I had a flashback today as I went out to irrigate the field of corn on our small ranch in Western Colorado: It was 30 years ago or so, and I was lying flat on my back in a deeply eroded gully on the campus of my old high school outside St. Louis. Ten feet above me, amidst corn stubble, and grinning like a fool, stood my classmate Stuart. We were doing field research for his senior project on the environmental impacts of farming. I was the “documentary” photographer. “How’s that for some impacts to document," he cackled, as he reached a hand down to haul me out of the gully. Stuart’s final report was pretty damning and quite persuasive; the severe erosion he documented convinced the campus administrators to require that farmers leasing the school’s land use no-till methods to minimize disturbance to the topsoil. Now, in the summer of 2008, I find myself trying to nurture a field of corn in Western Colorado sagebrush country. It's the first time I've ever grown corn, and I face the same challenges those farmers from Missouri faced, but with the added twist that I must rely on irrigation water – not rainfall –to grow the crop. So far, I am not doing too well.
While parts of the field support strong, vigorous, dark green corn stalks (those are a few of the good rows in the photo), others have small yellow stalks or no stalks at. It all comes down to soil and water. The irrigation water I am pouring into the marks between each row is stagnating in boggy low spots, where it is leaving plant-killing salt deposits on the surface of the soil. This is a problem that plagues irrigation farmers throughout the West. The bottom of the field is also a mess. The ditch dug to catch the runoff has silted in with topsoil, the result of my overly eager watering the first weeks after the seed was planted.
I think we will still have a crop come August, and the local farmer who prepared and planted the field will still make some money due to the extraordinarily high prices corn is bringing this year. But the apparent degradation of the field in just one summer makes me wonder whether corn is the right crop for an amateur like me to grow in the arid West. Our adjacent grass hayfield produced a bumper crop in June, and probably will yield a nice second cutting at the end of the season – and the thick grass roots hold the soil in place, no matter how inattentive I get with moving the water.
Still, the sight of corn rising to the sky in July stirs something in my Midwestern soul. Maybe next year I could grow corn more gently if I spent a bunch of money recontouring the field to cover those low spots. I could start the irrigation water out a lot slower … and then the Monsoon rains would come in July so I wouldn’t have to water at all for the rest of the summer….and then…. Farming has taught me one thing for sure: It’s a good thing I have a day job.