It is no mystery why Great Plains farmers irrigate. My farming father and grandfathers struggled against the weather odds in our dry western end of Kansas their whole lives. It seldom rained enough, and each year they took a gut-wrenching gamble planting their wheat.
In the late 1960s, technology came to the rescue. My father put in his first irrigation well. With well water, he could engineer his own rainfall and also grow more lucrative crops such as corn and soybeans. When his old heart finally failed him 30 years after he began irrigating, he owned five wells.
Our farm’s original well happens to be among those monitored by the Kansas Geological Survey. I visited the agency’s Web site recently and was as dismayed by a graph there as I had been watching my father’s failing vital signs on the hospital monitor. Both tracked the approach of death — with one significant difference. My father died naturally at the end of a normal human lifespan. We are killing much of the Ogallala Aquifer, draining water that took thousands of years to accumulate. Without this waste, the water would sustain life for many generations to come.
During his evolution from dryland to irrigated farming, my father became part of a system that can’t be sustained, because it depends on burning nonrenewable energy to pump nonrenewable water from this ancient aquifer, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas. Most of this energy and water goes into producing corn that is then fed to cattle.
To grow corn, farmers plowed up more of their grass.
“How else could we feed the world?” my father would say when I lamented the loss.
But he could have fed the world more healthfully and less wastefully if he had skipped the corn and shipped beef directly from his grass to the table. Compared with grain-fattened feedlot beef, grass-fed beef is much lower in artery-clogging saturated fat and contains more omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to aid cardiovascular health. When we eat meat from grass-fed animals, we profit from their ability to convert protein from a self-renewing resource, the grasses that grew here in the first place.
I used to accuse my father of being environmentally insensitive. He knew that the aquifer was finite and allowed that “they will have to stop us eventually” — they being the government.
“Until they do, though,” he said, “I got mine!”
He loved to infuriate me with that response. I especially hated that the federal farm program underwrote the waste by offering price supports for corn.
But as one of my father’s profiteering heirs, now I too am part of the entrenched and inefficient system. Turning off the spigots would reduce the flow of cash land rent into my pocket by two-thirds.
That prospect troubles me. But not as much as other numbers. There are more than 880 irrigation wells in our county. Out of our five alone we have pumped more than 6 billion gallons of water. That’s enough to keep the 5,000 people of Goodland, the town nearest our farm, in water for more than 10 years. An aquarium covering a football field would need walls over 2.5 miles high to hold that much water.
Our farm recently signed up for a government conservation program that is helping us cut our water use by 50 percent. But even at this rate we are wasting water.
The time has come for “them” to stop us — all of us. Instead of price supports for corn, Plains farmers need help switching back to dryland crops or grass-fed livestock. Among the dryland crops may be seed sources of oil that could be turned into biodiesel, reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels.
I would vote for any legislator who pushes to end irrigation out of the Ogallala. I believe that I am not the only farmer or farm heir who would. We grew up on this land drinking this water, and know its real value can’t be measured monetarily. We will rally behind genuine leaders who will argue their own consciences and awaken ours.
JULENE BAIR is author of “One Degree West: Reflections of a Plainsdaughter.” She wrote this essay for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.