First or second go-around farmers in Minnesota grew a little bit of everything from chickens and turkeys to beef and dairy cows to wheat, corn, flax, rye, and the numerous tiny crops of their summer kitchen gardens. When I visit friends in Finlayson almost straight north of Saint Paul on Highway 35, I stand amazed in a garden as big as my city backyard filled with potatoes, corn, beans, broccoli and cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, squash, onions, and the perennial herbs like oregano and mint, not to mention flowers twined around for beauty and charm. It’s a bonanza of fecundity, which this quasi-farm family (really the wife) cans and dries, freezes and stews or stores in sand in the cellar. Did I mention the family also grows several kinds of apples and pears?
They know exactly where their food is coming from and what growing it does to the environment–no pesticides, herbicides or other “cides,” which of course means an agent of death. To combat plant killers, they rotate crops, spray with relatively benign mixtures of vinegar or soap suds, pick off some noxious critters themselves, or shroud their trees in nets. To keep up the fertility of the soil, they dig compost into it every spring. Every summer, some scourge gets a crop or plant or two, but they still harvest an enormous stash of healthy food which lasts them almost through the winter.
Yet it’s a lot of work and it keeps them all summer chained to their garden. No gadding about to Europe, Asia or the antipodes. Though I tend to gad, still I admire them and try to take the message of their work to heart. Lately I’ve been troubled by evidence that we in the Northland have forgotten one of the most profound messages of farming: What gets dumped upstream pollutes down the river.
Item number one: Minnesota farms send a huge plume of nitrates down the Mississippi every growing season. This plume joins other such noxious run-off and settles in the Gulf of Mexico to deaden the water for any crustacean or fish. According to a recent article in the StarTribune, this dead zone is the size of Connecticut. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act should be working to help farmers at our end of the watershed use less fertilizer, ring their fields with run-off barriers of tall plants that would filter out these nitrates. But whatever is being done is clearly not enough.
Our fish populations especially on the Atlantic shores are already so over-fished as to be nearly extinct–due to rampant greed and the high-tech killing capability of fishermen. (There’s some evidence that they’re taking a new tack toward conservation–after all, their own livelihoods depend on restraint.) I’ve also read that farmed fish that eat other fish are no solution. ONLY TILIPIA, which is a plant-eating fish, works in a farm and helps conserve wild fish stocks. So I’m not eating salmon or cod anymore because it’s very pricey or farmed. I’m eating TILIPIA.
Now it looks as if fish in the Gulf are being forced further and further from shore, if not outright suffocated with chemical pollution. CORN is the culprit. Ethanol is the reason, not to mention the nation’s abhorrent dependence on corn-fed beef and corn syrup which gives soft drinks their diabetic punch. I swore off soft drinks unless they’re sugar free years ago, and now I’m working on my husband to swear off beef. NOTE THIS: The fat content of feed-lot, corn-bed beef is 90% higher than range-fed/grass-fed beef.
The answer of course has to start at home: we have to change our own eating habits first–organic and local foods, and animals treated to their and our own best health. But we also need to lobby our representatives.
One of the most profound underlying causes is the enormous size of contemporary Minnesota farms. It is more possible to monitor the health of fields when a farmer has only the old homestead size of 180 acres. But with the thousand acres (think of Jane Smiley’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel A Thousand Acres), maximizing yield through the enormous application of herbicides and pesticides becomes an end in itself. We need to get rid of ethanol, it’s proven poorly cost-effective, and the corn used to produce it contributes the majority of nitrate run-off.
Though very wealthy huge farmer will lobby powerfully, we as individuals can make a difference by what we consume. No ethanol (ultimately more expensive anyway), and no corn syrup sodas, no corn-fed, feedlot beef (our hearts will thank us), and letters to our congressional reps.
It’s not easy being green!