Row Crops on the Prairie
Mississippi River Basin
Mississippi River Basin
Dr. Laura Jackson
Professor of Biology, University of Northern Iowa
Alison M. Jones
NWNL Executive Director
Evolution of the US Prairie
Farming on the Prairie
1950’s: Soybeans, Corn, Row Crops and Tiling
Alternative Solutions to Prairie Farming
“Big Ag on the Prairie”
Corn, Ethanol & Cellulosic Ethanol
The Land Institute
All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.
Dr. Laura Jackson is a Professor of Biology at University of Northern Iowa, primarily a teaching institution, where she teaches courses in ecology, restoration ecology, and environmental studies. She is passionate about establishing harmony between the people and the land. Thus, her life, like that of her parents, Wes and Dana Jackson, is focused on the threatened ecology of the US prairie, regenerative farming practices and conservation of US soils, clean waterways, carbon sequestration in the face of climate change, and solutions to erosion, excessive nitrogen usage and the toxicity of dead zones.
NWNL Hello, it’s a privilege to meet you. Let’s first talk about the geology of the prairie system, especially when it was intact, and then how it was farmed.
LAURA JACKSON This part of the Mississippi Basin on the Cedar River and is fed by a series of northwest-to-southeast-running tributaries to Cedar. Then it flows into the Mississippi. This area is part of an island surface that was last glaciated a half a million years ago. Then 30,000 years ago, there was a sheet of ice just 50 miles away. That glaciation had a big effect as it mixed and disturbed the soils in this area. 12,000 years ago, we had tundra here; 8,000 years ago, we had a forest; and about 5,000 years ago, as I understand it from different paleo records, it warmed up very quickly, with grassland species coming in from the west and the south. We think we’ve had a prairie here for 5,000 or maybe 6,000 years, built on glacial tills of our most recent glaciation and soil disturbance after that.
NWNL Before we delve into threats and how to preserve the prairie, how would you quickly summarize the value of this prairie?
LAURA JACKSON As a result of very dense networks of prairie roots, a warm summer climate and very cold winters, this prairie provides great carbon storage. Additionally, it offers huge amounts of deep black soil with 6 to 9% organic matter. There are very, very few places around the world that have had soils with that much organic matter.
NWNL Laura, can you quickly describe some of the physical properties of the prairie vegetation samples you have here?
LAURA JACKSON Yes, let’s look at the roots of prairie grass and a couple wildflower species.This is a wetland plant. This is another prairie grass. This compass plant is a wildflower with a really deep tap root. This is a plant that could be just in a regular pasture. This is a really pretty wildflower. From now on, we’re going to grow mostly grasses because they hold together better. These other ones tend to fall apart.
Now don’t get me wrong – corn has a great root system too. But corn is only in the fields for three months out of the year, and its roots are not big until time to be harvested. So, for much of the year there’s nothing in the fields to absorb farmers’ applications of nitrogen.
NWNL How have human impacts impacted this valuable and unusual ecosystem?
LAURA JACKSON The prairie was influenced by the Native Americans, fire, bigger herbivores like bison and a full range of carnivores chasing them around. The prairie vegetation that was here at the time of European settlement was not that old, but it had an incredible wealth of soil. As for the importance of the prairie, that depends on from whose point of view, right?
The prairie has been an incredible storehouse of very, very fertile soils. Unfortunately, people figured that out and managed to have most of it plowed by 1900. But fortunately, there were some pretty important exceptions: hayfields, roadsides, cemeteries, a significant amount of land in rotation and permanent pasture that was never plowed.
So, by 1900 perhaps, the prairie went from having some kind of perennial cover year-round and living roots in the ground year-round to having one-third to one-half of the land planted in row crops. The other one-third to one-half of the land – depending on how you count the pasture and so forth – was in sod crops, such as harvested oats and hay. They were domestic species but had elements of prairie structure in them and were perennial. The hay and oats grew close together and their roots were in the ground for long periods of time. Those sod crops were eaten by domestic bison and cattle, thus creating nutrient cycling on site.
