Agricultural reforms in favor of long-term viability needed over current short-term profits.

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In this Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, file photo, Ken Cox carries trays of wild blueberries to a tractor at a farm in Union, Maine. The latest Census of Agriculture shows the number of U.S. farms and ranches has fallen but the remaining operations are larger and are responsible for a higher percentage of agricultural sales. The U.S. Department of Agriculture released the 2017 Census of Agriculture on Thursday, April 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Adoption of sustainable agricultural practices is required to prevent another “dust in the wind” scenario. 

 This week, environmentalists in California gathered to taste a new breakfast cereal that contained Kernza, a perennial relative of wheat. These environmentalists hope that such a perennial grain will prevent the uprooting and erosion caused by wheat and other annual grains. They cite the fear of species being destroyed during tilling. An alternative to perennials that would solve this problem would be no till agriculture which would reduce such effects. This practice predates tilling and also enables the soil to maintain its integrity, acting as a carbon sink and enabling more efficient irrigation. This approach will account for a means of utilizing the soil itself to prevent ecological problems such as warming, algal blooms and topsoil loss. 

However, while tilling is problematic to the soil and environment, it is not the only reckless habit that current farming practices engage in. There is also a worrying tendency for farms to plant the two subsidized species of corn and soy, which result in reduced biodiversity, increased chance of famines induced by blights that affect the entire agricultural sector (We have seen the perils of monocultures before with Ireland in the 1860s with a new world plant and in the extensive tobacco farming by southerners. The tobacco farming depleted the soil, necessitating the expansion of the slave state, racially-based slavery to prevent yeoman farmers and disgruntled indentured servants from requesting land that the planter elite was either unwilling or incapable of granting them. Studies of tobacco in Bangladesh confirm the effect of tobacco on the fertility of the farmland ). This erosion and ecological disaster also manifested in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas. The results of this disaster are related by John Steinbeck in the Grapes of Wrath, with the fictional Joad family. A focus on bonanza farming of wheat eroded the soil, leading to destruction of the protective topsoil, allowing the wind storms to blow the soil into dust storms and forcing the Midwesterners to travel to the West Coast, fleeing the dust (https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/dust-bowl-cause1.htm). Some scholars blame the fall of the Cahokia mound-builders and Pueblo builders on similar reckless farming practices that those indigenous cultures practiced until severe drought caused the collapse of their chiefdoms (http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1130). 

There are farming techniques which prevent erosion and soil depletion. These strategies will save the agricultural sector from the threats posed by such ecological disasters. One solution is no-till farming. Another is Kernza, which will not be commercially viable on an immediate timescale. Another is crop rotation, as practiced in Europe in the feudal era, where farmers divide their land and rotate each field between multiple crops. This also prevents blights from exerting as powerful an effect on the yield. It also produces higher yields, which will aid in producing enough food to sustain our growing population. This effect is especially effective when legumes are utilized as one of the crops. This is because legumes, where the seed is not desired for consumption or extraction, will replenish nitrogen levels. Such a plan reduces the need for synthetic fertilizers, reducing the amount of algal blooms in the oceans and reducing the amount of pollutants emitted by factories producing synthetic fertilizers (). 

The three sisters method also prevents excessive depletion. In this agriculture technique, you plant corn, squash and beans in a single field. These plants support each other structurally, prevent depletion of nutrients and together form a diet with sufficient amounts of nutrients (. Furthermore, livestock are one of the causes of a large fraction of the consumption of some agricultural products. Therefore, reducing the amount of meat consumed may also aid in disincentivizing the bonanza economy

Although bonanza and boom-bust farming have been major factors in American agriculture since the beginning, such an emphasis on a single crop occurred primarily in the South and Midwest. California has an overreliance on grapes, garlic, almonds and wheat, but possesses sufficient distinct crops that no single crop holds a monopoly on the economic prospects of its agricultural sector. While the western state still has altered the ecology and uprooted native plants and pools, it lacks the financial fragility of bonanza farming. Similarly, the Northern agriculture was subsistence agriculture and the surplus was diversified, preventing a shock to any one crop from forcing farmers to increase production which would lower costs in a destructive spiral for both costs and the environment. The problem of boom-bust agriculture was so detrimental to agriculture that a series of bills in the United States attempted to protect the wheat industry in the 1920s, culminating in the AAA of the New Deal. This finally acceded the farm the federal buying of agricultural goods that the Midwest had been demanding since the days of the grange and William Jennings Bryan. This has led to the monoculture of today, which was aided by foreclosures at the same time, leading to the growth of industrial large farms, more similar to plantations without slavery or aristocracy than the yeoman farmers and homesteads they displaced. They prioritized even more than the homesteaders and yeomanry. This exacerbated the problem. 

Alternatives to the modern practices must be pursued. Israel’s Arava institute and other institutes of agricultural innovation can aid in producing new solutions and educating farmers about sustainable options. The Oklahoma plains, the mounds of Cahokia and the lack of cod in Newfoundland reveal what will be inevitable if reform in some manner regarding farming is not pursued. We must learn from past collapses as the Cahokia mound-builders learned from drought to prevent the predictable results of Oklahoma from repeating. The result of current practices is well known; the only question is when the match will strike the powder keg that is soil depletion and topsoil erosion. 


Jacob Ningen is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.ningen@uconn.edu

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