Food in Dry Times: How to Grow What We Need With Less Water

How an old North Dakota farm has become a laboratory for growing food when water runs short.

I learned the important lessons about water very early in my life. My father and mother began their life on our family farm in North Dakota in 1930. Their years as beginning farmers were thus spent in the midst of the Dust Bowl. My father understood intuitively that the devastation was not solely about the lack of water; it also was about the way land was farmed. The weather, including the scarcity of rainfall, was the immediate cause of the Dust Bowl, but the farming methods of that era had left the land vulnerable to incredible soil loss. As a result my father became a radical conservationist, and from the time I was five years old I can remember him admonishing me to “take care of the land.” As far as he was concerned, that was the most important moral duty imposed on any farmer—not only for the sake of the land, but also for the economic survival of the farmer.

Consequently, water has never been an isolated “thing” for me. I understood from my father’s tutelage that water was only one part of a complex web of living relationships that included, among other things, soil, climate, biodiversity, and husbandry. He understood ecology before most people had heard the word.

No Separate Parts

Although the science of ecology has been evolving for decades, it has barely begun to influence agriculture in the 21st century. We still manage farms as if all of their parts, including water, are separate entities. However, that method of farming is becoming increasingly dysfunctional, and the philosophy that informs it is being questioned more rigorously.

Cultural historian Morris Berman points out that since the dawn of the scientific revolution we have gradually adopted a “mechanical philosophy” that “insists on a rigid distinction between observer and observed” and assumes that our personal well-being is contingent upon acquiring personal wealth through the exploitation of natural resources.

Our attempt to isolate the welfare of the human species from the health of the rest of the biotic community is a direct outgrowth of this worldview. And perceiving water as if it were a separate entity, a thing, a commodity, is part and parcel of this same compartmentalized scientific culture.

But we now know that nature is not a collection of objects. It is not a machine. We are not the end point of evolution. And we are not, as environmentalist Aldo Leopold reminded us, “conquerors” of the land community, we are simply “plain members and citizens of it.”

The water issues we are facing are tightly coupled to a complex, interconnected set of relationships. We are unlikely to solve our water problems without addressing comprehensive ecological health.

One of the reasons that we are using such large quantities of water for irrigation is that we have not paid attention to the biological health of our soils. Soil is not a thing, but a dynamic web of relationships with billions of microorganisms at the base of soil life. Industrial agriculture treats soil as if it were nothing more than a material to hold plants in place while we insert the synthetic nutrients plants require.

Rebuilding My Home Soil

In 1976, after my father had a mild heart attack, I decided to leave academic life and return to manage our family farm operation. This provided me with the opportunity to explore alternatives to industrial agriculture.

Being on the farm with full management responsibilities for the first time gave me the opportunity to explore theoretical questions I had: Were there ways to manage soil so it would absorb and retain more moisture to sustain crops during drought periods? Could I design a farming system with sufficient diversity to increase its resilience? Or one that was less energy intensive? Was it possible to create a farming system that was more self-renewing and self-regulating?

There was some immediate repair work to do. In addition to his passion for taking care of the land, my father was a progressive farmer, and he had always been interested in exploring technical innovations. When synthetic fertilizers first became available in our community in the early 1940s, my father was intrigued. He was deeply interested in increasing his wheat yields, and this seemed like an efficient way to do so.

But he also was concerned about the effect such inputs might have on his land and checked with our county extension agent and with other farmers whose judgment he respected. Everyone assured him that synthetic fertilizers would not have a negative impact on the health of his land. Based on those assurances, my father became the first farmer in our township to use synthetic fertilizers. The results were spectacular.

With this new technology he could plant wheat in successive years or grow it on simple rotations. And since wheat was the best possible cash crop in our part of the world, it simply made practical sense to raise more wheat and abandon other crops.

Replacing complex rotations with monocultures increased weed pressure. The more often we planted a cool-season crop like wheat, the more often cool-season weeds would produce seeds. So my father had to begin applying herbicides for weed control. By the time I returned to manage the farm, it was a fairly specialized wheat and sunflower monoculture farm operated in accordance with typical industrial farming practices—and the quality of our soil was significantly impaired.

We rarely saw an earthworm. Organic matter had declined, and the physical character of the soil had deteriorated. Soil granules had broken down, and there was little pore space in the soil. The soils on our farm were absorbing and retaining much less moisture from our limited rainfall. We were more vulnerable to droughts.

I remembered that almost 10 years earlier I had met a student who had served as a research assistant to an extension specialist at the University of Nebraska. The extension specialist had designed a research project to determine the effects of organic management on soil quality. The student shared some of the results: The soil in organic fields became more porous, its organic matter increased, and earthworms were present in greater abundance. Inspired by those results and the information I gleaned from soil-science classics of the first half of the 20th century, I decided to convert our farm to an organic operation.

