Sustaining The High Plains

A Nebraska state official
looks at problems and prospects for agriculture

One of the articles in Living With The Land (IC#8)
Originally published in Winter 1984 on page 42
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Chuck Schroeder is the Special Assistant to the Director of Agriculture for the State of Nebraska. As such he deals with a broad range of agricultural issues, from community life to federal legislation. In this interview he reflects on the concerns of the farm community about agricultural sustainability.

Robert: What do you see are the ways that farmers, as well as the whole society, can move to get long- term sustainable agriculture going?

Chuck: I think when we talk about developing a sustainable agricultural system, we have to bear in mind that it’s both an environmental and an economic concern. For the long term sustenance of our natural resources in agriculture (obviously without which we don’t have an agriculture), there are a number of issues we have to be concerned with.

The first is soil erosion, particularly when we’re talking about this high plains region. We have tremendous productivity, but a good bit of it depends on irrigation and thus we have to be concerned with maintaining our topsoil.

Secondly, speaking of water and irrigation, we have to be very concerned with conservation of both quantity and quality of underground and surface water supplies. As we become more sophisticated with available technologies for applying various chemicals, herbicides, fertilizers and the whole works, we also have potentials for poisoning those supplies. It is just that we have to be developing technologies at the same time to be certain that we protect those supplies that are so critical to the long term sustaining agriculture that is going to have to feed this country. That’s not to say that we can’t deal with that problem, and I think we have to be cautious about that.

Thirdly, I think we have to be concerned about long-term use of various chemical herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers. Again, this is not to say that all of them are bad, because certainly many of them have played a key role in our abilities to produce what we do in agriculture today, but we have to be conscious of the potential impact of the use of those chemicals on us as human beings and on our agricultural systems. We have to be constantly watching for long-term effects, using it properly and not running ourselves into a worse problem than we might have had if we weren’t able to do this production.

Another concern is energy. How much energy we’re going to be able to use producing our supply of food and fiber? Are we going to develop new sources of energy supplies? The debate between renewable and nonrenewable fuels I think is going to become more and more important, and has an obvious and very direct impact on agriculture.

But as we think about solutions to these problems, we have to be cautious that we don’t start looking back over our shoulder to find solutions in the past for the problems of today. There are economists and sociologists who would have us believe that if we returned to floppy hats and garden hoes, if you will, in a more labor intensive agriculture, that we would just suddenly solve all these problems – that we would cover the countryside with people again, rebuild our communities, and the whole works. All of which looks fine on paper until you start looking at the realities of the economy and how those people actually can survive.

One of my favorite quotes from Toffler’s Third Wave says that "this formula" (talking about more labor intensive agriculture) "dangerously de- emphasizes the role of advanced science and technology. When American and European farmers began to apply more ‘appropriate technology’ 150 years ago they didn’t turn their back on the world’s accumulated knowledge of engineering and metallurgy, they seized it." One of the points that he makes that I like especially is that only those who never spent years at grueling manual labor can lightly brush aside machinery that as early as 1855 could thresh grain 123 times faster than a man. We have to be ready to look forward and take advantage of rapidly developing technologies that certainly can apply to agriculture as well as they can to any other industry, but we need to do it with an eye to a sustainable agricultural system.

Robert: Are you aware of places in Nebraska or in the plains where people are using integrated pest management or making use of some of the microcomputer technology for agriculture that is starting to be available, and going in directions that are different from the energy and chemical intensive agricultural policies that are characteristic of the last few decades?

Chuck: Certainly, in fact the University of Nebraska has been very active in integrated pest management programs and developing new techniques, and have, through the extension service, made that information widely available. That’s not to say that everybody is applying it, but over the last few years I’ve certainly seen more and more people interested in those techniques. And it isn’t just the "odd ball" farmer that’s interested and trying to cut down on the use of chemicals in their farm operations. I find that attitude right in the "main stream." These farmers are still trying to make a living and will do what is most cost effective, but they are concerned.

Robert: Is it starting to show itself in economic terms as a viable alternative?

Chuck: I would say "yes," though not in every case. There are lots of things to be learned yet, particularly in the pest management area, but I’m seeing more and more farmers who are shocked by their pesticide bills, such that they are looking to these techniques and do find them cost-effective.

