A few weeks ago was Easter and I celebrated it by visiting some family friends that have a farm in South Dakota. It was really quite an amazing experience, even apart from all of the amazing food. Over the weekend, I was introduced to a different way of living. It was great to get out of the hustle-and-bustle of college for a long weekend and I couldn’t have thought of a better place to recharge for the last few weeks of the semester. On the short vacation, I noticed something. I realized just how different rural small town life was, but that it was also in many ways similar to living in the suburbs or the city. The land goes on for miles and that is really the important thing. In the city, people measure your wealth by the size of your house or the cost of your car, but in these small farming communities, your worth is measured by the size of your property, how much corn, or wheat, or soy beans you can grow.
This leads to a huge problem, because not only does your property affect your appearance of wealth, but also your actual worth. If you live on a farm, you have huge amounts of money invested in land, equipment, and all of the necessities you need in order to make a living. If one thing goes wrong, like a drought, then your ability to survive within that community is greatly diminished. And because of the way these problems are, the entire community loses out. It’s really not a great system. The effect that such an agricultural system like this has on the environment is also astounding.
Recently I attended a lecture on this topic by Dr. Wes Jackson who works The Land Institute. He talked about the problem of erosion that farmers have been facing because there are no plants in the soil for half of the year. Jackson is aiming to solve the problem by developing a perennial wheat. This will stay in the soil for the entire year, therefor rooting the soil in.
I saw this problem first-hand, but I also saw some more short-term solutions. The wind is ever-present in these parts of the country. I think that this is due largely to the fact that there are very few trees to block it. Wind like this definitely doesn’t help the whole erosion problem. One of the solutions that I saw while I was in South Dakota was extremely smart, something that I am wondering why everyone doesn’t do it. After the corn is harvested, the parts of the plant that are left over are left to stay in the ground. The stalks are then flattened. This does two things that are great for the environment. One, it keeps the soil where it should be. Two, it adds nutrients back to the soil. By naturally adding nutrients back to the soil, the farmer can reduce the amount of fertilizer, thereby reducing the amount of runoff that ends up in the Missouri River, which makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico.
The state of agriculture desperately needs to be changed, and hopefully through these small changes and through long-term solutions thought up by Dr. Jackson, and others like him will help to create an agricultural system that can be sustained for future generations.
While there are a whole lot of problems with agriculture, there is something to say about living so far away from the city. The first night was completely black. The darkness compared only to the inside of a cave deep in the ground, it was so complete. But the second night, when the clouds parted, there were stars. And not just the few that I’m excited to see when it’s clear in the city, but hundreds, thousands even. It was absolutely astounding.
Now that I’m in the final week of my first year at college, it is entirely likely that I won’t have the time to write any blog posts for a bit. However, I will be traveling to Berlin in less than a month. Expect some blog posts from my experiences in Germany!