Even when city folks notice the dwindling population of rural areas and express
concern for the dying small communities scattered across the continent, they remain
blind to the real causes and the best solutions. They are blind because they have
bought the lie that the industrialization of food production is both inevitable
and good and that the only problem is finding new uses for the surplus rural population.
The health of rural communities cannot be considered apart from the health
of the land that once supported them and still, for the moment, feeds the rest
That land is being laid waste just as surely as are the small towns that used
to thrive on the business of farming. Yet the fields cannot speak up, and so their
victimization goes mostly unnoticed.
For one thing, the fields are much lighter than they used to be.
The latest federal figures available, from 1997, indicate that each year wind
and water erosion alone carries away 2 billion tons of soil, or 5.6 tons per cultivated
For every ton of grain and hay harvested in the United States, we lose 2.5
tons of soil.
And, as it is removed by water, the soil takes with it many tons of nitrogen
fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals that poison the waters
downstream, require more expensive treatment facilities in cities and create large
areas of oxygen-starved, fish-destroying "dead zones" in coastal waters.
Not only are our fields losing quantity, the remaining soil is of ever-decreasing
quality. The soil that is left is ripped up to produce a season of genetically
identical, chemical-dependent crops, then left bare for much of the year, exposed
to wind and rain. Like a drug addict who loses the ability to feel normal without
chemical stimulus, modern agriculture has so fried the soil that it cannot produce
without larger and larger infusions of chemicals.
Water poured onto arid fields quickly evaporates, leaving behind increased
amounts of salt that only reduce the ability of the soil to produce.
All that accelerates soil degradation and requires ever more fertilizer and
other chemicals to make up for the natural nutritional value of soil that has
been wiped away by modern, high-intensity agriculture.
Good soil is not just dirt. It is a hive of life, much of it either microscopic
or even disgusting to urban eyes because urbanites don't understand the need for
the growth and decay of slimy things to sustain life. Good farmers are not just
people who dig in the dirt. They are the stewards of healthy soil, many of them
unrecognized or even dismissed by those who can't comprehend why anyone would
want to do such hard work so far away from a Starbucks.
Because it takes fewer people to beat the earth into submission than it does
to lovingly care for it, fewer farmers are producing more food, and fewer rural
communities survive to support and be supported by those farmers.
But it cannot last. And the final effects will be felt far from the fields,
in the deepest urban canyons.
Many city dwellers seem to think we would be doing farmers a favor--and ourselves
no harm--by turning them into computer pieceworkers. But the fact is that fewer
people on farms is both cause and symptom of degraded land, land that is rapidly
losing its ability to produce healthy food, now and into the future.
George B. Pyle is a director of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of
Institute, a research organization in Salina, Kan.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times