We often hear from agvocacy and the various agribigness players (oftentimes one in the same) that farmers are/were the first environmentalists. Although reasonable people can disagree on what exactly an environmentalist is, I certainly accept the idea that a farmer can be an environmentalist. But to say the profession and the industry in general is committed to environmental outcomes is about like saying the mafia is committed to customer service. The new normal obviously is to imagine what you want the truth to be, then just say it, no matter how outrageous the lie or the exaggeration. And this goes double for agriculture.
By the way, in case you were wondering, I’m 37, weigh 185 pounds and Ken Burns is filming a documentary based on these blogs.
Despite what my detractors might think, I don’t wish to convey the idea that Iowa or Cornbelt farmers are the farmers furthest from the environmental ideal. The environmental ethic (or lack thereof) in agriculture knows no borders, as Aldo Leopold clearly observed. Look no further than Dutch farmers wanting to drown climate-friendly politicians in the Zuiderzee if you need evidence.
Two physical factors in particular seem to drive (down) the level of farmer environmentalism: 1) how much moisture you do or don’t have; and 2) the slope of your fields. In the first case, too little is a cause for irrigation, and too much is a cause for drainage. Both have profound environmental consequences, but since Goldilocks didn’t make the land or the climate, we see a lot of both in this country. Now, you might think it's intuitive to grow crops whose moisture requirements align with expected rainfall. You might even be tempted to say that a farmer that does such a thing might be thinking ‘environmentally’. But this isn’t how agriculture thinks. This is an industry where you can plow up a 6% slope for corn and still call yourself an environmentalist if you turn off the anhydrous ammonia when you round a corner.
Take the western U.S., for example. It has been dry for a while. A decade or more in some places. And beastly hot. As I write this (9/6), the projected high for today in areas of western Nebraska and Kansas is 104o. And rumor has it that some ag folks in Western Kansas are 'going commando' because their bunched-up shorts are getting too sweaty for comfort. This discomfort is because the eastern part of the western U.S. (i.e. KS, CO, etc.) is now corn country. Much of this Great Plains land is too hot and dry for corn to rely on rain, so farmers irrigate with the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world's largest and one that is being pumped dry in places to grow corn.
Kansas Department of Environmentaling I mean Agriculture engineer Earl Lewis says the state’s consumption of groundwater from the giant aquifer continues to outstrip natural replenishment (1). You might be tempted to say that if we are going to use a water resource that takes 6000 years to replenish (2), we might do it judiciously and for good reason. Something other than producing beef protein for the world’s wealthy and, of course, FUEL ETHANOL. Yasssss, we’re using fossil fuel to pump 6000-year-old-groundwater to the surface to produce corn ethanol so you can do some environmentaling of your own when you fill up your gas tank. About 33% of the corn in Kansas and 40% in Nebraska (compared to ~55% in Iowa) goes to produce ethanol. Kansas has ten ethanol plants and Nebraska 24, and many of these are in the western portion of those states. How does this make sense? Well, the Renewable Fuel Standard makes this perversity possible by guaranteeing a market for corn, even when it’s grown in borderline desert conditions.
And it’s not just the groundwater in Kansas that’s being depleted. The state’s reservoirs that serve as drinking water source supply are silting in (1). Siltation has reduced Tuttle Creek Reservoir, municipal supply for the city of Manhattan, to 53%, “which meant the lake was almost half full of soil runoff.” The state has also spent millions dredging heavily-silted John Redmond Reservoir, used to cool the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant. And as long as we’re talking municipal drinking water—Everest, KS, population 276, $1.1 million for nitrate removal; St. John, population 1200, $3 million for nitrate removal treatment plant; Woodston, population 100, $1.15 million for nitrate removal; Bogue, population 136, $2.6 million for nitrate and arsenic removal, and dozens of other similar small town disasters (3).
So much environmentaling going on down there in the Jayhawk State, e.g., corn production for ethanol. But to hear the industry tell it, ethanol is so green, it’s greener than a Leprechaun’s drawers.
But wait, it gets worse (it always does).
By now everybody knows that Kansas farmers are going to wring the Ogallala like your grandma wrung a dishrag, so people are looking for other sources of water. Since the Rocky Mountains appear to be tapped out, that means their thirsty eyes have been cast to the east. And nothing screams ‘sustainable’ like pumping water (newsflash: pumps are usually powered by fossil fuels) hundreds or thousands of miles to parched western Kansas and elsewhere to produce corn ethanol. Several ideas have been floated, one being tapping into the Missouri River and pumping the water uphill 375 miles into a reservoir near Garden City, KS (4). Sure, sounds environmentally sound. To a scientist that just dropped acid. Or an engineer that needs a new boat.
People from other, further-west states have also cast their dry eyes to the Great Lakes and the lower Mississippi as potential solutions to their water woes, often driven by perverse agricultural practices (5), such as growing irrigated alfalfa. Great Salt Lake is drying up (at least in part) because ¾ of Utah runoff is used to irrigate an industry that produces 3% of the state’s GDP so it can export alfalfa to China (6). Meanwhile, Salt Lake Citians breath wind-whipped toxic dust from the exposed lake sediments (7). Environmentaling.
And Arizona. Leasing farmland to a Saudi Arabian company so it can grow irrigated alfalfa and ship it from one desert (high today in Phoenix: 109o) to feed air conditioned cattle in another desert 8000 miles away (high today in Riyadh: 111o) (8). Totally sustainable.
Here’s a point I want to hammer home: throwing band-aid conservation, usually paid for with taxpayer dollars, at an activity that is intrinsically stupid, is not being ‘environmental’. In fact, it is the exact opposite because it helps entrench the stupidity. And by all appearances, we are poised to throw a colossal amount of money at farmers and their hangers-on to do exactly that. Exactly that, especially on climate initiatives (soil health, carbon sequestration, digesters, carbon pipelines etc. etc. etc.).
Here's an idea: quit growing so much corn for ethanol and try growing alfalfa where it doesn’t need to be irrigated.
- Carpenter, T. Western Kansas’ economy threatened by reliance on irrigating crops with Ogallala Aquifer. Kansas Reflector, August 29, 2022.
- Little, J.B. The Ogallala Aquifer: Saving a Vital U.S. Water Source. Scientific American, March 1, 2009.
- Condos, D. As fertilizer pollutes tap water in small towns, rural Kansans pay the price. High Plains Public Radio, March 29, 2022.
- Walton, B. Kansas and Army Corps Revive Study to Ship Water from Missouri River to Ogallala Aquifer. Circle of Blue, October 24, 2013.
- Wilson, J. Pipe dream or possible? Experts weigh in on idea of sending Mississippi River water to West. Palm Springs Desert Sun, August 14, 2022.
- Smart, C. The Great Salt Lake Goes to China. Salt Lake City Weekly. February 23, 2022.
- Martinez, I. Toxic dust warnings might be our future as the Great Salt Lake shrivels up. KUER 90.1., June 20, 2022.
- Arizona PBS. Saudi water deal threatening water supply in Phoenix. June 23, 2022.