Monoculture meets its match in North Dakota

  • John Gardner

    Ed Marston
 

Note: this article in one of several feature stories in a special issue about the West's land grant universities and their extension programs.

Carrington, N.D. - Half of all North Dakotans huddle in the fertile, prosperous Red River Valley, a stone's throw from Minnesota. But John Gardner happily does his agricultural research in central North Dakota, in a depopulated, struggling agricultural region that would discourage most ambitious professionals.

And while other ag Ph.D.s work at various specialties that earn them attention in their academic niches, Gardner, 38, says he is a "specialized generalist," responsive to local farmers rather than an academic discipline.

Academically, that makes him vulnerable. He and his fellow specialized generalists at the Carrington Research Center are not on North Dakota State University's tenure track. That is probably just as well. Their publications are likely to be about the experimental farming they do on their 1,200 acres, rather than about root viruses or other specialized subjects that typically earn researchers tenure and promotion.

To many scientists, the above would add up to a bunch of negatives. But Gardner believes agriculture is changing in ways that will put the Carrington Research Center he heads in the forefront of Great Plains agricultural research. He says the major change - decentralization - will also rescue agricultural extension agents.

"We spent the last academic generation centralizing agricultural research" in a relatively few specialized labs, he says. "Plows and herbicides and fertilizers work more or less the same everywhere" so there was no need to adapt the research to local situations.

Gardner says centralization was tough on farm-based labs like his and on extension agents, who are basically middlemen between university researchers and farmers. "Farmers soon learn to bypass the extension agent" and talk directly to the people in the larger labs who have done the research, Gardner says. That was a big part of the decline in extension's usefulness and prestige.

Now, Gardner speculates, agriculture is entering a cycle of decentralization. The newest technologies are biological and ecological tools, such as crop rotation and insects that devour pests. Unlike plows and herbicides and tractors, these tools will have to fit into rather than dominate the human and physical landscapes. Farmers will have to understand them intimately or they won't work. This need for local adaptation should work to pull research back onto the farms and make extension agents more useful.

But Gardner says extension will have a more important role than working with the new technology on specific farms. "Private crop consultants are filling that niche very successfully," he says.

"For example, at present we have entomologists in North Dakota telling farmers in certain counties: "Don't plant winter wheat," " because there are too many cocoons of the wheat midge in the soil, says Gardner. They say this even though wheat prices are high and the chances of a midge outbreak are small. But by giving these warnings, they're protecting themselves in case there is an outbreak.

What extension should be saying, Gardner says, is that so long as a region plants nothing but wheat, the crop is going to be plagued by all sorts of pests. The new extension service "will help farmers see the need to diversify their crops. Their job will be to help the community pull back and look at the bigger picture."

That larger perspective, he says, will be ecological and economic. The wheat monoculture can be eliminated only if farmers have a market for other crops. Farmers need to find new markets and create co-ops to process a variety of crops.

"Farmers used to be the food system. They'd grow the food, and then they'd take it to town and sell it. Now farmers have to support truck drivers, grocers, processors and everyone else who has picked up a piece of their old job," he says.

Extension's new job, Gardner says, will be to help farmers reclaim the food system.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz
  • CHIEF OPERATIONS OFFICER
    with Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Apply here: https://www.marcumllp.com/executive-search/chief-operations-officer-rcac
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...