November 28, 2013

Ghosts on the landscape

A view of the landscape around my parents' farm in southwest Iowa
during harvest season.
I spent a few days this fall at my parents' farm in southwest Iowa.  I grew up on this farm, and it was harvest time. 

My wildlife colleagues and I have been discussing the trend of simplified landscapes in farm regions.  Farms that raised 3-4 crops in the 1950s now raise two crops (corn and beans) at most.  Some raise only corn.  Farms that used to host a variety of livestock (cows, pigs, horses, sheep) now have none.  Gone are small grains (oats, wheat), and gone are pastures that used to surround farmsteads to provide forage for the small flocks of livestock.   In 2002, the average number of commodities grown by US farmers was 1.2.  Yes, 1.2.  And, that was before the ethanol boom.

Even the crop fields are 'simpler' than they once were.  High commodity prices and the use of no-till planting (planting directly into unbroken soil from last year's harvest without plowing or discing) have reduced the perceived need for grassed waterways.  Grass strips around fields and along streams have disappeared.  Large machinery, such as 12- and 16-row combines and planters, needs to turn around in the fields, so small trees have been taken out.  Finding a shady spot to make repairs is tough.

A recent trend, which pushed the Nebraska Forest Service to issue an alert, has been the removal of trees along streams and creeks to enable as much crop area as possible to take advantage of high commodity prices.  All of these trends make folks concerned with wildlife populations and soil erosion a little nervous.  Well, actually, the trends scare us. 

As I drove the combine and tractor through the fields and around the neighborhood, I witnessed these trends first-hand.  It was a weekend of seeing 'ghosts' in every direction. 

Near one of my Dad's fields, across from the neighborhood cemetery, is the ghost of the 1-room schoolhouse.  It hasn't been a school house for a long time.  However, it was where I first went with my parents to watch them vote.  No sign of it, now.  Just a ghost.  

There are many places where I could see ghosts of barns and abandoned houses that I remember as a kid.   The structures are now completely gone.  Some of the spaces now host a large silver grain bin, or a cottonwood tree may remain to bear testimony to the fact that this space was once a thriving farmstead.

Fences have disappeared in the last 15 years.  If livestock are not on pastures, there is no need to for a fence to keep them from escaping and there is no need to fence your crops to stop livestock from going in your crops.  No one drives cattle down the roads anymore in this neighborhood, so a corridor of fences is not needed.  Of the 12 sides of pieces of my parents' farm, I believe that 4 of them have had fences removed.  And, their farm may be unique, in that they still have pastures next to 5 of those sides of their property.  So, at least 5 of their fences are still being used to keep in/out livestock. 

So, you can see fence-ghosts.  Lone metal t-posts are left to remind neighbors of the location of property lines.  My parents have good neighbors, and my father and one of his neighbors now plant their crops side-by-side at the property border.  The grass strip and some trees that once surrounded the fence line has disappeared.  It's a sign of good neighbors, and a sign of change on the landscape.  The folks who once farmed that land used to climb that fence to fish in our pond.  It would be a much easier walk for Lester and Olive, now.  And, they would not believe how the landscape has changed.

At Christmas, our family used to conduct a 'wildlife census' by walking around the property near the house to see how many pheasants and quail we could scare up.  We haven't done one of those walks in a long time; mostly, we knew what the result would be.  This past weekend, I saw only one pheasant while harvesting.  And, I saw none of the hunters that used to over-run the neighborhood in the 70s and 80s.  A few more ghosts to add to the list.  Ghosts wearing orange vests, and ghosts with white rings around their necks and wonderful long tail-feathers.

I thought about these things as I worked the combine through strips of corn and beans that my father uses to combat soil erosion.  I navigated across the grass strips that he has kept in his farm fields.  My father has planted his fields with a concern for the soils that he stewards.  People have slowed their pickups to look at his unique strips of crops for over 35 years.  And still, only one pheasant on his farm.

Economic forces are heavy forces.  These ghosts on the landscape represent progress, in some form.  Or, at least they are symbols of change.  It is clear that our rural landscapes are not natural landscapes; they are industrial landscapes where natural resources are extracted efficiently.  The problem is--many people think rural landscapes are natural landscapes.  They expect 'natural products' like pheasants to come along for the ride.  In fact, some of these landscapes are no more natural than a parking lot.  And, that is tough for this former farm kid to write.  But, economics is economics; the landscapes are designed to produce corn, and they do that well.    

Pheasants are only going to come back when land owners decide they need to manage for pheasants.  In previous landscapes (1950s) pheasants did come along for free.  So, it is difficult to convince a person that it takes planning, management, and insight to grow pheasants in a modern farm landscape.  For the moment, most people seem to believe in ghosts.  

1 comment:

  1. Small wildlife thrives in weedy field margins. The changes in the farms that you so vividly report are leading to an environment that does not support wildlife like pheasants. The movement to an industrial farming landscape is also a major factor in the decline in pollinators, necessary creatures for the production of many of the crops that feed livestock, wildlife, and humans. Thank you for your perspective.