Water Quality, Quantity and Corn Flakes

Harmful Algal Blooms are coming into the spotlight of national legislators here in the United States.  Senator Charles Schumer of New York says that his constituents in the Upstate counties of New York are having their water sources threatened by this phenomenon and is requesting that further funding be approved for eliminating this threat to community water sources.

Water sure is getting a lot of attention these days.

This is one more challenge that is being laid down to the American farmer.  I do not like to see more thrown on the plate of such a small segment of our population to have to deal with.  With less than 2 million farmers in the United States, they certainly have enough on their plate to take care of.  However, the problem of Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB) has been pretty soundly traced back to watersheds in and around areas of high agricultural activity.  Sadly enough, some of the very practices that we thought to help save the environment wind up potentially becoming contributors to the problem.  I guess this leads up to remember the old saying “everything in moderation”.  

Water, or the lack of, has also become painfully obvious in California.  That has made the news for months.  But do we really know how serious that is?  It is serious, very serious.  With California alone raising about 50% of our nation’s vegetables and a lot of other treats, its problems become all our problems.  Another water problem we have that has been a while coming is the Ogallala Aquafer.  “Oglala what?” you may say.  Right, few of us really paid attention or even heard of this little body of water. Basically, it is an underground “lake” that holds about as much water as Lake Huron…yeah…. that’s really big!

If you eat corn flakes, chances are they come from corn that is directly affected by this aquifer.  And we all eat a lot of corn flakes.   We Americans eat over 27 pounds of corn annually according to the USDA while our appetite for fructose and high fructose corn syrup continues a steady increase.   We also eat a lot of pork, beef, and chicken.  And all of these animals eat a lot of the golden maize as well.  All in all, the aquifer is responsible for supplying water to about 13 million acres of crops.    Water levels fall from 25 to 200′ in various regions, and an idea from 2011 is resurfacing to take what I am told would be over 20,000 acres of prime Kansas farmland out of the hands of landowners to build an aqueduct to run from the Missouri River and feed into part of the Ogallala. Needless to say, this doesn’t set well with those who own the land.  While the Kansas Farmers Union may make it sound like everyone is in favor of this, I know of a few Kansas farmers who clearly are not in favor of losing very profitable farm ground to supply others who may have been seen to be not so stewardly with the way they used water over the years.  Somehow I hear the same reasons for “eminent domain” being sounded that the state of California touted.  Three hundred farms were going to be taken and the largest estuary in the West Coast may be reconstructed in the process.  That could almost be analogous to contractors and bulldozers descending on the Chesapeake Bay and start shaping it like a sculpture.  Serious plans with very serious consequences, indeed.

Everything in moderation

Sadly, that very old and very wise saying is becoming harder and harder to use in today’s American farming operation.  Today’s farmer in the United States is dealing with some very fast approaching issues the size of a freight train with race car speed.  Issues that have been years and decades in the making.  Senator Schumer’s announcement is simply the most recent alarm to be sounded on a very sensitive issue….drinking water and the lack thereof.  With the farmer having to deal with newly developing issues like rampant insect and weed resistance to major cropping practices that have been used for the past 20 years.  Falling crop prices and net farm incomes that are becoming net income loss are going to put real pressure on farm businesses if any conversation practices cost them more than they already spend to produce a crop.  So, not to sound like Chicken Little but we could be shaping up to have another good old fashion Agricultural Recession.  The key will be in farmers being able to control the amount they borrow relative to how much cash and assets they have to borrow against…..and have the bank owning the farm…literally.

But how will issues like water quality, consumer food labeling and a whole host of other pressing issues be addressed?  With the U.S. Farmer only garnering 17 cents of every dollar the American Consumer spends on food, the farmer certainly isn’t getting the lion’s share of the take.  

A unified governance policy

A fellow LinkedIn member wrote a piece on Ag Sustainability and Governance.  This writing couldn’t have come at a better time. With such a complex system of programs, the United States agriculture policy constantly steps on its own toes.  Sad to say, the consumer, the citizen, and the farmer all pay for it.  In the process, we get to spend less total money than any other country on the face of the earth for the food we eat…and yet we are still the wealthiest citizenry of the earth all at the same time.  All things must come with a price.  It would seem that ours has come with the price being a system of food production that forces out smaller, more diverse farms in favor of fewer farms in a monoculture food production system.  A certain social phenomenon has also occurred during this time.  In the process, we now have 43% of all farm, forestry, and fishing industry jobs now being performed by the very hard working Hispanic and Latino populations. 

To these and all farm, forestry, and fishing industry workers, I say, “Thank you!”  I think I kind of know what you do for me but have not walked a mile in all your different shoes.

Larger farms, cheaper production, lower food prices.  Everyone is a winner….for a while.  In the process policies are created, production systems put in place and ways of farming implemented that while help us be the world’s bread basket, they are now making us pay with major aquifers getting dangerously low, major weed and insect resistance issues and now some very stringent water quality and water usage legislation getting ready to take place.  We must listen to what our ecosystem is telling us.  Water quality AND quantity are going to be our teacher. 

Is it going to be a painful lesson?