“Picture the Great Plains” is a command likely to call up National Geographic photos of buffalo herds, a vast savanna of grass, and a big big sky. “Picture Kansas” might get scenes from The Wizard of Oz, the wind whipping the barren fields as Dorothy races the tornado for her doggy, but ask people “what have you seen of the middle of the country?” and a vast number of folks will say “nothing. Oh, except when I look out the plane window. There’s those big circles on the ground”
Known as the ‘flyover states’ to some and “America’s Breadbasket” to others, the prairies that swarm down the center of our continent are home to thousands of farms, growing grain, vegetables, and fruit, and raising vast herds of livestock for slaughter. They are not, however, home to what used to be.
Of all the ecosystems in North America, the tallgrass prairie is the most diminished, claiming just under 2% of its original expanse. The shortgrass prairies haven’t fared better: much of where they technically still exist is radically altered by the switch from roaming hordes of buffalo to more stationary herds of cattle.
But we need that food, right? Mmmmm. I could argue that point by talking about the export levels, pricing competitions in other countries, or the precise nature of what’s growing there and which species are eating it, but that would derail today’s point, so table that question for now. We need food, whether we need those exact crops or not.
We also, however, need the complex biodiversity that has evolved over the millenia. Studies by the University of Maryland entomology department (they study bugs) have shown that the most pest resistant landscapes are those with the most structurally diverse plants. (Biodiversity: family, genus, species. Structural diversity: trees, shrubs, flowers, groundcovers)
My journey over the past decade or so has taken me from herbal medicines to vegeculture to food policy and agriculture to permaculture and orchards and wild foods. More recently, I’ve gained a serious interest in birding: the art and science of watching birds and understanding what they are up to.
Is this leading me away from the agricultural landscape? I certainly hope not. I like to think that what I am doing is taking my base understanding of the human relationship with the edible landscapes (agriCulture) and adding to it a sincere reverence for the fact that we are not the only beings trying to eat from this landscape. We are not alone.
The sad truth is that much of our current agricultural methodology is predicated on the idea that we human are all that matter. We’ve taken vast landscapes and made deserts of them, both in the obvious “hmm, nothing much grows here now” sense and in the subtler “if you look closely, you’ll find a very narrow spectrum of life here” sense.
The bounty of the prairies has never been truly explored on any grand scale. The eight crops that make up the vast majority of what the world eats each day are but a tiny handful of what proto-agricultural societies were eating, one or two or three samples from each of the four (give or take) places around the world where agriculture began. Just because agriculture didn’t originate in sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t mean there aren’t incredibly useful and nutritious plants there.
If I include the birds in my images of what a farm should include, perhaps I can get back to some of that diversity, and some of the resilience that diversity would offer.
*** The graphic here is not mine. If you know who drew it, please let me know so I can give them proper credit.