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Old MacDonald Never Had a Farm Like This

Remember Old MacDonald’s farm? You know — “a ‘moo, moo’ here, an ‘oink, oink’ there,” and all the rest? Depending on how you sang the song, he had at least three or four kinds of livestock, and they were loud.

Drive through the upper Midwest today, though, and there’s nothing to hear on most farms except the wind rustling through mile after mile of corn and soybeans. In the late fall, winter and spring, even those two crops are gone. There’s just bare soil in a million shades of brown and gray, blowing and washing away.

It might seem like a strange thing to ask, but given what the land looks like today, just where did the Old MacDonald song come from? Has there always been this sea of corn and soybeans, or were there once farms with a diversity of both plants and animals?

One take on these questions comes from what might seem like an odd source, a 1977 book called “The Ring-Necked Pheasant in Iowa,” by Allen Farris, Eugene Klonglan and Richard Nomsen. To help explain why pheasant populations were declining across the state, these researchers created maps showing how farmers’ use of a small part of the state had changed from 1941 to 1976.

Their 1941 map is a rainbow of colors representing corn, oats, alfalfa hay, grass hay and a half-dozen other crops and land uses. Large pieces of the land are described as wetland or as “idle,” meaning that farmers were letting them sit and recover fertility for a year or more between plantings. Soybeans are in the picture, but they cover less than 5 percent of the land.

The landscape of 1941 didn’t look like this “just because” — it looked like this because of all the noisy animals in the song.

For starters, some farmers still farmed with horses, so they had to grow crops that horses like. More important, while farmers of 1941 wanted high-value grains like wheat and corn that they could sell off the farm, they didn’t yet have the mined and manufactured fertilizers needed to get high yields from those crops. Instead, they collected nutrients from large areas of land using low-value crops like grass and alfalfa, fed them to animals, and let the animals concentrate the nutrients in their manure. The manure was then used to fertilize small fields of grains.

Flip to the book’s 1976 map, and the difference in the landscape is astonishing. There are a few small plantings of oats and alfalfa left, but more than 95 percent of farmland is devoted to corn and soybeans. The “idle” land, pasture and wetlands are gone, each now producing either corn or soybeans every year.

What happened from 1941 to 1976? In a nutshell, the raising of animals became divorced from the growing of crops. Tractors replaced horses, and fertilizers freed farmers from their dependence on manure. Farmers could grow as much grain as they wanted, and did so on every available scrap of land.

Were these changes positive? Certainly not for the pheasants, and probably not for the rest of us.

The pheasants lost food sources and hiding places as the landscape became simpler, and farmers lost income or went out of business entirely as the new way of farming led to chronic overproduction of grain. We now feed more than 50 percent of our grain to animals in factories, a practice that makes some of them sick and makes their manure a waste problem instead of a resource. We’ve stuffed ourselves, too, increasing portion sizes and sneaking grain products like corn syrup into foods that had been fine without them. Finally, because the roots of alfalfa and grass held soil in place better than did the corn and soybeans that replaced them, the land itself has suffered.

We could tip the equation back toward more diversified farms by reforming farm policy to favor conservation over production. Right now, the government pays billions each year to keep farmers growing cheap raw material for commodity companies. Without those subsidies, a lot of land now planted to grain would quickly become pasture.

Perhaps someday we can once again have a “moo, moo” here and an “oink, oink” there.

Robin Mittenthal has worked on farms, taught high school biology and now pursues a doctorate in entomology at the University of Wisconsin. He wrote this comment for the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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