The toll of agriculture and hundred-year rains on Wisconsin’s farmland
We are, for better or worse, part of the land we live on. We can choose to extract as much as possible from the earth around us, the “Manifest Destiny” (or nature’s in my way) line of thinking. Or we can take as little as necessary and leave as small a trace as possible, the “Seventh Generation” concept of the Native American peoples. If farming well were easy and profitable, everyone would be doing it. Farming is never easy, no matter how you go about it, but at least when we farm with nature it’s not a 24/7 battle.
Responsible farmers, organic advocates, environmentalists, etc. see nature’s way as our attempt to fit into the environment in the least invasive way possible. We realize that, no matter what we do, nature is in control; we cannot dominate for long. Eventually our best laid plans will fail, our monuments will fall, our cities will vanish, and nature will go on in spite of us.
Since we are not fatalistic at heart, we try to find our place within nature. Farming depends on nature; it succeeds on our knowledge and a certain amount of luck. Farming fails when we are ignorant of nature or when we ignore its cycles and diversity.
Farmers, for example, learned that they couldn’t plow up and down the hills and that they needed to leave some sod strips to slow the water down as it followed the pull of gravity. They had to add nutrients and organic matter back to the soil with manure or plant matter if they wanted any kind of crop. Planting the same crop year after year depleted the soil and allowed weeds and insects to establish themselves as the natural diversity and competition were lost. Nature abhors a vacuum; weeds and grass want to fill the void when a field is plowed.
So from the beginning farmers struggled, trying to grow the crops they wanted in an environment that wasn’t always receptive to their efforts. Droughts, floods, hail, frost, insects, and weeds — farmers always struggled with them, and it was never easy. They farmed in deserts and irrigated; they farmed in the north and developed crops that could grow in the short seasons; they raised animals, grains, fruits, and vegetables. Some years they were lucky and had good crops, some years not. They cursed too much rain and prayed when they needed more, hoping in time things would balance out.
This has been a hard year in my part of Wisconsin, and we hope things will start balancing out soon.
The weather turned against us in May of last year. We had a nice rain on Mother’s Day, then for nearly three months we watched the pastures dry up, the corn shrivel, and the dust blow. Some said be careful what you wish for; when the rains start it might not turn out as well as we had hoped. And, of course, they were right. In early August, the rains returned to Southwestern Wisconsin, in some places nearly 20 inches in a week’s time.
The meteorologists said it was a “hundred-year rain,” thus the hundred-year floods. Farmers saw not only their crops washed away, but their soil as well. Fences, roads, and bridges all were swept away by the water that only days before we had been praying for.
Our farm is on a ridge, so other than some ditches, minor soil erosion, and a crop of oats we couldn’t harvest, things didn’t look too bad. While the cows slogged through the mud, we felt lucky we were spared, yet we were sad for those who had lost so much. As things greened up after the rain, we felt fortunate that our heavy soils had held enough moisture, even through the drought, to keep things alive. Nature did balance things out and although the crops were late, they yielded well.
The cows were on good pasture until early December when the snows started and never seemed to let up. Over 100 inches of snow fell from December through April and we worked and fed cattle in what became a series of white trenches connecting the farm buildings.
The snow melted slowly and with the hundred-year rain and the hundred inches of snow behind us, we waited for the warm winds of spring. And we waited. It was an abnormally cool spring and a wet one. Some of the early planted corn didn’t come up or came up yellow and stunted. We plant our corn late, intentionally, the end of May or early June, to miss getting pollinated by the neighbors’ early planted GM corn. I guess that’s the official excuse, but sometimes we are just late.
Then on June 7-8, we got another hundred-year rain: 10 inches in 36 hours. Flooding was worse than last August. Many small towns were cut off as roads were flooded, bridges were washed out, and power lines knocked down. Again, farmers had their crops submerged, and they watched as their soil washed down the Kickapoo, the Wisconsin, and the Mississippi rivers. Even on our high ridge, the heavy downpour was enough to collapse the concrete walls of our manure storage pit. It was empty, and thankfully there is no threat of a manure spill, but now we face building a new structure, costing at least $100,000.
As I write, it is raining again. We have measured another two inches and east of us over four inches has fallen. Several towns are evacuating and there is no travel permitted in our county. WWII amphibious “ducks” from the Wisconsin Dells are moving people to emergency shelters. Many highways are closed in spots, including Interstates 94 and 39. Tornadoes and straight-line winds have destroyed homes, farms, and other infrastructure. About half of our farm lies in Vernon County where the initial damage estimate was $60 million. Since that estimate, close to six more inches of rain have fallen, and the worst of the damage may still be under water.
Are we better off because we farm organically, with much of the land in pasture and hay? I think so. It really is not a question of “organic” vs. “conventional”; it is a question of being a part of the world around us, rather than trying to conquer the world. We need to fit in, just as farmers have fit in for thousands of years. They made mistakes and took their knocks like we did last week. We lost some soil in a few fields, but no more than the “no-till” farmers that rely on chemicals rather than cultivation to control their weeds. I know that none of the toxic chemicals headed for the Gulf of Mexico in the flood waters washed out of our fields, and there is some comfort in that.
What will come up when the floodwaters recede across the Midwest? It won’t be corn and beans. Look for grass and weeds.