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Thinking Like a Monoculture
by Joshua T. Anderson
On Father’s Day weekend 2022, a windstorm whipped across North Dakota. Acres of topsoil swept through my mom’s cottonwoods while my dad’s legs spasmed in his ritual struggle with MS.
I was home for the first time since 2019. After the storm, I returned to my campus office in Connecticut and wondered how we failed to learn our lesson from the last Dust Bowl. How we failed Aldo Leopold’s call to “think like a mountain,” or a prairie. How we failed to heed Rachel Carson’s warnings in Silent Spring.
Carson was the canary in the coal mine for the environmental movement of the 1960s. She bravely warned of the dangers of the petrochemical industry and the threats of industrial agriculture.
But since the publication of Silent Spring in 1962 my home county has lost over 50% of its topsoil. Toxic algae blooms glow in our waterways. Over 40% of our bridges have been rated poor or structurally deficient. Thousands of acres are devoted to industrial agriculture, but there is almost no local food. Most towns do not have a grocery store. Instead, the county has two Dollar Generals, a Family Dollar, and a Dollar Tree. My lunches come from the bowling alley or the gas station.
Like Carson’s allegorical American town in Silent Spring, my home county has high rates of cancer and neurological diseases associated with herbicides and pesticides: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Multiple Sclerosis. We have some of the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the country, and we have lost too many loved ones to addiction, suicide, and violence.
When confronted with the statistics of lost topsoil, several farmers today have made admirable changes.
Others have shrugged and told me that when the A and B horizons of soil blow away, we can still farm into the C horizon, with higher doses of fertilizer.
When I ask who is responsible for the lost topsoil, I am warned to “be careful.” When I ask how long we can survive farming this way, I am told I do not understand bottom-line economics.
The term “bottom-line” entered English in 1832 in reference to the final line in an accountant’s ledger book. With bottom-line thinking, we have stripped and sprayed biodiverse prairies to plant monoculture fields. We have cultivated rural economies devoted to agribusiness empires, and the word farmer has been largely replaced by the word producer, who grows commodity cash crops and profit margins.
Bottom-line thinking does not dig deep enough to consider the soil. To remember the words humility and human both derive from humus—the organic matter in living soil.
Instead, we have adopted the language of war.
The sugar beet industry in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota no longer refers to harvest season. They call it “the campaign.” The language of war is fitting along the chipped-tooth border of the Red River. The war on the land carries the history of settler aggression against Indigenous peoples, from the Indigenous water protectors in Standing Rock to the Dakota Wars of 1862 remembered in Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas. The war is buried in missile silos throughout North Dakota, where we planted 1,200 nuclear weapons among the corn stalks and wheat stubble.
What do we expect to grow where we plant bombs? Where we bury violent histories? How can we measure the costs of this ongoing war?
Growing up, the most popular bar in my hometown was called The Alibi. The word alibi literally means “elsewhere” in its Latin roots. In a monoculture, we learn to accept that we export rural youth elsewhere—my home county has lost 16% of our population since 2000—and a monoculture is particularly hostile for LGBTQIA+ youth. In a monoculture, we learn that the trucks and trains leave full and return empty. We learn that our food is shipped in from elsewhere. We learn that this is the cost of convenience. We learn to pay for convenience with our apathy.
Six months after the dust storm, and I am no longer a professor in Connecticut. I am no longer willing to live elsewhere. I have decided to return home.
Today, I oversee the soil conservation district in my home county. The county has 10,000 residents spread over 1,294 square miles. That’s about 80 square miles larger than Rhode Island. The job is way too big for me to do alone.
To make lasting changes in agriculture, we need fewer alibis. We cannot farm well from elsewhere. We cannot tell the truth from elsewhere. And yet, our migratory species remind us that home can span a broad range. That the prairie has always been a diverse meeting ground.
Rather than bottom-line economics, we need policies and practices rooted in the common ground. My soil scientist friends tell me that there is more going on in one cubic yard of living soil than any of us can possibly understand. They also tell me it takes up to 1,000 years to grow an inch of topsoil.
Several places in my home county have fewer than two inches left.
The bottom-line is simple: we cannot afford to continue thinking like a monoculture.
Joshua T. Anderson works as the District Conservation Manager for Walsh County, North Dakota, where he runs the public education and outreach programs. He is focused on soil health, regenerative farming, watershed management, local food and food insecurity, composting and food waste reduction. His writing has appeared in North American Review, Essay Daily, and Sonora Review. Josh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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