A corn and soybean desert

Editor's note: This is one of a series of essays on contemporary environmental controversies. These issues may well define how or whether we can continue to live and improve our well being on this cosmic speck called Earth.
Where are we going as a state? For most of the last ten thousand years, the land we now call Iowa was at the heart of one of the most ecologically diverse regions ever known, the tallgrass prairie. The numbers of species of large mammals, small mammals, birds, waterfowl, insects, grassy plants, and flowers would have been the envy of the world if there had been anyone to keep score.
Early in the nineteenth century “civilization” struck Iowa. The population went from a very few in 1800 (before the Lewis and Clark Expedition) to 40,000 people by 1840 and 190,000 by 1850. We saw an eleven-fold increase in population over the next 50 years to 2.216 million people in 1900. At this point Iowa was declared settled with an average of four farms per square mile.

This was a remarkable transformation in the landscape in less than a lifetime. The prairie had been broken up and was largely gone. However, additional major changes still lay ahead. In 1900 Iowa agriculture was basically a bio-fuel economy. Oats and hay were grown on the farm and fed to horses that provided the power to grow the crops.
Over the next 50 years agriculture transitioned to a fossil fuel driven model. The ecological diversity that characterized the land before settlement was gone but there was still a diversity of sorts. Farmers rotated their crops and included grains, hay, and pasture, and of course corn. Diverse livestock was also a part of virtually every farming operation.
Fast forward again to today, less than one more lifetime. Herbicide ready seeds and the application of herbicides yields fields that are an absolute monoculture without a single unwanted plant in sight. Pesticides control the harmful insects within the monoculture but also eliminate non-harmful insects, the low rung of the food chain that previously supported a diverse animal and bird population.
Iowa can still be beautiful. The lush green fields we see for three months in the summer are testament to the rich soil which came from our prairie heritage. Several weeks in the fall provide a golden view of harvest. But for the majority of the year, the landscape is barren and empty. We have become a corn and soybean desert, about as far from our natural heritage as we can get.
Some view this only as a model of production efficiency. Corn and soybean yields have never been higher. We produced 3.7 billion gallons of ethanol last year to fuel our machines and transportation network. However these benefits come at a price.
Large monoculture farms operate with much less labor so small towns are disappearing. Our streams and lakes are subjected to silt and nutrient runoff. The loss of our native plant and animal communities is breathtaking.
So where are we going as a state? Acceleration of the corporate farming model does not yield a pretty picture unless you are a corporate farmer and like the short term bottom line. Some individuals and groups are starting to recognize that bigger is not always better.
Practical Farmers of Iowa is a small organization composed of hands-on farmers who are trying to find a better way-one that will maintain profitability and preserve ecological values. Cover crops, prairie grass strips, nutrient removal devices, and similar practices are being put in place. Other groups, such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture push the same agenda and are beginning to change he landscape in a positive way. They deserve enthusiastic support to help us avoid becoming a permanent corn and soybean desert.

Muscatine Journal column 3/01/14