Even though we had somewhat destroyed the prairie by 1900, the agricultural system that followed from 1900 to about 1956 had many prairie-like processes or ecosystem processes intact, with many roots still in the soil. So, we did not start seeing declines – such as in grassland bird species – until the 1950’s. We certainly didn’t start seeing herbicides in our water supplies until the beginning of the 1950’s.
NWNL What cause the deterioration of the prairie circa 1950?
LAURA JACKSON While soil erosion was bad before, in the 1950’s we started replacing the hay and oats with soybeans, turning this from a landscape that was fifty-fifty soybeans into 100% soybeans or 100% row crops. That brought the big increase in nitrogen affecting our drinking water and rivers. It was when we saw extra-big problems with soil erosion and sediment in our rivers. We’ve had increasing “flashiness” of the hydrology, as water enters the river through runoffs, instead of by infiltration and seepage. That flashy runoff makes rivers rise very quickly and then come down very quickly after a rain.
You might want to say, “Well, there were prairies and then there was farming.” But actually, there was a very different kind of farming practice prior to the 1950’s with many aspects that protected rivers much more than today’s farming. We’re also still seeing increases in tiling and sub-surface drainage throughout the watersheds.
NWNL Can you describe “subsurface tiling” for those of us who are non-farmers?
LAURA JACKSON Subsurface tiling uses plastic pipes with holes that are buried in long lines about three feet below the surface. Extra water in the soil finds its way into those holes and then flows down that tube until it enters a road ditch or a stream. Basically, it short-circuits the hydrologic cycle by moving water out of a field faster. This is advantageous to farmers because a field that’s dryer will warm up sooner. Here in northern Iowa, the soils are cold and seeds won’t germinate in cold soil. Yet with tile draining, you’re able to get into the field earlier to plant your corn earlier. With tiling, you don’t have water-logged conditions that could kill that seedling or slow the growth of the corn plant.
NWNL What are the negative impacts of tiling?
LAURA JACKSON Sub-surface tiling used to be constricted to very low-lying areas and isolated depressions – the type of area that last had a glacier 10,000 years ago. But now, tiling is going in everywhere, so places that had a little bit of subsurface drainage, now they have a lot. That is also changing the hydrograph in how fast the water enters the waterways.
NWNL Row crops with shallow roots, tile drainage… Are there other issues that have impacted the prairie?
LAURA JACKSON Yes. We had an amazing system; but we now have a system entirely dependent on fertilizer, fossil fuel, herbicides and long-distance transport. It is like a “mining operation” in that, even though people here locally own the land, they don’t really make any big decisions about what’s planted. Maybe farmers are able to make decisions on their margins, about putting in terraces, and putting in grass waterways. If they are the owners, maybe they will; but many are not.
The farmers don’t get to make the much more fundamental decisions about what’s planted. They plant corn and soybeans because that’s all that they can sell. They are unable to go organic or do anything beyond planting soybeans and corn. The normal farmer in this part of the world is pretty much forced to plant those two crops that could not be worse for the river.
NWNL Can that limited crop choice be corrected? You are respected for having an amazing vision of economic solutions for the farmers that they’re willing to accept. What path do you see for creating a win-win situation?
LAURA JACKSON The first thing is figuring out who makes the decisions, because if we direct persuasion to the wrong group, we’re not getting anywhere. The conventional approach to conservation goes back to Aldo Leopold. The landscape is a “portrait of the farmer.” And essentially that farmer paints his or her values in what he or she decides to plant.
If we follow wonderful thinkers like Aldo Leopold, then we’d develop alternative crops that don’t require tillage. We’d have different tilling implements. Much of this has been promoted by The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, whose director Fred Kirschenmann worked on the Fifty-Year Farm Bill with my father, Wes Jackson. For a long time, we’ve presented this information to farmers, saying, “Look you can do this, and you can do that…. Here’s something that you can grow, and something that you can do.”
