In our small corner of the world, there is little we can do to stop the tsunami of agri-greed that is denuding and poisoning this once beautiful section of the North Country. But we will do what we can, even if only to preserve 50 acres of habitat for the meager surviving wildlife…
Not making hay
He was a bit perturbed, the farmer who bales the hay on the 25-acre hilltop field we call our pasture, when I told him we were not going to hay it this year. After a few seconds of disbelieving stare, he shook his head and said, “Okay, if that’s what you want to do,” although I could tell he was adding another item to the long list of my peculiar behaviors that all my neighbors have been compiling for three decades now.
In the North Country hayfields are for making hay. Our neighbor has harvested from 30 to 60 round bales from ours each year, depending on the vagaries of rainfall and sunshine in any given year, and that hay has been important to his cow-calf operation. But he sold the last of his cows almost two years ago and has decided to plow all his own land to plant row crops, taking advantage of the “ethanol boom” that has driven up corn prices, so he no longer needs the hay himself.
Just the same, this is Midwest farm country, so if you do not intend to feed the hay to your own livestock you should bale it (two cuttings at least) and haul it to the hay market auction in the county south of here and make $500 or $600. You just do not let a hayfield grow unchecked, go to seed, flatten under the first snowfall, and lay in a tangled mat come next spring. Even if the field, like ours, is a low-value mix of brome, bluegrass, tall fescue, clover, and birdsfoot trefoil with plentiful goldenrod, ragweed, burdock, and dandelions. Plus two weeds for which I do not know the proper names but call “prairie daisies” and “queen Anne’s lace.”
Letting this decidedly non-native grassland “go wild” is exactly what we are doing this year, and probably for a number of years to come. This is our reaction to the disappearance of the once plentiful hayfields across our township that have been plowed and planted to corn over the past several years. Row cropping the steep and broken hillsides in our part of the North Country is an unconscionable abuse of the land, and although we cannot do anything to stop the destruction of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat we are doing what we can to create a bit, even if it is only 25 acres.
The geological structure of our area, known as the driftless plains region of the upper Midwest, is karst topography, layers of fractured limestone under a thin veneer of topsoil. Particularly fragile areas of this karst region were once considered marginal land, suitable for grazing and maybe haying. Conscientious land owners understood those marginal lands should not be plowed and planted because row cropping causes major soil erosion and also allows farm chemicals and other surface contaminants to percolate into the groundwater.
Unfortunately, we have entered the age of unfettered corporate greed, and the health of the land and the communities it supports is of absolutely no consequence as long as profit is maximized. This has been the case in most of the flatland areas of the state for more than 20 years. Across the Midwest, most farmland is now lifeless for all intents and purposes. Fields are plowed border-to-border, no edge cover or grass waterways are permitted to grow, and the soil itself functions only as a medium to hold crop-bearing plants that are chemically fertilized and sprayed with insecticides and herbicides.
As more than one wildlife biologist has noted, “For the typical Iowa farmer, there are three types of plants: corn, beans, and weeds.” And if a plant is not corn or soybeans, it is to be poisoned.
The more fragile lands of our remote corner of the North Country were spared that doom for a while, protected in part by the land ethic of farmer-landowners and in part by regulations against farm practices that damaged soil and water. But the generation of farmers that were stewards of the land is passing, replaced by corporate-owned and run farm operations that have only one ethic: to make the greatest amount of profit, as quickly as possible, for corporate stake holders.
The regulations that once protected us from the horrendous farm practices of these pirates have been gutted by legislators in the pay of the farm and agri-business lobbies. Farm country is part of America, after all, so we are in thrall to the best government that money can buy.
The consequences in our county include the destruction of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. The Conservation Reserve Program at one time enrolled nearly 50,000 acres of farmland in this county, and much of it was planted to native grasslands and trees, or at least to cover crops. In addition, there were many thousands of acres of marginal farmland outside the CRP program that were primarily woodlands.
Virtually all of that CRP and marginal land is now under the plow. Eventually, this current agricultural “boom” will come to an end, just as two previous and similar booms have gone bust in my lifetime. Corporate farm operations will go bankrupt, walk away from ruined lands after taking huge profits, and leave the mess to be cleaned up with taxpayer money. Much the same as the thieves on Wall Street gutted people’s retirement pensions and portfolios, and walked away with a smirk and a government bail-out.
In our small corner of the world, there is little we can do to stop the tsunami of agri-greed that is denuding and poisoning this once beautiful section of the North Country. But we will do what we can, even if only to preserve 50 acres of habitat for the meager surviving wildlife, half the land a scraggily hayfield that is a nesting place for six pairs of bobolinks, three hen pheasants, four turkeys, and a dozen other species of song birds. On morning walks, we have also found four places where whitetail does have given birth to their fawns.
Some mornings, I sit on a hillside of our hayfield, look across the bulldozed and plowed fields on two bordering sides, and ask myself, “How did it come to this?” But on most mornings, I sit and watch the grass swaying in the wind, listen to the bobolinks whistle and the rooster pheasants crow, and tell myself, “In a world gone mad with greed, we are so lucky to have saved this.”
More stories about life in the North Country are published in my two collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot and Old Coots Never Forget, and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com.