From the archive

Daniel Barron

With fifty-six percent of the lower 48 states held captive by drought (NOAA) and a farm subsidy program which values corporate interests and raw yield over quality food and sustainable practices more American citizens will soon be faced with a water shortage reality. Heavy use of modern farming practices, such as chemical dependent “No-Till” and genetically modified plants have increasingly allowed commodities farmers to plant corn and soy beans in less viable regions, such as the Great Plains regions. The ability to plant large scale commodity crops in these climates says nothing about whether or not farmers should do so.

On a recent trip through the Midwest my travel partner and I admired the Platte River in Nebraska, slowly cutting through agricultural land with sandy islands, entombed by its slow path to the Missouri river. It wasn’t until we spoke to a few long-time local residents that we realized the river was not as charming as it appeared. Once a consistently powerful waterway, stretching over a mile wide in some places, the Platte River has been overwhelmingly depleted by damaging water diversion and irrigation. Water scarcity is increasing in many regions of the United States and agricultural irrigation accounts for 80% of all U.S. consumable water use (USDA). Between 2003 and 2008, the number of wells operating in the U.S. with flow meters increased 76 percent to 107,384 wells, increasing the total amount of U.S. irrigated acres 4.6% from 52.5 million acres to 54.9 million acres (USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture). Incidentally, Nebraska exceeds all other U.S. states, including California and Texas, in total irrigated acres.

When traveling through Nebraska on a warm June day you would see the radial green fields, connected like an endless mat of pearls under the extensive arch of countless center-pivot irrigation systems. What drives the need for such agricultural engineering? As of July corn prices are over $8.00 per bushel in Northern Illinois ( and the price of tillable acreage has surpassed the $10,000 per acre mark in some areas. The incentive for farmers to expand or increase production is obvious, there is simply too much profit potential to gain or lose. Most farmers were looking toward 2012 as a year to come out with record earnings, though the sustained drought and high temperatures have withered many ambitions of even a decent harvest. With so much at stake and rainfall coming up well below the average I fear that we may begin to see the irrigation practices of the Plains farmers move into regions historically fortunate with consistent precipitation.

Clearly the water intensive farming practices of the Great and High Plains are not sustainable. Given the detrimental strain that large scale farming practices are having on the waterways and aquifers of the Plains states, one would immediately begin to see a cycle of water depletion for the sake of a giant business interest, industrial commodity grain farmers. The actual strain of aquifer depletion is being reflected by an increasing need for deeper wells which, over a five year average, increased 5 feet in depth (USDA).

The growing disregard for hydrological conservation hardly comes as surprise to those familiar with the industrial agriculture model. This is the industry that has destroyed most native habitat and species, contaminated our drinking water with nitrites and Atrazine, ignored dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and crafted trade policies that have ruined sustainable farmers around the world. With millions of acres in monoculture crops and nothing allowed to exist beyond GMO “franken-plants” (inventions which cannot exist without an endless supply of petroleum based chemicals and fertilizers) the sustainable ecological loop has been destroyed. As informed citizens and inhabitants of this state, country and planet we must look beyond the rhetoric of the industrial commodity agri-giants. We need to understand what these farming practices mean for everyone, not just the powerful interests which capitalize on the precious and unquantifiable resource which is our environment. The under regulated, under restricted use of chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, GMO plants, antibiotics, petroleum intensive farming methods and abusive over-planting practices are the summation of common atrocities which demand accountability. As the profit driven monetary pressures of $8.00 corn and $10,000 per acre land prices become more common, the industrialized desire to “dominate mother nature” will unfortunately persist. What will be the engineered industrial solution to drought in our typically plentiful region and how far will the giants of agriculture go to maintain record yields and incredible profits? Keep watching, ask questions and be critical of the corporate interests. Your children and grandchildren deserve a healthy planet to live on.