But we must ask ourselves if the farmers still make the decisions? Are they still the “landscape portraits,” or is somebody else really making those decisions? I would argue the latter. In fact, trying to persuade farmers to do something different is off the mark. Nor is there any need to go to Congress, because farm policy is controlled now by ADM, ConAgra, Tyson, Excel – the very, very large multinational corporations that have the money to lobby.
NWNL Are there resources you’d suggest for those of us who’d like to better understand the prairie dynamic?
LAURA JACKSON A wonderful book, Resources for the Future (by Joan Iverson Nassquer and colleagues, 2007) creates alternative scenarios for two different watersheds. One scenario contains many buffer strips; the other has rows of trees and grass and so forth. This great piece of work lays out many details; some alternatives that could work; and farmers’ responses to these different landscape alternatives. Of course, farmers prefer watersheds managed for water quality and biodiversity. It looks good to them – but can farmers do that? No, they can’t.
While I like to share positive solutions to farmers; I’m over that phase of my life because I see that the power to make those decisions no longer rests with the farmer. They’re being made for him or her. They only pour the fuel into the tractors, drive them and get the job done. While they may own the land and it’s in their name, that doesn’t mean they can do whatever they want. It’s somewhat similar to working for a large institution like a university, right? I can’t do whatever I want. I’ve got structures around me that keep me doing things a certain way.
Farmers can make improvements around the margins. However, even if they are concerned – as I am – over the inherent great problems with these two warm-season, annual row crops, any improvements farmers can make within the structure of corn and soybean agriculture are pretty much insignificant.
NWNL Then Laura, what solution do you see to the current “structure of corn and soybean agriculture?”
LAURA JACKSON We need to force the primary processors to improve nitrate concentrations in the Keeokuk area, on the southeastern Iowa/Missouri border [where the Des Moines River joins the Mississippi River]. To do so, we should go to the Boards of Directors of ADM [Archer Daniels Midland], ConAgra, Cargill and other corporations that grind and process the grain. We need to say, “You have been the secondary recipients of all this farm subsidy money for many, many years; so, you guys figure it out. Do whatever you need to do, but we’re expecting the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” [created by the Mississippi River’s deposit of agricultural chemicals] to shrink by 10% on average in the next decade – and then another 10% in the next decade.”
Our situation is like that of the garment industry, and many other industries with terrible human rights violations by independent contractors with terrible “sweatshops” who do not belong to Nike or Wal-Mart. These independent contractors bid for contracts with brand names. The only way to protect their workers is for those big brand names to insist, “We can’t buy from you unless your workers are over 13 years old and getting at least 20 cents an hour – or whatever the fair rate is.”
Because of the structure of such industries, there are many producers, a few processors and many consumers. Agriculture’s producers, the farmers, don’t determine the price for their commodities. Its very few processors control the vast majority of hog and beef slaughter, grain milling, and other businesses and determine the prices. Then, there are a vast number of consumers. So, it’s like an hourglass. The market power of the few primary processors determines how we can pressure them to improve our landscape.
NWNL How best can that be accomplished? What negotiation tools are needed?
LAURA JACKSON I don’t know. I’m an ecologist. Don’t ask me to go much further than that.
Aldo Leopold, whom I follow, worked in a different world – one where farmers had more autonomy and the marketplace had more choices. Today, there are so few choices and farmers have so little power to plant anything but corn and soybeans. But yes, we should talk to them, because of course they have something to say.
Thus, I am a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa and one other wonderful, primarily-farmer organization. Both are working with innovative farmers at all different levels – some are completely organic; some are completely local; and some are just beginning to think about different ways of doing things. In these very hands-on, practical organizations, farmers are learning from one another. They’re doing trials and innovating all over the place. I’m their biggest fan, and enjoy talking to farmers to learn from them.
