How the West nurtured eco-minded agriculture

The ranchers of the Western Plains’ shortgrass prairie started a movement to find a less destructive way to farm.

 

It was probably inevitable that a movement of eco-agriculturalists would emerge in the wake of the farmers who so regularly, and thoroughly, doused their land with poisons and synthetic fertilizers. How could farmers, with their hands in the dirt and eyes toward the sky, forever fail to understand that this was the wrong way to protect soil and water?

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.

A student learns about natural resource management at a camp sponsored by the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

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. 

“We’ve got a ways to go,” he admitted. “But we’re on that right path now.”

It’s interesting to note that this emerging movement, which tries to naturalize an approach to agriculture, didn’t begin in Indiana or Iowa, with farmers growing corn, and then spread west from those states. Its genesis came from shortgrass prairie ranchers of the Western Plains, and it moved east from there.

The South Dakota Grasslands Coalition says that 1.8 million acres of grasslands were lost to grain in South Dakota between 2006 and 2012.  Coincidence or not, rural areas in the state also saw population losses as grasslands disappeared. Meanwhile, wetlands and sloughs have also disappeared at an alarming clip. The prairie pothole region contains one-tenth of North America’s habitat for breeding waterfowl, and 50 percent of the continent’s game ducks breed there as well. Farmers in the Corn Belt’s western reaches have been destroying ponds and sloughs at the rate of 15,000 acres per year. 

Coalition members are self-sufficient and conservative by nature, and they prefer to live quietly rather than being confrontational. Yet they say their kinder-to-the-land practices are attracting attention in farm country. 

“There’s not many of us right now,” said Rick Smith, a coalition member whose farm borders a natural lake and mantles the rolling, fertile terrain of northeast South Dakota. “It’s hard for someone to admit that they’ve been doing it wrong for many years. But once you start paying close attention to how your farming practices affect your ground and water resources, you recognize that you need to adjust and change.

Smith and other coalition members survived skimpy crop prices in the 1980s by cutting expenses, and that led to reducing pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers. That’s when they found that their land and soil improved, and many, like Smith, never went back.

“I’m still studying, still looking for better ideas,” he added.  “My evolution as a farmer is far from over. I’ll keep learning new things, and keep improving my operation. My goal is simple. Not only do I want to pursue what’s profitable, I want to do what’s best for my land, and for the planet.” 

Peter Carrels is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion syndicate of High Country News. He lives in South Dakota.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.