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Harvesting crops in the mud and snow

One of my favorite people has farmed, with her husband, in both Ohio and North Dakota and lived to tell about it. Growing corn commercially in Ohio is hard enough but in North Dakota, it takes an infinite capacity for pure and undefiled optimism to make a go of it. She summed it up perfectly with only the slightest hint of a sarcastic smile on her face: “Well, actually, there is an advantage to growing corn in North Dakota. The snowdrifts hold the cornstalks up until a thaw and another freeze-up allows you in the field. In Ohio, the mud keeps you out of the field until the stalks fall flat on the ground and you can’t harvest them at all.”

This situation has been extremely pertinent this year. The weather has kept the ground wet through much of the Corn Belt but that mud doesn’t stop today’s machines of mass destruction when farmers get desperate enough to harvest anyway. They grind their way through the wet soil, leaving in their wake roiling, rolling gullies of ooze deep enough in the wettest areas to sink a Greyhound bus. In our county, we were visited this fall with the strangest scene yet: bulldozers scraping off the country roads thick layers of mud that massive farm implements had dragged out of adjacent fields. The fields were left looking, in the wettest spots, like battlefields crisscrossed with trenches and bomb craters.

I know many of you will think I am exaggerating because no one has previously had any idea of what happens when huge, powerful machines meet sopping wet soil. I am not criticizing the farmers for the enormous soil compaction that follows such meetings. They have to get the crops off any way they can and waiting for a freeze-up is too risky. They are caught in a situation few could have predicted. We always have had years of contrary weather during harvest but now the scale of the operation makes the scale of devastation so much worse. In former years, many more farmers with fewer acres each could limit the problem just because of that. With only a comparatively few acres per farmer, they could wait for the ground to freeze so they can get the crops harvested without massive soil compaction. When every farmer had only twenty acres or so of corn to harvest, and did it mostly with hand harvesting and horse power, mud or snow was not a soil destruction problem. Harvest just went on casually all winter long whenever conditions allowed.

The situation keeps getting more ridiculous. Much of North Dakota was never meant to grow corn in the first place. The season is too short for one thing. For another, parts of it don’t get enough summer rain for industrial corn production, and so mammoth irrigation canals have been built there to carry water to crops that sometimes don’t get planted or don’t get harvested. I once was interviewing a North Dakota farmer who told me, casually, that the field we were walking in had been five feet under water that spring. The land there was as flat as a table top, and when the snowdrifts melted fast, there was no place for the water to get away in a hurry. But now, in summer, the corn we were inspecting was suffering from drought.

Corn is still grown in this northern plains cattle country mostly because the demand for it from the subsidized ethanol market and from China keeps the price high enough (barely) to provide a chance of a profit. Or a farmer can buy as much insurance as the government allows and pray for contrary weather to destroy it But contrarily, the experts are now saying that under that land that is so difficult to raise profitable corn on, there’s enough gas and oil shale to render ethanol from corn obsolete if it isn’t already.

Meanwhile in Ohio, we are using snowplows to clean mud off our country roads, dragged there by farm machinery.

Surely there must be a better way.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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