The Next American Dust Bowl—and How to Avert It

Modern agricultural methods have produced even larger harvests—but at a cost: the richest breadbasket soils of the nation are threatened by serious erosion. The solution may lie in a revival of the techniques of "organic farming," techniques that have long been associated with romantic back-to-landers. Now serious large-scale farmers are giving organic methods a try, with startling success.

In the month that I spent traveling around Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, and Missouri, the newscasts consisted almost entirely of price quotations on the Chicago commodities market. Farmers could tell you the exact amount of rain that had fallen on their fields over the past two months, to the last tenth of an inch. Even on city radio stations, the commercials dealt mostly with feed additives and hybrid seed varieties. President Carter's decision to relax beef import restrictions was treated as a major foreign policy crisis, and the grasshopper hordes moving east from Colorado were looked upon as an invading army whose artillery was just audible over the horizon. One radio station had a favorite song—actually a patriotic hymn—in which a litany of the farmer's trials and satisfactions was recited while a heavenly chorus chimed in the background.

The vast majority of farmers in the Midwest are now practicing continuous cropping—"corn-corn-corn" as it is called in Nebraska and Iowa. This means that the, highest-paying crop is planted without interruption year after year. Some farmers now rotate with soybeans since their price has risen over the past fifteen years, but others rotate only with corn/wheat or corn/milo, which is not a true rotation since none of them fix nitrogen. Yields are maintained at spectacularly high levels—200 bushels of corn per acre in some instances—through ample use of fertilizers and with the help of pesticides and herbicides, which fight the insects and weeds that ordinarily thrive on the endless repetition of the same crop.

When drought struck in the early 1970s, the Department of Agriculture and the machinery companies responded with "center-pivot" irrigation, actually a lawn-sprinkling system raised to the level of a national agricultural policy. Huge, quarter-mile-long scaffoldings now "walk" around a farmer's field, spraying water from a central well. Although enormously expensive and already running up against groundwater limitations, center-pivot agriculture has created another quantum leap in production figures. A further trend has been the movement of cattle off the farms and into the huge feedlots that now dot the countryside, holding up to 250,000 head of cattle apiece. The change has turned most farmers into corn-suppliers to the feedlots, but has given them much more leisure time since they no longer have to tend their own livestock.

The increased efficiency and greater division of labor have left the farmers facing only a few major problems (besides their normal difficulties with the weather): continuing overproduction; the rising cost of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides (all fossil-fuel based products); and the gradual depletion of organic matter in the soil, which has led to increased hardpan and erosion. Some areas of Kansas and Nebraska have reported hardpan ground almost two feet deep. The agricultural machinery companies have responded by building bigger tractors to pull the plows, but the heavy tractors are causing even greater compaction. Where hardpan occurs, rainwater no longer soaks into the ground but runs directly off the land, taking large quantities of soil with it. Some soil scientists now estimate that the topsoil from the equivalent of a 100-acre farm ends up at the bottom of the Mississippi River every day because of erosion.

In the midst of this, there are a few organic farmers. They are not running communes, nor are they concerned with growing tomatoes that will taste better than the "chemical" varieties. The concept of "going back to the land" means very little to them, since they have already spent all of their lives on the land.

Marvin Kurpgewiet farms a 500-acre spread in Madison, Nebraska, about 250 miles northwest of Omaha. He inherited it from his father, and has been farming organically for the past six years. When I pulled up behind his hillside farmhouse, his wife, a sunburnt redhead, greeted me and said I could find him back in the fields. "He's waiting for you," she called out as I started to negotiate my borrowed car through freshly cut alfalfa. I drove across the damp fields, then stood on a little hilltop looking over a motionless landscape until I realized that a tiny yellow threshing machine at the end of one long field had turned around and was now facing me. I walked for a long time, seeing only the ghostly reflection of sky in the cab window, until finally I stood beside it. A smiling face peered out almost fifteen feet above my head. "Come on up," shouted Kurpgewiet, but communication was almost impossible over the roar of the motor. I rode with him to the end of a row of cut oats before we climbed down and he began showing me around his fields. A stocky, Germanic looking man of medium height, with thin, blond hair and a stubby, suntanned nose, he talked in the deliberate manner of a person who is used to thinking things through for himself.

