The Brown Revolution: Increasing Agricultural Productivity Naturally

"If we have real numbers at scale, if we are generating real numbers in terms of returns on investment that are competitive," he says, his voice rising like a venture capitalist selling a dream deal, "we have this great store of capital out here in the form of land that's not going to evaporate, and we're producing healthy food, and our biological monitoring transects are showing that our species diversity is increasing, and we're covering our soil -- our assumption is that a lot of people are going to want to invest in that."

But that is the future. Right now, dinner is coming out of the trailer and being dished onto blue tin plates. Howell and his partners settle in around the blazing pile of fence posts and begin devouring their beef and noodles like any other group of cattlemen at the end of a long day. As they eat, the conversation turns less global, more local, to area ranchers and the cattle industry of the western Plains.

Listening to them, I'm struck by an odd contrast: It seems that for them addressing climate change is relatively cut and dry -- a challenge, for sure, but one with a strategy to match. More vexing is the question of how to engage and inspire the surrounding community in their efforts. It is essential, for in their minds one cannot fix a landscape that has collapsed without also fixing the community that has collapsed alongside it. But how to do that? That is perhaps the greatest challenge they face.

* * *

Newell Hotel, Newell, SD copy.JPG

The nearest town to Horse Creek is Newell, South Dakota, ten miles southeast. According to a weathered sign greeting visitors, it is the "Nation's Sheep Capital," but judging from appearances, even the town's purported fame has not saved it from the decline that is epidemic in rural communities of the western Plains.

Downtown is a quiet stretch of respectable old buildings, roughly half of which are unoccupied. No more doctor's office or pharmacy, no more lumberyard or variety store. It is not without commerce: There is still a grocery, as well as a ranch supply store and a meat locker. As in many small communities in South Dakota, there is a municipal bar and packaged liquor store, run by the town for desperately needed income. There is even a gift shop/vitamin outlet/jewelry store/ice cream counter as well as a hotel/fitness center/café around the corner, though it must be noted that when you ring the bell at the former you will be helped, after a brief wait, by the same woman who would help you at the latter. (Rarely does this cause a problem -- business is slow at the café, and the fitness center goes largely unused.)

At its peak in the mid-20th century, Newell had roughly 1,000 residents. These days a sign at town limits announces 675, although that is wistfully outdated; the most recent census numbers show the population to be 603. The causes for contraction are a familiar mish-mash of seemingly intractable problems. Farms got bigger. Agriculture needed fewer people. People started shopping at chain stores in nearby Sturgis. The 1980s farm crisis bankrupted a number of area farms. The drought of the last decade wiped out some more. And on top of all that, Newell has become a town of grandparents. With more than 30 percent of town over sixty years old, death will soon thin the numbers even more.

Despite all this, many locals perceive Newell as being in better shape than an outsider might guess. Yes, downtown is sluggish compared to its previous self, but the community has a secret weapon: water.

Throughout the western Plains, water is the difference between slow, inevitable death and the possibility of survival, and yet its availability is largely a whim of nature and luck of geography. As one local farmer put it, "This country revolves around water: When you've got a lot of it, everything's good and easy. When you don't have it, everything's a lot tougher."

Linda Velder, Newell, SD copy.JPG

From the beginning, Newell has been an attempt to defy that reality. While there were several small communities in the area at the turn of the century, Newell itself did not exist until the federal government created it in 1904. That was the year the Bureau of Reclamation officially approved plans for the Belle Fourche Irrigation Project, which would convey, store, and deliver water from the Belle Fourche River (whose origin is in neighboring Wyoming) to the farmland around Newell. The project's centerpiece was, for years, the largest earthen dam in the world.

Newell was created as a population center for what would become the newly fertile and booming agricultural region. Originally it was thought that the municipality would be called "Craig" after an area banker, but instead it took its name from Frederick Haynes Newell, a New Englander who was the chief engineer for the Bureau of Reclamation. Water has always been at the core of the town's identity. For as long as it lasted, the local newspaper was called the Valley Irrigator. To this day, the high school sports teams are not the Cougars or the Broncos; they are the Irrigators.

In its heyday in the mid-20th century, the area had a robust agricultural industry built on crops like sugar beets, cucumbers, and dairy -- all of which would be commercially impossible without imported water. Those products rippled out to create other economic opportunities: Both Newell and nearby Nisland had pickling plants among the biggest in the United States; the USDA had a large experimental farm just outside town. And irrigation led to denser settlement than in dryland farming areas, which in turn led to greater social services for the people of Newell, things like multiple schools and medical facilities that were unknown in smaller, dryer towns around the region.

Over time, the other factors that have caused Newell to contract have chipped away at that prosperity, but the water continues to be a source of life that makes the town different from its dying counterparts. That the Irrigation District is headquartered right there in town means a reliable source of jobs and income. More importantly, the project enables irrigation on 57,068 acres of farmland. These days, that land grows mostly alfalfa and corn rather than the high-value specialty crops of yesteryear, but it still makes the land far more profitable on a per-acre basis than the rangeland and dryland wheat surrounding it. Looking at a satellite image of the area in summer, the difference is clear: The land that stretches to the north and east is the dun of dusty old shoes; the pocket around Newell is deep green, the color of money.

* * *

Sheep auction, Newell, SD copy.JPG

Along with the prosperity of irrigation comes an inherent risk, in that the artificial supply carries no guarantee. The reservoir that feeds Newell-area canals has been sloshing full for going on four years now, and yet in the three years preceding, it reached an average of only 44 percent capacity. This ebb and flow is constant, and unpredictable. In 1932, the reservoir reached near capacity, but in 1931 it had "zeroed out" thanks in part to an annual precipitation of less than nine inches, compared to the average seventeen. The 1940s were relatively stable times, but every decade since has held at least one drought year; most have had more. And the future does not look bright: climate models predict decreased precipitation and rising temperatures for the region, which would mean an increased frequency of drought.

Any time the reservoir level sinks, the allocation of water to farmers sinks proportionately. Whereas in a normal year farmers might receive twenty inches of water, if the reservoir is at 50 percent, they will receive only ten. Less water translates directly into less land planted or a smaller harvest. And yet it's not the irrigating farmers who suffer most. Because of scarcity, prices for irrigated hay and feed go up; at the same time, prime customers -- the dryland farmers and ranchers who rely exclusively on rain and wells -- become even more dependent on purchased feed. For irrigators, drought years can actually be a boon.

For the rest, though, drought years can be crippling. Unable to pay the high price of supplemental feed, ranchers are often forced to sell off their herds. As many of them do this, the market becomes glutted and prices drop. Amidst the vicious cycle that ensues, bankruptcy is not uncommon. One local rancher recalled the sell-off that took place during the drought that stretched from 2004 to 2007: "You couldn't even sell them to be butchered," he said. "If you wanted to sell them [to the slaughterhouse] you had to wait four months -- and feed them while you waited. These are the things that pluck businesses and families out of the economy, and out of the community."

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Lisa M. Hamilton is a writer and photographer who focuses on agriculture and rural communities around the world.

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