on our landscape. There are no roots when fields are bare eight months of each year. This is the reality of corn and soybeans in the Upper Midwest.
In contrast, at our disposal right now are perennial plants (those that grow back year after year, such as prairie, hay, and pasture species) . They utilize nutrients much more efficiently, even in early spring before corn and soybeans have been planted, and support a vibrant living community below ground that holds tight to the soil above ground.
These are the grasses and forbs of a pastured landscape, the prairies that gave pioneers something rich to sink their future into. Livestock grazed upon this living root system convert sunshine into soil fertility, and meat and milk into a bank account. Perennial roots hold the soil, and the soil supports a biological community that feeds on the manure and holds onto moisture. Birds and bees — harbingers of health on a diverse landscape — do not worry about karst topography when soil and vegetation are in place.
And it doesn’t require replacing all our annual crops with grass to get a major benefit—by a long shot. Earlier this month I and some other LSPers visited central Iowa where we saw firsthand how researchers are using strips of prairie in row-cropped fields to dramatically reduce erosion and runoff of chemical contaminants. Planting as little as 10 percent of a corn or soybean field to these prairie strips produces a 95 percent reduction in erosion and runoff, according to the ongoing research.
It isn’t just for the joy in hearing a meadowlark or seeing a trout jump that makes permanent vegetation a sensible solution to much that ails our landscape. A lack of roots means there is loss of soil, literally, but also of biological soil fertility and the commercial fertilizer paid for with cash as irretrievable as the chemical itself. Separate from the debate about commercial fertilizer, farmers who lose money suffer and our towns suffer with them.
In other words, having a deeply rooted agriculture can produce multiple benefits for not only the land and its farms, but the community as a whole.
The MPCA didn’t look at the economic plight of water contamination, but one can’t disassociate the well-being of soil from that of the farmer, nor of the farmer from a community. There’s a certain algebraic truth in the conclusion that healthy soil equals a healthy community.
This is the driver behind the Land Stewardship Project’s work in southeast Minnesota’s Root River watershed, where the MPCA predicts at best a 22 percent reduction in nitrate contamination even with maximum attention to fertilizer rates and timing as well as increased planting of cover crops and replacement of row crops on marginal land with perennial plants. This, concludes the MPCA, is not enough to make a difference here or at the end of the river in the Gulf of Mexico.
What about keeping the essentials of fertilizer, soil and water in place but growing things that do it for us, especially on the 41 percent of the Root River watershed planted to row crops?
Against these norms, there is a community of farmers and eaters proving what can be done within the embrace of a land ethic. They may or may not accept government support for planting cover crops but plant them they do. They graze their livestock that people pay unsubsidized prices to eat. They build ponds to retain flood water, and manage streams for trout with their cows.
As farmers, landowners, tenants and neighbors, they attend public field events and Land Stewardship Project’s more intimate “kitchen conversations” (see No. 2, 2013, Land Stewardship Letter, page 24) to express what is important about the land. There is resilience running in the background of each conversation about grazing, fishing, passing on the land, livestock breeds, growing old on one’s land, protecting bluebirds, prairie in July.
Land accountability is high when people talk about their values and eat, farm, and rent accordingly.
The MPCA didn’t mean for us to read and point. Nor did it recommend waiting. It refutes the impact of improved fertilizer efficiency, and clear graphs depict the damning role of drainage tiles. Its best-case scenarios for improvement are so far from sufficient that there is little need to read between the lines. It demands that we do something now.
Down here in one of the culprit watersheds, we’re working for a change in statistics via a change of heart that would render those statistics unacceptable.