Friday, June 10, 2016

How the West nurtured eco-minded agriculture

by Peter Carrels

...In the broad region straddling the 100th meridian, where land use shifts from grain farming to livestock grazing, the discussion of new farming and ranching practices has been percolating for years. Meanwhile, lucrative corn profits and federal aid had tilted the advantage to grain over the last two decades, as millions of prairie acres in the Northern Plains were plowed and broken.

But in the late 1990s, about a dozen farmer-ranchers formed the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition, in an attempt to find a less destructive way to farm. The coalition now boasts close to 300 members, and similar grassland groups have sprung up in North Dakota and Nebraska. When I first learned about this developing movement, I figured its protagonists were mostly newly minted hobby farmers, or maybe small organic growers. I was wrong.

The coalition consists of second-, third- and fourth-generation farmers and farmer-ranchers – established, respected operators, with large operations of up to 5,000 acres and more.

One coalition member I visited, a visionary farmer-rancher named Jim Faulstich, runs an 8,000-acre Hyde County spread just east of the 100th meridian. This sweeping landscape, interrupted by well-placed shelterbelts, stretches out as flat and far as the eye can see. As we toured his place, he surprised me with a simple statement: “We watch birds to monitor how we’re doing with the land.” Then Faulstich rattled off the birds he looks for – bobolink, grasshopper sparrows, sharp-tail grouse, greater prairie chicken and ring-neck pheasant.

“If the birds aren’t doing well, we’re not doing something right,” Faulstich said, sounding more like an environmentalist than a farmer. “When you run your operation in tune with nature, wildlife prospers and the land prospers, too.”

He described how he plants more cover crops, pays attention to soils, picks cattle breeds that conform to his landscape and climate, and tries to carefully use and safeguard surface water.

On adjoining properties, there were piles of rock heaped up along road ditches and fence lines, evidence of grasslands that had been transformed into grain fields. The Corn Belt has rapidly pushed west, gobbling up native prairie in its path, but my host – like many others in the Grassland Coalition – is doing exactly the opposite. Faulstich pointed from his pickup to hundreds of acres he has already removed from grain production and restored to prairie...

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