The house where I live is on a three-acre square of land. One side of the square faces a barely paved county road; the other three are surrounded by farm fields owned by a farmer who lives nearby. My family enjoys this setting. It’s quiet. The nearest traffic is a mile and a half away. Perhaps one car an hour comes down our road. When I stand outside, I can hear the wind. At night the loudest sounds are coyotes yipping, the odd whooping cry of a screech owl, or, in the spring, an orchestra of frogs. On clear nights the sweep of the Milky Way is visible, and we see the progression of the moon through all its phases. Our property has hosted garter snakes, rabbits, toads, frogs, a mink, several weasels, far too many skunks, a baby snapping turtle, twin fawns, argiope spiders, blue-tailed skinks, bats, and birds.
Far too many skunks. Photo: Andy Zehner
A great congregation of birds lives here. One of my favorite is the marsh harrier. He doesn’t show up frequently, but when he does, he skims the fields like a seagull skimming the sea. Bob-whites lob their calls as aggressively as competing tennis players, killdeer skitter and complain, kestrels scan the ground from the electric wires, and overhead turkey vultures circle in the updrafts. Indigo buntings, red-wing blackbirds, goldfinches, and a variety of woodpeckers add color.
We can go outside barefoot and feel the soft earth harden in the days after a rain. We can lie down on the grass without self-consciousness; the first day in spring when I can stretch out on the ground is one of the happiest days of the year for me. We can be casual about what we wear outside, especially during the summers when the farmer is growing corn. By the first week of July, the corn forms enough of a wall that we can walk outside in our pajamas and not be seen. We need to pay close attention to the season, though: the first morning after harvest has occasionally come as a shock to the sleepy, pajama-clad person taking the dogs out, who stands exposed to the school bus trundling past.
Road after Harvest. Photo: Andy Zehner
I love the openness and the wide view of the surrounding fields. Wide views do not occur naturally in this part of Indiana, where the land is only slightly rolling and forest is the natural ecosystem. In summer the fields are lush green during the day and flickering with fireflies at night. In fall they turn golden brown, then, when the crops are harvested, every contour lies bare to the eye. Morning and evening, foxes and coyotes will lope across the expanse, or a deer will stand frozen in the middle of the bare fields, head up, then dash for the small strip of woods to the south of us.
It looks like a rich and healthy ecosystem, and in some ways it is. But the health has more to do with the wealth of Indiana’s soil, water, and climate and with human neglect as factories move and towns dry up. Where human beings have interacted intensively with the land, there are problems, not obvious to the casual observer now but with the potential for future harm.
Our three acres are surrounded by thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. The two crops are generally rotated each year, but not always. Small patches of trees have been cleared away since we’ve lived here, making an uninterrupted expanse for several miles in most directions. In the spring, trucks spray anhydrous ammonia and spread lime. Sometimes field tile is put in to drain the land more efficiently; this involves large machinery digging a system of trenches throughout the field and perforated plastic pipe being unspooled like thread and laid in the trenches. Once the field is ready, huge planters drive through. The driver sits in a comfortable, enclosed cab high above the field; the planting these days is directed by satellite GPS. Modern machines tow huge booms of seeders behind them that can plant a forty-foot width with every pass of the field. (Our house, a four-bedroom American four-square, is slightly less than forty feet wide.)
After the plants emerge, strange-looking vehicles on high wheels creep across the fields like spiders, spraying the crops with herbicide and pesticide. At least once a year, crop-dusting airplanes zoom overhead, trailing poison as a squid trails ink; recently helicopters have been spraying as well. I can hear the engines overhead barely in time to rush out to the clothesline and haul in the laundry, call the dogs, and close the windows.
When the crops are dry and brown, the combines start their march across the land, lights and engines scouring the fields far into the night. Some of the newer combines can harvest eighteen rows at a time. Huge tractor trailers wait by the side of the road to take the winnowed corn or beans to the grain elevator. The days of harvest break into our quiet life. The farmer who works around us is responsible for several thousand acres of crops, so he often harvests at night. He parks four or five vehicles – tractor-trailers to haul grain, his and his workers’ pick-up trucks, perhaps a tractor and grain wagon or tanker for refueling – alongside our property, just outside our windows. He leaves the engines running and the lights on, even when the vehicles aren’t used for several hours.
After weeks of that frenzy, the fields are bare and quiet. They might be tilled once before spring, but generally the old stalks lie scattered over the tire tracks pressed into the dirt. The winter winds are strong here – actually, the winds are strong all year round – and each dry stalk forms the foundation for a drift of snow, or of dirt if snow doesn’t fall. I don’t see many living things on the fields after the weather turns cold except for the occasional coyote, fox, or deer I described earlier.
Each dry stalk forms the foundation for a drift of snow. Photo: Andy Zehner
In fact, the fields, as opposed to our acres or the native forests, are not much visited by any species. Even farmers don’t set foot on their land over the course of a year. Let me not exaggerate – perhaps once a year, the farmer who works the fields around us will walk over a few feet of his field with his helpers and point and talk. Sometimes he’s directing someone to cut off the branch of one of our trees that hangs over his field. The last few years he’s overseen an experimental test patch in the middle of his field, but he’s left a bare dirt track big enough to drive a truck through, so he doesn’t have to walk there.