Robert: Let’s return to something you said about rural communities. Do you see any examples of places where they are being rebuilt or strengthened in the farm areas you deal with?

Chuck: It’s a difficult problem. Without question I would have to say that in the majority of small rural communities, talking about populations of 400, 500, 600 or so, those communities are having very difficult times surviving right now. We see a lot of deterioration in infrastructure and just a dwindling economic base for them. However, it isn’t 100% true. I was just in the community of Eustis last week, a small rural Nebraska town of 450 population. I was to speak at an evening meeting, but before that the former mayor took me on a little tour around Eustis. I agreed, really expecting to see the "ghost town" routine. First we drove over to an absolutely beautiful little park that they had built with various grants and a lot of local labor, with ball diamonds, and a beautiful eating area, the whole works – nothing that would amount to a lot of money, but very nice. We took off through the rest of the community and came upon an almost new fire house. Down the street we saw a brand new senior citizen’s center they’re just completing. Around the block was an absolutely breathtaking new church and parsonage that’s been built in the last seven or eight years. On the edge of town there’s a relatively new housing development with several lovely homes that would rival anything here in Lincoln. As we drove around the edge of town, he apologized because they’ve got a couple of streets that aren’t paved! I was surprised that any of them were.

As we stopped I said, "I have to tell you I’m just shocked at the amount of vitality I see in this little community. How do you do it?" "Oh," he said, "We’ve got a very diversified economy here." I said, "What do you mean, ‘diversified?’ " "Oh," he says, "Some guys have got cattle, and some guys have got hogs, and some guys have got corn, and some guys have got sorghum. We’re very diversified!"

I laughed and he said, "Every time we see a need in this community, such as this new senior citizen’s center, people in the rural community around Eustis have been willing to contribute dollars for these projects and take time to help. When we get ready to break ground, there’ll be half a dozen farm trucks in here, two guys a piece with them, to haul supplies and help with the construction. We’ve just got a very high degree of concern among the whole rural community and not just those within the city limits for the life of this town."

Robert: What is the size of the farms in that area?

Chuck: They would be average size. There aren’t two or three super farms around there that provide the whole economy. By the same token there aren’t a lot of small farms on which the operators have another job in town somewhere. They would be in that middle size category, probably farms in between $40,000 and $200,000 gross annual sales.

Robert: Largely family farms?

Chuck: Right, almost strictly. We see that in isolated areas. Prell would be another example of a community, out in southwestern Nebraska, where they have gone into some new crops. There are some very progressive farmers around that area that started in the onion production business five years ago and now they’ve started in potatoes. While those crops haven’t been the sole reason that that community has survived, it is a part of the whole attitude. A few people willing to try some progressive things in a community willing to support them and working together.

Robert: What do you find are the key factors that are behind the aliveness of these communities?

Chuck: I think, without question, it’s facilitated by communications – by having people in the community that are keeping up-to-date on what’s working here and there and which technology and management techniques are working. It’s also important to have people in the lending agencies with a high degree of community spirit and willingness to "go out on a limb" with some credit risks that are based more on personal character than on balance sheets. That is really a key factor in communities that have continued to thrive. We are seeing changes in our banking industry here in Nebraska, and in other parts of the country, too, that are moving that personal touch away from the local community. As time goes on, I think we are going to see further deterioration as a result of this.

Robert: Let me switch to the question of the relationship between people in urban areas and in farm communities. How could this relationship be improved in ways that could help develop a more sustainable agriculture?

Chuck: As I look down the road for agriculture, I think we are going to find ourselves in the same boat with our urban cousins much more often than in the past, and vice versa. Today agriculture is part of the world economy, just as much as U.S. Steel, and maybe even more. This is a new role, one that we haven’t played historically. Not only must we understand it, but our urban cousin must understand it, too. When international actions are taken by government on behalf of the steel or the automobile or the textile industries, the effects of those actions come crashing down on our market place and our economy just as dramatically in Omaha on agricultural commodities as it does on the metal market in London or Bonn. We are all much more interrelated than we have ever been in the past. We in agriculture are going to have to realize that while our urban cousin may have a little different philosophical outlook, and different needs and interests, we have a lot of areas that overlap. We are going to have to be willing to join with some groups that traditionally we have not communicated with, and vice versa, for us to have any political strength. I think there are urban interests who are going to find a very strong ally in the rural community that they didn’t realize was out there before.