"I got into organic farming six years ago," he said as we headed for a neighboring cornfield. "My wife and I went to a presentation given by one of these organic fertilizer companies and we liked it. We knew we were getting into trouble with our soil—it was getting harder and harder to plow every year They told us to stop using fertilizers and pesticides, and to start building up our soil again by using manures and their trace-mineral fertilizer. We use a five-year rotation to get nitrogen and organic matter back in the soil. We grow corn, soybeans, corn again, then alfalfa, and finally oats and clover. The alfalfa hay, oats, and some of the corn go to feed the livestock. We've got forty head of cattle and about 350 hogs right now. The clover stays right on the field when the oats are harvested, and then gets completely plowed under for nitrogen. We buy a little of the trace-mineral fertilizer from them every year, but it's not expensive and you use it only about eight to ten years, until your soil gets built up again. Then you discontinue it almost completely. The whole thing is very inexpensive. The company occasionally brings people around to see our farm, but they don't bother us.

"My yields haven't been off much at all, and I'm actually getting better crops on some of my high ground, where things never used to grow well because of the water runoff. I'm getting about 90 to 110 bushels of corn an acre, and my ground is getting so soft and spongy that the rain soaks down instead of sitting on top or- running right off. Two years ago, during the drought here, I still got sixty bushels an acre while some of these farmers didn't even bother to go out and harvest a crop. The next year they all went into debt for $65,000 to buy center-pivot irrigation systems. Some of these farmers around here are so far in debt that they have to make 150 to 200 bushels of corn every year just to meet their interest payments. They're spending $75 an acre on fertilizers and pesticides, plus another $25 an acre to pump water out of the ground. Corn is $2 a bushel, so that puts them 50 bushels in the hole just to start. I'm only spending about $5 an acre and my yields are just about as high." A genuine note of perplexity had entered his voice, and he gave me a long, slow shake of the head. "Somebody's just not thinking," he said.

I asked him what he was doing about insects and weeds, and what he would do if a horde of grasshoppers started marching toward his field. "Weeds are not that much of a problem once you get your soil right," he said. "The company told us that weeds do best in poor soil, and they seem to be pretty much right about it. The weed has a longer root structure and can reach down further in the soil for nutrients. That's why you start getting a lot of weeds when your soil gets exhausted. The weed can also use the chemical fertilizer just as easily as the plant, and once you put that chemical nitrogen in the soil, the race is on. Herbicides will work for you for a while, but all you usually end up doing is breeding a tougher strain of weed. Then the chemical companies sell you a different herbicide, and the same thing starts over again. I've had fewer problems with weeds than I ever had since I started building up my soil.

"Pretty much the same thing is true for insects. A lot of your bugs, like corn rootworm, don't come until you start growing the same crop year after year. Then the insect has the chance to establish itself and multiply. A lot of the spraying that goes on around here comes when a farmer sees a few bugs on his crop and decides to spray the whole field just to be sure. I just haven't had that much problem with insects since I started this system. I guess if a whole army of grasshoppers ate through here I wouldn't expect them to pass by my cornfields, but fortunately that hasn't happened yet."

Sitting in the kitchen later, while I ate a fresh raspberry sundae his wife had prepared, Kurpgewiet told me he is planning to increase his livestock in order to get maximum advantage from the system. "It isn't necessary to feed cattle on corn because they're ruminants and can eat all the hay and other things we can't eat," he said. "Hay and oats don't bring much of a price on the market because the feedlots don't use them anymore, but once I start running my hay and oats through cattle and putting the manure back on the field, I won't be losing anything anywhere in the system. I won't have to buy any fertilizers, and all I'll have to put into it is my labor. Everything that leaves this farm will be on four hooves and bringing a premium price, I hope. I've already been able to pay off most of my mortgage just from the money I've been making the last few years. Once I get my herds built up, every dollar I get from selling a pig or a cow is going to go right here," he said, patting his wallet for emphasis.

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