RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Creating Deserts in the Midwest

About a month ago, John Kinsman of the Family Farm Defenders went to Korea to meet with Korean farmers. They wanted to know what kind of actions were going on in the United States around the food crisis. John could point to a few news stories about Somalia, folks that live on the desert and have no money — what can you expect? — but that was all.

Food crisis? The US is clueless. We depend on imports to keep us going, and the multinational corporations have made sure the imports keep on flowing. Meaning that we appropriate somebody else’s land to grow food for us. So, our farm policy continues to create crises, but not here.

But, meanwhile, we’re creating our own deserts here in the Midwest. The process isn’t as dramatic as the weather changes that have plagued farmers this season — tornadoes, floods, hail. In fact, you can hardly see deserts happen, the media doesn’t cover it; for the non-farmer, it’s hard to understand, but you need to know, so here goes:

This year, 2011, the commodity story in the Midwest has been all about corn. Corn prices have soared, due partly to demand from ethanol producers fighting with food producers and partly to the shenanigans of traders.

Corn, it turns out, is used in almost every kind of food, from food for livestock to food for humans. I’m no nutritionist, but even I have heard of “high fructose corn syrup,” and you have too. It’s been used in abundance in factory food, and it’s made soda pop cheap and our kids fat. In farm land, corn makes money. Landowners are offered three times the rent for pasture if they’ll allow the grass to be killed with Roundup, and then planted in Roundup-Ready corn. So, in my neighborhood, we’ve seen trees torn up by their roots and burned, ponds filled in, and corn planted where last year there were cattle. There was no incentive to stay with livestock, and I’ve even heard longtime cattle men call their cattle “liabilities” because cattle require fencing, of course.

The first step in creating a desert is to lose the topsoil, which contains organic matter that holds the moisture, and the rush to row crops has meant that a lot of rolling land with thin topsoil is being planted to corn. As long as it was in permanent pasture, conservation land, or hay ground, roots of grass and weeds held it in place, stopping the soil’s inevitable roll downhill to the ditches. Once the grass was killed, the erosion started. Bye bye, topsoil.

For farmers, everything depends on the weather, the water and the soil. The corn planting started somewhat late due to heavy rains but it went on as long as guys thought they could see the corn mature in time for harvest.

When they ran out of time, they planted soybeans betting that the rush to corn will create a shortage of soybeans.

Bottom line: we’ve seen many acres move from permanent pasture to cropland this year. And that provides a chance to make an interesting comparison. Let’s look at land that has been farmed for many years and every year lost a little topsoil each year for five or six decades, in comparison to pasture that is newly converted to crops.

In July, we had 105 degree weather day after day, little rain, but it didn’t take long for the crops on longtime monocultures to feel the stress. Overnight, the corn on continuous monoculture turned brown, died, and the ears of corn shriveled before they could develop. This was because there was no topsoil to hold the tiny bit of moisture that was left in the ground.

On the other hand, on fields that hadn’t been farmed so long, that had been pasture, the plants were very stressed, shriveled and awful looking, but they didn’t lose their green color and their roots didn’t die. The organic matter in the soil retained enough moisture to keep the plants going and they were in much much better shape. Now, the weather has cooled and we’re getting a little rain. The green plants come right back because they still have roots in the soil. Whereas the brown corn is not going to rebound, it’s just basically a loss. So, for these guys, crop insurance has become a necessity and, of course, they hope that the weather is better next year so they can do the same thing—plant corn or beans on their deserts.

But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to learn from this lesson. One is that the newly converted pasture will be old monoculture ground in a few decades. Think of what this means. Centuries of topsoil creation, going back to the Ice Ages, has been partially saved by pasture. Partially saved, I say, because animal paths and overgrazing create their own kind of erosion. But, compared to monoculture crops, pasture has saved a lot of topsoil and organic matter for the future.

Another lesson is that deserts are just waiting to happen.

The old monoculture is already a desert that, with water and chemicals, can grow corn again and it will be used that way until somebody pays to convert it to housing, or bring in new topsoil and build a golf course to hide the damage.

So, in the future, where does our food come from?

Easy to answer, say the multinationals: It can come from new ground appropriated from new continents, which is the model we depend on today as we move our agriculture into eastern Europe, South America and other lands where peasants have kept their topsoil more or less intact. And who will get the food in the future? Those who can pay the price, of course.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email her at

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2011

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