However, I just don’t think we should make public policy based on only extraordinary individuals. We should make public policy based on averages, not on the basis of hope that perhaps all farmers can somehow become extraordinary and stop just doing what’s easiest and what they’re rewarded for. That’s just unreasonable.
NWNL Who or what organization controls these processes?
LAURA JACKSON There is a very strong industrial/agricultural lobby of large corporations involved in everything – like ConAgra used to be. Well, things change all the time. Corporations merge; change their names; and do this, that and the other. They can be vertically integrated, owning all means of production, up and down the line. They can be horizontally integrated from one end of the value chain to the other. These corporations have working agreements with one another. Their price-fixing has been caught, but they are a very powerful lobby, represented by trade organizations such as the Snack Food Association, the Corn Growers Association, the Soybean Growers Association, and the National Pork Producer Council. All the various commodity groups are represented by these trade associations; and they all have their lobbyists.
NWNL How would you describe the American Farm Bureau Federation, its background and its role today?
LAURA JACKSON The Farm Bureau is hooked in everywhere and accepted as “The Voice of American Agriculture.” With fewer and fewer people actually involved in agriculture, it has managed to keep the non-farming public thinking that when the Farm Bureau speaks, it speaks for all farmers. In fact, just as the number of farmers has greatly declined in the last 30 or 40 years, it only speaks for industrial agriculture. If they’ve think they are speaking for all farmers, they haven’t done a very good job because there’s such a constantly decreasing number of farmers.
The Farm Bureau is very, very powerful. In Iowa, it can prevent a legislator from being reelected by just wiggling its pinky finger. It’s very well organized at the local level. Anybody who owns Farm Bureau insurance is a Farm Bureau member. So, its membership numbers are huge – much larger than the total number of US farmers. And it is everywhere. Its representatives are at every meeting. They may not say anything, but they’re there. It’s kind of like the Communist Party during Stalin’s era in the Soviet Union. There’s somebody there who reports back any little thing that you say. Woo, woo, woo, woo – they’re after you.
The Farm Bureau is against farming and farmers. You just have to read a little bit to get that it is a big bully, with heavily funded, land-grant institutions doing their cultural research. As with other big companies and trade associations, the Farm Bureau heavily resists any public policy change that affects the number of acres in corn and soybeans. It doesn’t matter how many farmers there are, how well they’re doing, or the health of their communities or the river systems.
NWNL If that’s what the Farm Bureau is against, dare I ask what it works toward – what it promotes?
LAURA JACKSON What matters to the Farm Bureau is how many billion bushels a farmer can get out of a strip of land. That’s all. Our farmland is like a strip mine. It’s a strip mine for corn and a strip-mine for soybeans. The towns can dry up. The farmhouses are now meth houses. The Farm Bureau works to ensure are enough people out there to pour the seed grain into the bins.
NWNL Are there any solutions to today’s wild ethanol craze?
LAURA JACKSON Well, ethanol is good for corn growers in that it brings a higher price because of demand. But because so much corn now goes into ethanol plants, we may not be exporting corn much longer. Those who raise livestock exclusively don’t have corn, and thus don’t like ethanol because it raises their feed costs. Crops and livestock used to be economically coordinated on the farms. Now ethanol demands have created a tension between those profiting from high grain prices and those hurting from it. Unfortunately, the many ethanol plants that were locally owned and farmer-held co-ops were bought out by corporations.
Iowa gave out subsidies and a lot of taxpayer dollars to support local start-up ethanol businesses. There are national subsidies for ethanol, so now corporations from elsewhere are buying out local farm co-ops. Some have shut down, at least temporarily, while grain prices are so high.
There is also talk about cellulosic ethanol which can be produced from prairie plants. [Editor’s Note: Cellulosic ethanol is an ethyl alcohol produced from cellulose (the stringy fiber of a plant), instead of from plant seeds or fruit.] It can be produced also from wood chips, wood waste, paper wastes, corn stalks and corn cobs. That’s what people want and where cellulosic ethanol is going.