Robert: Certainly provincialism has been a problem for both rural and urban communities. Do you see programs going on at this point or can you envision programs that might be helping to break down some of those rural/urban barriers, and in a planetary way, getting people from the farm communities in the US in touch with farmers from other places in the world?

Chuck: It’s a slow process, but you know just in my short lifetime I’ve seen changes. I was involved in a people-to-people program back in 1970 where we went to several countries in Eastern and Western Europe and it was an experience that had a dramatic impact on my vision of the world. I continue to see programs like that springing up here in Nebraska and other places around the country, particularly for young people. We have a program here called the Lead Program for young people in agriculture, ages 25-40, who have begun their professional careers. One of the major parts of it is a 3-week visit to another country. This year they went to China, and last year’s group went to Japan. They really get involved one to one with their counterparts in these different countries. Some good communications and interesting linkages have developed from these contacts.

Robert: Let’s go back to the question of sustainability. It seems to me that one of the main problems we face is the economic pressure that encourages farmers to get as much as they can each year in an immediate way rather than necessarily doing the best long-term stewardship. What contributes to these pressures and how might we change them?

Chuck: One thing that we’ve seen in recent years that’s certainly contributed to tearing up erodable lands has frankly just been very rapid inflation. Farmland was one of the few assets whose value was rising even faster than the average rate of inflation, so it became very attractive for the investor who had no intention of being involved in agriculture, over the long-term, to come in and buy some really cheap land, develop it, so to speak, use center-pivot irrigation where it should never have been applied, do some leveling and resell it at two, three, four times what he had paid for it. That really was one of the most destructive things that contributed to increased soil erosion and improper use of irrigation.

I would say this: nine out of ten farmers that I deal with have some very deep concerns for soil conservation. If they were able to economically build erosion control structures and apply some of those practices, they would in a minute. They’re in a situation, today, where they’re having about all the trouble they can handle just keeping food on the table for their families and consequently aren’t making some of those long-term investments that they know they should. It isn’t a matter that they don’t want to, it’s just a matter that they really can’t afford it. I know in my own lifetime, my own father has made tremendous investments in soil conservation structures. There were other places to use the money, but he realized the importance of it.

Robert: There’s been a growth in the last few years of what are generally called "socially responsible" investment funds, where investors are interested in not simply what kind of rate of return they’ll get, but also with where that money will be going. If investment funds of this type were set up specifically aimed at sustainable agriculture, conservation practices, etc, so that more capital at a reasonable interest rate was freed-up for farmers to do this, would that be a significant help?

Chuck: I think that would be fantastic. If those funds were available at interest rates that could reasonably be achieved in the way of return in the farm operation, I think you would see tremendous use of them by farmers.

Robert: So that would be a direct way which the consumer who was concerned about maintaining sustainable agriculture could get together with a farmer who was also concerned.

Chuck: Absolutely. I hadn’t really thought along those lines, but that, to me, would be very attractive and I know it would have acceptance in the farming community .

Robert: What other institutional issues do you see?

Chuck: In thinking about barriers that we have both governmentally and environmentally, four questions that come to mind are:

1) What is the proper role of government in being involved with agriculture? There are people who believe that the best thing would be for government to get completely out of agriculture, and others who say we ought to have more control over the system. I think we have to decide as a nation, what is the proper role?

2) Once you decide what that role is, then what are we willing to pay, as a nation, for government’s involvement. What are we willing to pay, from the taxpayers standpoint, to build this more sustainable system?

3) Speaking more economically, how do we integrate our foreign policy with our domestic agricultural policy? In the past this has been dealt with as mutually exclusive areas and we know today that that just can’t be continued because they affect each other tremendously.

4) What effect are these rapidly developing technologies that we’re going to have in agriculture, going to have on public policy? How can we adjust our public policy positions rapidly enough to take advantage of those technologies that really will contribute to a more sustainable agricultural system? We so often get caught with rules that applied to the 1930s while trying to deal with an economy and a whole agricultural system 50 years advanced. How can we get our governmental and other institutions to catch up to and work with the real opportunities that are out there?

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