Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Kansas and the heart of America

has just blown my mind. The further west I travel, the bigger things become. Eastern Kansas had an average farm size of several hundred acres. These farmers typically work another part-time or full-time job and focus mainly on crops like corn and soybeans. In central Kansas a small farm grew to a size of 1,000 to 2,000 acres. At that scale, farming is more than a full-time job for one person. The landscape is organized into giant grid systems called sections. Each section is 640 acres in size, and fields are managed in smaller 160 acre portions called quarters. A diversified farmer might have several quarters in corn, one in soybeans, a couple in milo (a type of sorghum fed to cattle), a couple in wheat, and another in pasture for cattle. Now that I’m in western Kansas, its pretty commonplace for a farmer to work 5 sections which is 3,200 acres.

All the grain crops are important, but it is wheat that seems to lie at the heart of the heartland. When hearty winter wheat was introduced to the states by Russian Mennonite immigrants around 1909, it changed wheat production forever. The new variety was ideally suited to the Kansas soil conditions and climate.

Wheat is planted around October. The small plants lie dormant through the winter, somehow manage to survive the cold and snow (thus their namesake “hearty winter”) and get a head start in early spring. With just the right rainfall, the plants mature and are harvested in June. Though there are as many philosophies as there are farmers, there are two primary camps within wheat farming; conventional and no-till.

A conventional wheat farmer will disc the field in June after the harvest (which chops up all the remaining crop residues), plough the field in July (which turns the soil upside down burying the residue), and field cultivate in August (which keeps the field surface groomed to bare dirt, and cuts the roots of weeds) until planting begins in October. This continuous effort to keep the seed bed clean until planting surprised me. Farmers spend nearly four months trying to stay one step of the weeds that rob the soil of limited moisture necessary for the wheat seed to take root. A good traditional farmer always has clean fields, and may have to drive a tractor over the ground four times between harvest and planting.

No-till farming has been a response to some of the dilemmas posed by conventional tillage. Constant tillage destroys the structure of the soil and allows carbon and nitrogen to volatilize into the atmosphere reducing soil fertility. Because the soil is bare four months out of the year, gigantic volumes of topsoil are lost due to wind and water erosion. As fuel prices soar, the cost of running a tractor over a piece of ground so many times is taking a brutal bite out of a farms bottom line.

In order for a seed to sprout it only needs a few square centimeters of broken ground. When tilling, the entire field is prepared as the seed bed, even though only those few centimeters are required. No-till operations use a special piece of equipment that slices the ground, inserts the seed and fertilizer, and then covers the ground behind it. Last years crop residues are still in the field, which trap moisture, nutrients and organic matter in that top layer of soil enriching the quality of the seed bed year after year.

No-till comes complete with its own set of dilemmas. No till is less dependent upon fossil fuels, retains soil structure, and conserves topsoil; but it also depends upon herbicides to knock down the weeds, and the same chemical fertilizers as conventional farming to improve soil fertility. It takes several years for a piece of land to see the benefits of no-till, and requires an upfront investment in new equipment. A relatively small percentage of farms are in no-till, but as the pressures rise (from soaring fuel and fertilizer costs to the time required in the field), it is apparent that farmers are looking for alternatives out of sheer necessity.

In western Kansas, where rainfall is often below 16 inches a year but the soils are rich, a handful of dryland farms have gone organic, or simply certified what was already an operation that didn’t use pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The market for organic wheat in western Kansas was born from a Mennonite family that started Heartland Mills, one of only five organic grain mills in the United States. There are 58 million tons of wheat grown in the US annually, of which only four tenths of a percent are grown organically. Farmers growing organic wheat are not in the same market as conventional wheat and receive anywhere from $5 to $9 a bushel, whereas commodity prices for wheat are about $3.50 to $4 per bushel.

So this is the backdrop. Over the last week I have spent nearly everyday with Kansas crop farmers from all of these backgrounds. The portrait painted by their stories and their farm practices pose all of the important questions in agriculture. Kansas and the Midwest is at the center of our food system in America. A quality control inspector at Heartland Mills made the comment to me that the Mennonites farm the same way they live. By extension, how a society farms is a reflection of how a society lives. I’m half way across America and I’ve now seen the heart of America. Now I’ll spend the second half trying to figure out what this says about our soul.

This entry was posted on 8/23/2006 12:29 PM

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