The enzymes needed for cracking cellulose and getting energy from it are very specific. So far, in developing those enzyme systems, they don’t have systems able to use a mix using wood chips here, prairie plants there, or perhaps switch grass or something. They only have very simple enzyme system for corn cobs. So, cellulosic ethanol is not yet diversifying the landscape, nor helping the health of the Mississippi River. I see cellulosic ethanol as locking people into growing even more corn to produce more income from selling corn, corn cobs and corn stalks.
NWNL When we choose to buy toilet paper made from bamboo and corn stalks, we feel we’re being environmentally responsible. But are we just reinforcing corn growing in Iowa?
LAURA JACKSON Yes. But, most pulp wood used for toilet paper comes from industrially-managed forests where they use fertilizers and herbicides. Those forests are harvested on very short rotation. I haven’t spent any time comparing those systems to corn, nor do I know how bamboo is grown. They may be fertilizing the heck out of that too. At least discarded corn stalks contain some nutrients and can stop rainfall from hitting soil directly. If you’re growing corn, keeping those corn stalks on the land is probably better than harvesting and removing them. What I do know is that it’s important to make gestures in your life according to your values.
NWNL As I worry about our well-meaning actions backfiring, I must ask if there other measures in place to preserve the health of our soils and rivers and the Gulf of Mexico?
LAURA JACKSON We have one project that helps people visualize the importance of having perennial plants in the ground year-round and of the function of living roots. The idea of developing crops of perennial grains to replace conventional crops came out of The Land Institute, led by my father Wes Jackson in Kansas. The heart of the problem is our annual crops that must be seeded every year and are continually expose soil to erosion and weeds.
The Land Institute has been producing root systems that it takes around to show people. We start with small roots, raise them in big pots and get 10’-long root systems. We preserve these plant specimens we produce in glycerin. When ready, we give them to nature centers and science centers all over, so people can think about and visualize ecosystem properties, which otherwise are abstract and difficult to conceive.
NWNL How do you explain The Land Institute’s “Perennial Agriculture” philosophy to audiences?
LAURA JACKSON Our conversation starts with what it means to have deep roots in the soil. Corn and soybean roots are only in the soil a few months of the year. We explain that when they’re gone, nutrients then leech through the soil profile and end up in the rivers. Also, temporary corn or soybean roots don’t protect the soil from erosion. Nor do they accumulate soil carbon to soak up CO2. Yet, on the other hand, perennial roots protect and improve soil quality through their interactions with microbes in and around these root systems.
We humans tend to be very focused on fellow organisms. We tend to look at a stuffed deer or a flower because it’s beautiful and we relate to it as a fellow organism. But river systems, the behavior of landscape, how rainfall moves through and across the land are all very abstract concepts with large spatial scales and long-time scales. At the same time, these concepts involve very microscopic processes as they interface between a clay particle, its surrounding water film, the soil pore, roots, and the microscopic fungi next to the root.
Those real things that are not perceived as “fellow organisms” are very difficult to grasp. So, The Land Institute produces these specimens, gets them to nature centers, and develops interpretive materials and talks to get these topics into the conversation. That’s the idealistic part. But, that’s not going to get us to Cargill directly.
NWNL You speak of needing to humanize riverscapes and the hydrologic process. Photographers like myself, river stewards and conservationists get audiences to relate to dams by saying they have a lifespan just like us: 70 to 100 years. Then they lean forward to hear more. I can quite easily sell wildlife images that have a human expression mirroring human feelings. But doing that with the river system is a bigger challenge.
LAURA JACKSON Yes, but it’s critical; since people pick up litter just because it looks ugly….
NWNL Ah yes, …but not worrying about its polluting toxins that seep into our drinking water.
