By Kasandra Brown
Editor’s Note: Kasandra Brown attended SFA’s “Dirt Rich: Building Soil Health Experts” events held Aug. 16-17 in Redwood Falls and Marshall, Minn. She submitted this column in reaction to her experiences at those SFA events.
Standing on the sweltering edge of a nearly full grown corn field, sweat bees relentlessly buzzing against my bare legs, I’m surrounded on this tropical August day by a few of western Minnesota’s most interesting cash crop farmers and cattle ranchers. I’m two hours west of Minneapolis and you can tell by my shorts and sandals that I don’t really belong here. To these guys, if remembered at all, I’ll probably be ‘that quiet city girl who tagged along on all the talks that day.’
We’re part of a soil health class put on by the Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) with special guest Dr. Allen Williams, visiting us from Mississippi. In the corn field, I’m not saying much despite my brain’s constant flow of questions, thoughts, and follow-ups because these guys, well, they have a lot to say!
I grew up in the Midwest, but before today, I’ve never actually set foot beneath the picturesque corn canopy. I’ve driven alongside thousands of miles of corn along the interstate, admired it as a kid and lamented its destructive habits as a college graduate with a degree related to sustainable agriculture. I’ve internally chided the farmers along I-94 – especially the one with the giant “Make America Great Again, Go Trump!” billboard in his field – for their bare soils, monocultures, visual erosion and flooding, and confined animal operations. Nowadays, instead of looking at my home state with the eyes of a bucolic poet, I see only environmental degradation and I am angry at the irresponsible farmers killing the land, the people consuming their products, and themselves. I’ve never actually talked with any of these large-scale farmers, only watched them drive across their fields atop their heavy machinery. I’ve never walked around their farms or – like I said – swam beneath the floppy leaves of an August corn stand.
Here I am, though, sweating and shooing away the buzzing flies, completely engaged in the conversation steadily heating up among several farmers with similar operations. Most here grow corn and wheat, a few raise cattle. As far as I know, none represents the state’s large population of soy, poultry, or swine producers. A couple of the guys are manure haulers and a few are either seed company reps or ag consultants.
Prior to today’s conversation, I’ve only ever attended conferences and classes in or very near the city. All of those events were predominantly attended by small-scale organic farmers, young people just getting into farming, or other diverse local producers. I’ve never been at the table, or around the corn, with large-scale producers of major cash crops who aren’t afraid to talk about their herbicide schedules.
It may be obvious, but I started out pretty intimated. Maybe I had signed up for the wrong class? By the time I set foot beneath the golden tassels, though, I was right at home. You see, these farmers are the real deal. They’ve shook off the predatory companies and commission-based scientists and reclaimed a vital skill of our ancestors: the power of observation.They’ve started (some recently, some for decades already) paying attention to the soil, the animals, and themselves. They’re working with cover crops to eliminate bare soil, boost microbe populations, fix nitrogen, and grow natural forage for their cattle. They are interseeding to put more roots in the ground in order to enhance soil biology. They’re not tilling (or at least tilling much less than they used to) in order to protect the underground mat of fungal hyphae, which provides an amazing partner for their crops by hunting for nutrients and supplying the plants with a rich diet.
They are also practicing intensive rotational grazing to raise high-quality beef in a very sustainable way. They’re doing all of these great things and they are watching closely. After very little time, they are seeing the return of earthworms, dung beetles, birds, and good insects. They’re seeing their own fields easily drink ten inches of rain while their neighbors’ flood. They’re buying and applying less fertilizer and antibiotics and they are seeing their crops and cattle grow strong and healthy. Best of all: they are happy.
These farmers – a group that most of the urban people in this country stereotype as unchanging, conservative, traditional, and even unintelligent – are some of the smartest, most adaptable, and innovative guys I’ve ever met. Sure, they are definitely money motivated and not at all afraid to admit it. Dollar signs drive a lot of the farming business and this is one reason that big ag has so effectively been able to corral farmers into their clutches. Promising better returns with more and more inputs, farmers have been pulled away from their own knowledge of the land and its needs by corporate pirates seeing only gold in the green fields.
I don’t want to romanticize it: These guys will be the first to admit that low commodity crop prices are one of the things really driving this shift in better soil management. Low corn prices are pushing farmers to look for other income sources. Integrating livestock into their mix with an intensive grazing schedule on a good cover crop blend is one of the ways to find it. Essentially, their bottom line is the bottom line. It’s an incredible thing though, when what’s good for the farmer is also what’s good for the planet. It’s even better when these guys recognize that and appreciate it.
Not only are they trying to work more respectfully with nature at the soil level, but they are also watching the animals for clues regarding other practices. Every guy standing in this circle has a story about animals refusing to eat their corn when it grew from genetically modified seed. Raccoons and deer that would pull ear after ear after ear off the stalk and leave it uneaten on the ground: constantly searching for one that actually resembled food. Mice that found their way into the silos and only ate the non–GMO stuff … “If mice don’t eat it, should we?” They ask.
I am so inspired by their conversation because for the first time in my life, I realize that everything is probably going to be all right. I’ve spent my short 25 years, or at least the conscious ones, worrying. Worrying about where we’re at in history, worrying about the loss of topsoil and the extinction of species at unprecedented rates, worrying about climate change, poverty, hunger, cancer, you name it. I worry about the land the most. We’re dumping so many toxic substances into it and we are raping it constantly with our plows and industrialized agricultural systems. The land is our provider, our only provider … yet we’re destroying it almost without a second thought. I’ve felt paralyzed by these worries and wondered desperately how I can solve all the problems and create a better world.
My short time with Dr. Allen Williams and this congregation of Minnesota farmers helped me take a deep breath. Nothing is done alone. These farmers are brilliant and they share a common culture with other farmers, word spreads … they are the change makers. They have the land and they are making the changes that need to be made if we are to survive into the next decade. We just have to trust and support them. These farmers are leading by example; they’re experimenting, analyzing the results, and sharing the truths. I have so much hope because they are doing a holistic science, not just dissecting one tiny piece isolated from the whole but looking at the entire picture: they are taking into account their finances, their health, our health and even our pleasure in eating, the animals wild and domestic, the microbes in the soil, the plants, the rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, everything. I finally have hope and I believe that everything is probably going to be all right because we have millions of people on Earth like these farmers.
We are at a unique point in time when things can either get really bad, or they can come around and get really good. Before I walked into the corn field, I feared the first. Now, I believe that we’re leaning more toward the latter.
Sure, this was a very small sample size. Seventy percent of farmers and probably the ones owning the most land are still ignoring the sweet beckon of mycorrhizal fungi, beneficial nematodes, covered earth, and healthy livestock, but I have hope that the call will soon be loud enough for all to hear.