What are the results of this type of farming? Well, it does produce a lot of commodity crops and can be efficiently worked by a small number of people. However, it doesn’t produce most of the food we actually eat, despite many farmers’ claim to be feeding the world; our food seems to be grown far away from this rich land, in California or South America – the broccoli, asparagus, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, pinto beans, Brussels sprouts – all the variety of vegetables that we actually eat. We would struggle to live on the produce of these fields, and we wouldn’t be happy doing it. I especially would suffer; I’m allergic to corn and can’t tolerate much soy.
And the efficiency and small work force have their down sides: first, the benefits of the advanced machinery need to be weighed against its costs and the amount of debt the farmers incur to keep up with the technology. Our neighboring farmer and his wife have taken several million dollars in government subsidies in just the last few years. (The information is easily available on a public website.) Despite the image of the American farmer as a rugged individualist, most farmers considered successful these days are sustained by the government and the banks, not the land.
Second, replacing human labor by technology has led to unemployment or underemployment, in farming as in other industries. The biggest farmers have the biggest debt, and the most rapidly increasing rate of debt is for farm machinery, which unlike land loses its value rapidly. The almost 200 billion dollars currently in farm debt could cover quite a few salaries of farm hands who could take the place of the most expensive machinery. Instead that money is going, in many cases, to overseas banks and manufacturers; even when the lenders are American, the debt payments, unlike wages, do not stay in the same community where the farmers work. Sociologists in recent years have bemoaned the rural decline in population, the “hollowing out” of the farming states; surely this problem begins not just with the loss of the people but with the draining away of all profits before they can circulate through local businesses.
So the economic impact of modern hi-tech commodity farming is less than positive; what about the environmental impact? Here is what I observe:
Snowdrifts in winter block roads and creep back across the pavement as soon as the plow goes by. Interestingly, the stretches of road that are still lined with trees stay pretty clear. In some places local government will install ugly orange plastic fences along the road to try to keep the drifts down, but I haven’t seen any effort to restore natural windbreaks beside roads.
Snowdrifts. Photo: Andy Zehner
When the snow isn’t too deep, those same drifts, as well as the snow on our property that is downwind from our neighbor’s fields, get a thin coating of brown topsoil blown from the fields. It’s not very pretty.
Indiana is not hilly, but neither is it perfectly flat. Local farmers plant rows according to the convenience of the machinery, not the contours of the land. When it rains, topsoil runs down between rows and along the cleared area beside our property.
The surrounding fields, during the growing season, offer a clear illustration of natural selection. The dirt is so compacted and sprayed that very few things other than genetically modified crops can survive on it, but mutant ragweed is beginning to take off, as are a few other weeds that have been naturally selected for herbicide resistance. In contrast, unfarmed areas of central Indiana are burgeoning with uncontrollable life.
There are some simple things that farmers could do to improve these and other problems. I’m not making them up; these principles and practices have been proven again and again over hundreds of years.
Farmers could have smaller fields separated by patches of forest. These copses would regulate water flow, both on the surface and in the water table. They would reduce soil erosion by wind and regulate temperature changes around them – our extreme wind can set the growing season back by several weeks when it has nothing to block it. The trees would provide a shelter for animals and serve as a corridor for larger creatures like deer, coyotes, and bobcats to move across the landscape in greater safety. They would offer honey bees a variety of native flowers blooming all season long.
In the same way, planting a larger variety of crops in narrower strips would slow disease and pest transmission and make it easier to really rotate crops, not just swap corn and beans. These crops could be actual food crops, to be eaten locally, as opposed to commodity crops. Some of the strips could be perennial, like fruit and nut trees, asparagus, berries, lumber, etc.; others could be rotating annuals. In this way the environmental advantages of the forest patches could be combined with crop productivity.
Farmers could give up ditching the fields for drainage – an expensive and destructive process that never seems to end – and instead create wetlands where water naturally collects. These would have most of the advantages of the forest patches as well as providing a different ecosystem and a natural means of filtering water. If the wetlands are left alone, over time they would turn into forest patches by natural succession, and new wet areas could be set aside as needed.
Wetlands. Photo: Andy Zehner
A more natural rotation of animals and plants would involve using fewer chemicals, which would be all to the good, financially and environmentally. When grazing animals like cows, sheep, and goats, followed by domestic fowl, are allowed to pick over fields that have been harvested or are lying fallow, they not only provide the fertility of their manure but also take care of many of the pests and weeds that farmers would otherwise be spraying for. They provide an ongoing source of income all year, which field crops don’t. This plan would involve a creative use of fencing – or of herders, if farmers prefer to spend money of people instead of stuff.
Future field managers. Photo: Andy Zehner
As I said, these are basic and obvious ideas; I’m not offering anything new. Modern theorists and practitioners of sustainable agriculture point out these and many other things we could be doing if we were not drunk with our machines, government subsidies, and previous investments. Not just modern – I recently bought a book from a second-hand bookstore, copyright 1944, called Natural Principles of Land Use. In it Dr. Edward Graham, who worked for the Soil Conservation Service, outlines the same seemingly radical and far-fetched ideas espoused by farmers like Joel Salatin, Gene Logsden, Wendell Berry, and Bill Mollison. Honestly, ideas about how people ought to interact with nature should not be avant-garde and surprising, because nature itself, in every time and place, ultimately dictates what will work over the long term.