LAURA JACKSON Yes. But I don’t really care about litter. I care about putting nitrogen on our soil every year when only half of it ends up absorbed by our crops. Every year, Iowa applies about 1.4 billion pounds of nitrogen on our soils. Less than half of that is taken up by crops. The other half ends up “at large” in the ecosystem, in our waters, and volatilized into the atmosphere where it comes back down in the rain.
NWNL It is shocking that half of applied nitrogen is not absorbed!
LAURA JACKSON Yes – and that’s not just litter! Plus, it’s invisible and thus not seen as a “thing.” Unless you have some chemistry background, you never notice those elements having what Dad calls “thing-hood.” If somebody dumped a junk car in your yard, you’d object because it’s a visible thing obstructing your view. But if somebody dumps 1.4 billion pounds of nitrogen into shallow groundwater, our streams and our atmosphere, it is invisible.
Nitrogen doesn’t have a face, or an expression. You can’t see nitrogen or photograph it. In science classes, we illustrate nitrogen cycles in little pictures with arrows indicating nitrogen amounts by their width. These arrows point from soil to river; fertilizer tank to corn; corn to manure; and manure to a river.
Those diagrams can be difficult to grasp, and so typically, students say, “Oh, okay, that’s a nice picture.” It’s a challenge to teach students how to interpret those diagrams; the enormity of the situation we’re in; our dependence on nitrogen to produce large crops; how slippery nitrogen is; and how easy it is for nitrogen to get out of our control and into the water.
Recently, our Raccoon River was running at almost 3 times the federal drinking water limit for nitrates. It was 28 parts per million which is above the federal drinking water limit at which you have “blue baby” syndrome. The limit is well below 10 parts per million. Chronic illnesses and cancers are probably caused by nitrogen in the drinking water at 28 parts per million.
NWNL The facts exist; but what happens with those facts?
LAURA JACKSON Well, the Iowa Environmental Protection Agency requires that for the state continue to run its own water-quality programs. It needs to come up with a nutrient strategy to reduce nitrogen that leaves the state by 45%. The recent nutrient-reduction plan, published by the Iowa Department of Ag and Land Stewardship, includes suggested practices for farmers. Good conscience was behind it, but the basic public policy document said there would be no regulations or requirements. There were no benchmarks; no timelines; and no ideas for how this would be implemented. A Des Moines Registry reporter found a whole bunch of it was lifted verbatim from Farm Bureau documents.
NWNL What is your recommendation on how to reduce the nitrogen?
LAURA JACKSON We must stop growing corn and soybeans, because scientific research shows that nitrogen leeching through the soil and into the groundwater is an inherent property of corn and soybean production on tiled ground. Any land that has subsurface tiling will have nitrogen leeching. When soil temperatures rise above 52ºF, nitrogen is soluble in water. If there are no roots in the ground at a given time of year to absorb nitrogen, it just shoots straight through. This is how we get a lot of our nitrogen loss.
LAURA JACKSON The only thing we can do about that is to plant a cover crop to take up nitrogen. But without a cover crop’s roots in the ground when it’s raining and when the soils are warm, there is nothing you can do to keep the nitrogen from leaving. Even the Farm Bureau and the soybean and corn growers admit this. But they don’t want to change anything. They especially don’t want to reduce the number of acres on which they plant the corn and soybean per any regulatory scheme.
The Farm Bureau is so popular that the Iowa Department of Land and Ag Stewardship is not going to go against it. The Department of Natural Resources, which is supposed to regulate water quality, was kept out of much of that document and not even allowed to comment on it. The Farm Bureau doesn’t want to hold anybody accountable for nitrogen running into our waterways.
NWNL Oh, Laura, good luck in facing the challenges that nitrogen poses to the quality of our prairies; to the Mississippi River’s tributaries, main stem, and its delta; and the Gulf of Mexico. And thank you for sharing your astute wealth of prairie knowledge and deep commitment to protecting our prairies and freshwater resources.
Posted by NWNL on June 19, 2021
Transcription edited and condensed for clarity by Alison M. Jones.
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All images © Alison M. Jones. All rights reserved.