Making such a transition in the 1970s was challenging. There were no mentors to call on for advice, and there were very few farmers in our part of the world with any experience in making such a transition. I learned how to make compost from Bob Steffen, a farmer in Nebraska. David Vetter, my former student, helped me think through crop rotation strategies. I made plenty of mistakes. But eventually, I devised a crop rotation that helped us control weeds, recycle nutrients, reduce disease, and find a niche for our crops in an emerging organic market. We began to see the quality of our soils improve.

By 1988, when we experienced one of the severest droughts on record in North Dakota, our soils were able to absorb and retain enough moisture to sustain our crops. Our fields managed to produce a 17-bushel-an-acre average yield while conventional fields around us dried up, yielding no harvest at all.

Farming in a Changed World

Despite those results, our farm, in my judgment, is still far from “sustainable,” given the challenges that we are likely to see in the decades ahead.

As I see it, the key challenges we will face are to continue producing an adequate amount of healthful, nutritious food for a growing population in the face of disappearing fossil fuels, fossil water (the legacy of ice-age melting contained in our great aquifers), declining biodiversity and genetic diversity, and more unstable climates. In an effort to anticipate these challenges on our own farm in North Dakota I have tried to frame the daunting task before us into a self-evident question: Let’s assume that 10 years from now crude oil will be $300 a barrel; that our planet will have only half the amount of fresh water available for food and agriculture; and that we will have twice as many severe weather events, droughts, and floods. What kind of agriculture will remain productive under those circumstances?

It is clear to me that the methods currently employed on our farm, despite the organic management practices we’ve instituted, still will not prepare us to meet that challenge. The farm has to be redesigned to be much more resilient under such difficult impending circumstances. What do we need to do now?

In the short run, we plan to increase the presence of perennial grasses and legumes in our crop rotations. Perennial plants are much more resilient than annuals, have much denser and deeper root systems, and do a superior job of restoring and maintaining the biological health of the soil. We will slightly shift the balance of our farm’s production to raise more livestock and less grain, but we will continue our practice of not feeding any grain to our livestock. We will continue to sell our grain directly into organic markets for human consumption. Our livestock will graze on the perennial grasses during the summer and feed on the forages harvested from our legumes during the winter.

In the long run, we hope to convert annual monocultures on our farm to the perennial grains The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has been developing.

We will continue to rely on the “no waste” policy that we have adhered to for the past 30 years. And we plan to search out more innovative production systems based on energy exchange instead of energy inputs. We are trying to learn from creative farmers like Joel Salatin who have developed complex, synergistic systems in which the waste of one species becomes the food (energy) of another.

Finding Our Foodsheds

As much as possible, I plan to continue to be part of the larger effort to transform our food and agriculture system. I hope to champion more advances in urban agriculture, which has been evolving rapidly in recent years.

Many creative farmers are ­devel­oping incredibly productive, synergistic systems. Will Allen’s Growing Power farm in Milwaukee is a prime example. By creating multiple synergies among species, Allen manages to “provide healthful food to 10,000 urbanites” on 3 acres of land. For example, Allen has created huge fish tanks in the center of his greenhouses that are 3 feet wide and 4 feet deep, extend the full length of the greenhouse, and are stocked with tens of thousands of perch and tilapia. Above the fish tanks Allen has installed beds of watercress. The water from the fish tanks is pumped into the watercress beds. The watercress cleanses the water for the fish, while the fish droppings provide the nutrients for the watercress.

Equally promising models of synergistic production are being developed by individual farmers in many parts of the world. These models are well-suited to community food systems where small-scale farmers have found ways to produce incredible amounts of food on limited acreage for local populations. The efficient recycling of water often plays an integral part on these farms.

As our energy-water-climate challenges impose themselves upon us, we will need to gradually embrace the concept of “foodsheds”—a concept borrowed from our knowledge of watersheds. Foodsheds are geographic areas wherein people engage in a civic exercise that determines the most sustainable food system for their region. The first priority of a foodshed is to produce as much of the food as possible by people in the foodshed for people in the foodshed; exports and imports become the second priority.

This community foodshed concept is fully compatible with the United Nations’ new mandate to foster “food democracy, food justice, and food sovereignty” as the means by which global food problems can best be solved. It also is in accord with the G8 countries’ recent recognition that it is a critical task to revitalize the food production capacity of local communities rather than encouraging the producing and shipping of food to such communities from other parts of the world.

How the next chapters in the story of water are written in this country and around the world will depend in large measure on how creative water use is embedded in the ecology of these new food systems.

This article appeared in Water Solutions, the Summer 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Frederick Kirschenmann is a longtime leader in sustainable agriculture. He is a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University and president of Stone Barns Center for Food And Agriculture in New York State.

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