Taking the romance out of farming


(This editor's note accompanies an HCN magazine cover story headlined: Idaho's sewer system is the Snake River.)

When I was a boy in the Midwest in the 1950s, I liked to walk through the corn fields in late summer. I could disappear deep in the thickets of green stalks that were taller than I was, where the golden corn pollen drifted onto my skin and clothes like fairy dust. Even when snow covered the post-harvest stubble or the bare dirt was being prepared for springtime planting, the fields offered adventure and a hint of wildness, an escape from pavement and the constant pressure of people.

Then, in the early 1970s, I fell in love with the West, and that includes the farms that make our mostly arid region artificially bloom. Living in Colorado, then Arizona, and now Montana, I've enjoyed the flowering fruit trees in spring, the fields of vividly green alfalfa enlivening dry summers, and the lush wheat and barley seed heads rippling in the breeze around harvest time. It seems like a triumph of human endeavor – people in harmony with the landscape. Deer, elk and all kinds of birds feast on the farmers' leftovers. And like most of us, I savor Western farm products, basics like milk, beef, wheat and eggs, and luscious treats like cherries and peaches.

But being a journalist requires looking beyond the surface of things. And the more I've learned about science and the environment, the more concerned I've become about the negative impacts of farming. Most farms today convert diverse ecosystems to monocultures where a single crop is encouraged at the expense of all other species. So much for the romantic notion of farming.

One way to measure industrial farming's impact is to check out the condition of the nearest river, as freelance writer Richard Manning does in our cover story. That's where our farms' irrigation water often comes from, much to the detriment of fish and other aquatic species. And that's where vast amounts of farm fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and the runoff from mountains of cattle manure often end up, polluting the river and further stressing the ecosystem.

Manning, a deep thinker with a strong voice, focuses on the intensive farming along Idaho's sprawling Snake River system, seeing it as a microcosm of agricultural impacts everywhere. And he concludes, sadly, that the farms are using the river as their sewer. All rivers perform this function to some degree, especially here in the West where water is scarce, and particularly in places like southern Idaho, where politics have made ag the king while downplaying – or completely ignoring – environmental concerns.

Today, we're hearing increasing calls for agricultural reform. More and more Westerners care about where their food comes from and how it's produced, as well as how farms treat animals, rivers and whole ecosystems. Manning isn't confident that Idaho's farming can be reformed in the near future, but we hope his timely story helps spur some long-term progress.

High Country News Classifieds