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253974

A Dirt Problem

When I go into a doctor’s office, I always check the diplomas on the wall so I know the person I’m talking to has some basis of knowledge for what we’re discussing.

I haven’t received a diploma since Clinton High in 1973, but I do have this: I live on a 1,000-acre farm, 40% of which is farmland only because it’s been ditched, tiled, and drained over the past 100 years. I also live on the edge of a 250-acre wetland that at least three generations of my family could have drained but chose not to.

There is no end to the list of topics about which I know nothing, but I do know this: Agriculture in America has a dirt problem. You can tell it from plugged road culverts, from lakes rendered shallow and useless by farm runoff, by the dredges you see in major rivers, and by what’s happening to the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and any number of other places where what runs off our farmland hits its final resting site. 

Where I live, on the edge of the prairie in western Minnesota, my farm is only a few miles from the Continental Divide. Fifty years ago, I took swimming lessons at the foot of Big Stone Lake. Nobody swims there anymore, and places where my grandfather would have seen water 15 feet deep are now shallow enough for a duck to wade, if the duck could stand the smell. The water leaves my home and ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, where, this year, the Dead Zone is over 5,000 square miles.

There has always been erosion. The Mississippi Delta didn’t suddenly appear a month after corn was first planted in Iowa. The river’s been dumping mud at the southern tip of America for 7,000 years, long before the first ethanol plant was built.  

I understand that we don’t live in an impact-free world. There are over 7 billion people in the world now, almost double the number from when I started farming, and many of those folks would be starving without our modern agricultural systems. It can be easy to think that some evils are just the price of progress.

In Pittsburgh in the 1940s, streetlights were turned on during the day in an effort to burn through the smog. In London in 1952, 12,000 people died prematurely due to coal smoke in the air. At the time, it was seen as the price paid for prosperity. Today, the air above both cities is pretty clean. Dramatic changes were made, not without pain and distress, but it wasn’t the end of the world. 

It’s important to remember that progress is a portal, and the passage usually involves discomfort.

No one likes to be told what to do, and farmers are no different. A common way to deal with the pressures of being told things you don’t want to hear is to deny the truth of what you’re hearing.

That works for a while. It doesn’t work forever.

This past year in Minnesota, legislation was introduced that would require farm ditches to have a 50-foot buffer strip to clean up the water. It has caused quite an uproar, and no one knows how things will sort out. You should be able to figure out most of the pros and cons yourself.

Here’s the deal, though. As farmers, we’ve caused quite a mess, and in the past few years, it’s only gotten worse. When prices were high, farmers wanted to farm every inch, because there was so much money to be made. After prices dropped, they still farmed every inch in order to make a profit. Tree claims, buffer strips, and contour farming are all going by the wayside. Sprayers that kill grass waterways with their massive wingspans just add another nail in the coffin.

That’s just the truth.

Everyone makes messes. It’s the first thing we do as babies. For a while, people put up with the messes and even clean up after us. Adults are expected to clean up after themselves, though.

Look at a factory. What goes out the smokestack or down the drain gets tested. If it fits the parameters of what’s considered acceptable, everything’s cool. If not, it needs to be cleaned up.

We like to think we’re professionals, that we run businesses – and big businesses at that. That’s not a title we can claim without also accepting the responsibilities that society expects.

Next time it rains, walk out and take a look at the water running off your farm. If it’s not clean, you should probably fix it.

Otherwise, sooner or later, someone’s going to make you.

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