HOMEGROWN Life: Farmer Bryce on Why Water Is a Privilege and What That Means for the Midwest
Today I want to talk about privilege—the privilege of access to water, in particular. Lest I ramble on too long and start to lose you (hey, we’re all human), eventually I’m going to get to a point about water, agriculture, and climate change, and I might debunk some conventional wisdom in the process.
I started thinking about privilege in response to some important information released yesterday by the Obama administration, the National Climate Assessment. This report documents the most up-to-date scientific assessments we have so far regarding what our carbon-enhanced atmosphere is going to bring about in the next few decades. The findings are clear: Average temperatures are going to increase, droughts are going to increase, flooding is going to increase, and different regions are going to experience very different impacts. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones posted an interesting and informative summary of the report just this morning.
How does that relate to privilege? In a way, my home state of Missouri is located in a privileged spot, at the convergence of the Great Plains, the Midwest, and the Upland South. And those of us living between the Rockies and the Appalachian Mountains are privileged to grow a lot of the corn, soy, wheat, beef, pork, poultry, and beyond that makes up much of what people eat. There’s a lot of climatic diversity to the region. It’s much drier to the west and much wetter to the east. But compared to, say, our water-starved agricultural brethren in California’s Central Valley, we’re lucky to get a good amount of rainfall and aren’t dependent on irrigation-based systems fueled by snowmelt.
So it’s incredibly important for us to be concerned about changes in weather patterns as we continue to grow the things that make up the foundation of our food system. I’m not going to focus here on whether corn and soy monocultures and confinement indoor livestock systems are efficient or ethical, because clearly they’re not. Instead, I’d like to discuss how the climatic disruption we’re experiencing, due to a supercharged atmosphere filled with greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, poses some serious questions about the future of farming and agriculture.
The equation for any kind of farming system = productive, nutrient-rich soils + sunshine x climatic influence + the introduction of moisture. Given that the sunshine and the climatic influence and, to some extent, the soil is beyond our control, I’m going to concentrate on moisture (as in water) for the rest of today.
Water is as crucial to our lives as oxygen. We humans are approximately 60 to 70 percent water. So are the other mammals with which we share the Earth. Plants are more like 90 percent water. As a dominant species in the current geological age, we humans readily manipulate the water cycle, determining which plants and animals have access to the climate’s water supply. This is the system of agriculture we have developed. We have created very complicated and elegant systems for managing the flow and the distribution of water, both as it rolls down the mountainsides from snowmelt and as it falls from the sky as rain. We even pump underground water out of the geological deposits below Earth’s surface and use it to supplement surface water flows.
On my farm, we raise livestock. The animals require a substantial volume of water to grow healthy and marketable. Cows and sheep and goats graze the growing plants watered by rainfall to put on pounds and/or make milk for their babies. We supplement their diets with grain grown by regional farmers who grow their crops from naturally occurring rains.
We also raise vegetables. These plants are watered by a combination of natural rains and an irrigation system that collects surface water in ponds, storing it for those times between rainfall when we have to pump water onto the vegetables. The irrigation system also feeds into stock tanks from which the cows, sheep, and goats drink daily to satisfy their water consumption needs.
But what is water consumption? Is it really consumption in the same way we treat modern fossil fuel consumption? Here’s where the debunking comes in: I truly don’t understand how the environmental community can think of water the same way it does energy use.
I don’t know about you, but I drink a lot of water. In fact, my one pet peeve is when people don’t drink enough water. Sure, drinking gallons a day means I weigh more than I would otherwise, and I probably look more bloated than your average 175-pound man. But I don’t feel right if I don’t have a steady drip to keep me moving. And if you’ve got a headache or aren’t feeling well, I’m going to tell you that you probably need to drink more water.
But is this water lost? No. My drinking water comes from local rainfall. It’s collected either by runoff from the Adrian City Lake or by pumping from the South Grand River. It’s treated by the Adrian Municipal Water Plant then pumped through the pipes of Bates County Rural Water District Number 5 to my farm. I turn on the tap and drink it up. Then it goes directly onto my lawn and pastures (that’s where I tend to “release” my body’s excess water) or into the septic tank, where ultimately the water is used by plants. If there’s runoff, it goes down a couple of feeder creeks before heading back to the South Grand River.
So we borrow water from the South Grand River. It flows back after it is borrowed. Sure, there’s a degree of evaporation. But is it that much? And if so, doesn’t evaporated water eventually fall somewhere?
I guess I’m saying all of this because I believe that water management is a crucial component to how we’ll forge a better agricultural system in a disrupted climate. Those of us in the places where ample water falls from the sky, even with periods of flooding and drought, need to prepare ourselves for more intensive farming. Maybe we Missourians need to prepare ourselves to take the place of California as the region’s “vegetable basket.”
Here’s the thing: Agriculture takes place in a working landscape. We have to remember that and tailor policies and programs that limit the pollution of our critical water flows. Is it really true that my family’s cow-calf herd uses hundreds of pounds of water per pound of beef produced? I say no, because the cows drink from waterers fed by the pond. Then they urinate on their pastures, helping the grass grow so that a couple of months later they, or the sheep or the goats, will have more grass to eat. When they eat hay and grain, we collect the so-called waste and use it as bedding and compost to enrich our soils and help those soils hold more rain.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to be clear: I don’t believe the Middle American Farm Belt is doing it right for now. I don’t think pumping the Ogallala Aquifer dry is the right path forward. I don’t think industrial livestock and monocultures are the way to go. I don’t think creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is a good thing. I do think we need to take the time to perform a deeper analysis of the way water flows through our agricultural system. If we decide to perform our agricultural acts correctly, and if we align incentives with an understanding of how the working landscape can best manage agricultural production, maybe we can continue to feed a growing population without a lot of social disruption that might otherwise come from the predicted climate change.
So, let me say this again: Those of us living in the water-privileged areas are going to have to shoulder a bigger burden moving forward. Let’s be ready, thinking about the kind of farming and water management systems we’ll need to do it most effectively. We might not be blessed with an abundance of ocean coastline or mountains to climb, but we do have an abundance of naturally falling water we can use to grow the things all of humanity needs to eat. And as long as we do it right, we’ll have enough water to swim in for a break from the summer heat. We might even have enough left over to grow some flowers or brew some beer.
Because is life really worth living if we don’t have swimming holes, bottles of beer, and geraniums?
Bryce Oates is a farmer, father, writer, and conservationist in West Missouri. He lives and works on his family’s multigenerational farm, tending cattle, sheep, goats, and organic vegetables. His goals in life are simple: to wake up before the sun, catch a couple of fish, turn the compost pile, dig potatoes, and sit by the fire in the evening, watching the fireflies mimic the stars.
ALL PHOTOS: BRYCE OATES